Home » Uncategorized » A Moment of Self-Reflection

A Moment of Self-Reflection

Something I believe very strongly is that good rabbis are rabbis who are always thinking about what they could be doing better. And I don’t mean obsessively or to the point of self-criticism, but I do think we rabbis should regularly engage in self-reflection and consider areas of our rabbinates we can improve upon.
One area that I’m often thinking about (let’s face it, almost every time I’m leading a service) is T’fillah. Something about the way I conduct worship is sitting quite right with me, although I often get positive feedback from members of the temple. It’s like when a shoe is just a little too tight: you can get away with wearing it, but it still rubs you in uncomfortable ways. It would be better to find a shoe that fits, if only you could fine one. And I think I haven’t been quite able to put my finger on what’s not working, and so the perfect-fitting shoe has evaded me.
But the the other day, one of our new young couples, who joined the temple so they would have a rabbi to marry them and a temple to have the wedding at, finally came to services for the first time. It was one of our better services – newly crafted, lots of upbeat music, Howard and I both playing guitar throughout…
Afterwards, she came up to me and asked me if I was planning to play the guitar at her wedding. “Would you like me to?” I asked her. “Please!” she said, continuing on to comment that when I play the guitar, I light up in a different way. “You seem more confident maybe”, she said.
I cringed.
Very rarely do people say things that make me wonder if I should have stayed in the cantorial program. Usually I feel quite the opposite and receive lots of affirmation that I did make the right choice in becoming a rabbi rather than a cantor. In the 4 years of my rabbinate, I’d say this kind of comment has come less than once a year. But what she said struck right at all of the insecurities that I warred with during my decision to switch paths and in the years between decoding to become a rabbi and actually becoming a rabbi. But once I got a hold of those self-doubts and sent them back to 2006 where they belonged (if they belong anywhere), I was able to consider her comment in a less emotionally reactive way. (For the record, although I cringed inwardly at the time, I did have the good sense to smile and thank her for the compliment she intended it to be.)
When I think about it calmly and without the emotional baggage of 2006, her comment actually makes a lot of sense. I started playing guitar and thinking about being a cantor when I was 12. And even before I was sure about the cantorial path, I knew I definitively wanted to become a songleader. I have been watching songleaders avidly all my life. They shaped an enormous amount of my love of Jewish music and by extension, my Jewish identity and love of Jewish prayer. I have been cultivating the skills of songleading for 20 years, if not more. And it’s been less than 10 years since I even began to wonder if I might want to be a rabbi, let alone began to think about what that would look like and consciously cultivate the required skill-set. So of course I’m more confident with the guitar strapped on!
So I asked myself, where does that confidence come from? What change takes over me when I slip the guitar over my head? I think that a large part of the answer us that when I slip on the guitar, I embody every songleader I’ve ever wanted to be: Dawn and Rosalie, Debbie and Julie, Tanya and Rachel, Dan and Noam – even the Indigo Girls and Joni Mitchell are in there somewhere. I can see them in the back of my minds eye. They are a part of the songleader I’ve become over these twenty years.
And I think that when I’m without my guitar, when I’m prayer-leading without song leading, that’s part of what I’m missing. I need to start consciously channeling the rabbis who’s service leading style I appreciate. But even more than that, I have to think about what parts of me I love, and what parts of my song leading style have nothing to do with the guitar, and figure out how to bring those to bear on my T’fillah leading. How can my conduct during worship be more genuine…
Those may seem like conflicting ideas but they are somehow both needed I think to move me from where I am to where I’d like to be.
And finally, I need to chill out, and acknowledge that some of this is just that it takes time and that I have 10 years to go before I’m as comfortable without my guitar as I am with it. I need to just relax and keep going and try not to worry so much (while never being complacent). It’s a tricky line to walk but maybe with this new perspective, I’ll have surer footing. The shoes feel a little less tight already.

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3 thoughts on “A Moment of Self-Reflection

  1. In the words of Billy Joel. “I love you just the way you are .” It is natural to doubt and want to improve. I still look for new methods, stories, etc. even after all my years teaching. Don ‘t ever get too complacent. See you at class on Thursday.

  2. I would like to suggest that song leading and prayer-leading are not and never have been mutually exclusive for you. You can be an exceptional song leader without the guitar and an exceptional prayer leader with one. It isn’t “strapping on the guitar” that puts you in either mindset, but rather the kavanah that you bring to both tasks. While I am all for continual self-improvement and self reflection, I would prefer that you recognize and acknowledge the unique skill set that you bring to both components of your rabbinate. It is almost impossible to separate the song leading Emma from the prayer leading one. So why try? Embrace them both. Oh…and thank you for the shout out, but we both know that the student far surpassed the teacher years ago. XO

    • Thanks Dawn! I couldn’t agree more about prayer-leading and song-leading not being mutually exclusive, as well as the importance of Kavanah. I think I was trying to capture what it is that makes me more confident when leading with the guitar so that I can bring it to bear on when I’m leading without it. Part of it is just time and experience.
      And I don’t know if I’d agree about the student surpassing the teacher. Don’t underplay the tremendous influence you’ve had on so many campers, students and “Kolamites” over the years. You demonstrate and inspire a love of Jewish music, song leading, and prayer that have inspired many people along this path and I’m certainly not going to stop crediting you as being part of the group of people who contributed to Jewish and leadership development…so don’t expect the shout-outs to end anytime soon 🙂

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