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The Rabbi Switch

A few months ago I was having lunch with a family friend who’s studying to be a therapist. So far, as she’s progressed through her training, she has only been providing counseling for others with a supervisor present. She expressed nervousness about what would happen when she was allowed to counsel on her own. “What if I suddenly don’t know what to do or say?” she asked. “What if I find what they’re talking about funny and I laugh aloud?”

“I used to worry about the same thing,” I told her. “When I was in rabbinical school I worried about not being empathetic enough and making “listening faux pas when providing rabbinic counseling or pastoral care.” ‘

“So how did you do it?” she asks.

“Ah. I flip the Rabbi Switch.”

“The Rabbi Switch?”

“Yeah! You know about the Rabbi Switch because you have a Mom Switch.”

“I do?”

“Well…when your kids do stupid or funny things (but they’re not meaning to be funny) do you laugh at them?”

“No, of course not!”

“Right, because you flip the Mom Switch! If you saw it on TV, you’d probably laugh aloud but because it’s your kids, you don’t. It’s the same with the Rabbi Switch, or the Therapist Switch. All your training and instinct is up there in your brain and when you’re sitting in the room with that person who needs your help, the Therapist Switch will flip on and you’ll know what to say and you won’t laugh at inappropriate moments.”

“The Therapist Switch! I get it!”

This was the first conversation I had ever had about the Rabbi Switch but it wasn’t the first time I was aware or grateful for it. I’m often aware and grateful for it actually.

Take yesterday for example. I was having one of those days where technically everything was going well but I felt like everything was going wrong. I was cranky and irritable – probably due to some upsetting family mishugas that’s stewing around in the back of my brain – and I just couldn’t shake it. Spending time with my friend Sarah wasn’t helping, shopping wasn’t helping (which is incredibly rare!), the warm weather wasn’t helping (nor the random hail storm that followed shortly after!). I was in a funk.

Until it was time to flip the Rabbi Switch.

Yiskor services. No getting out of them no matter how cranky a rabbi might be.

But the doors of my temple are magic. Particularly the door between my office and the Bimah. When I walk through the doors, all the irritability melts away.

It could seem to someone – like my friend Sarah, who spend the day with me and my funk and then suddenly saw me calm and pastoral – that I’ve plastered on a Rabbi Face. That I’m putting on a smile. Or a show.

But that’s not it. It’s the Rabbi Switch. It flips. And it doesn’t flip because I know I have to “fake it ’till I make it” (although I’ve done that too, to be honest). But no. It flips because I didn’t become a rabbi for me. I became a rabbi for the people in the sanctuary, or on my office couch, or in a hospital room. And I became a rabbi for God and so that I could help make the world a little better than I found it. The Rabbi Switch flips because being “Rabbi Gottlieb” means that sometimes “Emma” takes a back-seat – in a good way! Emma’s crankiness can wait. Yiskor services cannot. And more often than not, when the Rabbi Switch flips off, Emma’s feeling better too.

I needed Yiskor services too. There are deaths that I’m grieving as well. There are losses I’m feeling deeply. I don’t know whether it was the ability to mourn privately – within the folds of the Jewish liturgy – while publicly leading the congregation (another trick the Rabbi Switch allows me to do), or whether it was just having to shelve my own self-absorbtion for a while and care about another – or in this case a group of others – but whatever it was, it worked.

My grief was acknowledged. My sense having a purpose that is about so much more than myself was reaffirmed. My crankiness was gone.

So grateful for the Rabbi Switch. So grateful for the magical doors in my synagogue. So grateful for Jewish time, texts and traditions.

The Rabbi Switch. The Mom (or Dad) Switch. The Therapist Switch….It’s good to have a reason to switch out of our own heads and tune into the needs of the people and the world around us. It’s good for them. It’s good for us.

If you don’t have a switch of your own, I suggest you go out and get one.

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