I find myself saying the same things over and over again … and I am yet to determine if it is a good thing or a bad thing. It obviously must not be too bad or else I would stop saying the same thing over and over again. The things I am thinking about are not even negative or derogatory or destructive things (Like those euphemisms I thought I would never say to my kids and then I end up saying them anyway – ‘Because I am the parent!’ immediately comes to mind.)
I am thinking about the ‘rabbinic’ things that I say over and over again … like in significant life cycle moments: before I welcome the parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to speak to their child, under the chuppah to a couple, when we gather at a funeral to say good-bye to someone who has died. I hear myself saying the same thing – or at least similar things over and over again. I wonder if people who have been to other B’nai Mitzvah or weddings or funerals of which I have officiated are doing an internal eye roll as ‘Rabbi Mo’ gives the same spiel once again. Perhaps, they find some comfort in hearing similar ideas. Or better yet, maybe I am just being a bit neurotic because only I am paying attention to me saying the same thing over and over again. In those moments I truly mean and believe what I am saying, even though they may be the same words and sentiments that I expressed before to different people at a different time.
One of my favorite things that I loved to do when I led the oldest unit of campers at the Goldman Union Camp Institute was to speak to them at the Friday night campfire before they headed off to their cabins and went to bed. Each Unit Head had the chance to speak to her or his unit. The Unit Head for the youngest unit went first and then sent those campers off to their cabins. The Unit Head for the next older unit followed and then I was left with my unit and the rest of the camp staff hanging out around the fire. I usually said something that captured highlights of the week or addressed the collective state of mind for the unit at that stage of the summer. I thought what I chose to say each week was timely, sincere and I hoped it was meaningful to my kids.
It was my third summer in that role when I felt blindsided following one of my campfire chats. It was not one of my current campers who approached me, but one of my former campers who was at that time a staff member. He confronted me – with a sense of betrayal in his tone – telling me that I said the exact same thing to my current campers that night as I said to his unit on that same week of camp in a previous summer. He was quite put off that I would – in a sense – care so little to use the same canned chat for each different group each year. Of course, that could not have been farther from the truth! Innocently, I simply said what I was feeling and thinking at that moment with that group – what are the odds that it would be the exact same thing?
The odds would be pretty low if you asked Kohelet. Kohelet – that subversive, edgy voice we find in the book of Ecclesiastes chides us: “There is nothing new under the sun!” If there is truly nothing new, than am I perpetually sentenced to giving canned spiels without ever realizing it?! Am I stuck with the same ole’ song no matter how hard I try? And I ask again: “Is it a bad thing or good thing?”
In coaching us rabbis-to-be, one of my teachers in rabbinic school used to tell me something that she learned from one of her teachers. She would say that in essence, each rabbi truly has one and only one sermon that she or he gives over and and over again. It does not matter what you think you are doing, it really all comes back to the same sermon. She was not being sarcastic or cynical. She was challenging us to examine our souls and their gifts with brutal and uncompromising honesty … and from there try to understand, improve and even perfect the sermon we wished to give.
To this day I am not completely confident that her declaration is true – but the exercise of considering is invaluable to me. I ask it as rabbi, but also re-frame it in terms of being a husband, father and friend. Is there only one way I know how to be any of those things or do I have room to change and modify? Do I continue to do the same things because they work, because I am lazy or because I am scared? Is ‘over and over and over again’ about being consistent and disciplined or is it about being stuck and rigid?
These are some of the questions that draw my intensifying attention during these days of Elul.