“Grace Under Pressure”


“Grace Under Pressure” 

About one of her heroines, novelist George Eliot writes:

  • “Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life … .”

Our new rabbi is leaving the temple. It’s not by choice and he’s not being fired. It’s an effect of faulty business sense on the part of others. The present team, now struggling, with dignified resolve, to balance the institutional books, deserve gratitude and respect. It is not their fault.

Four years ago, I’d participated in the year-long search to find our new rabbi after the previous incumbent decided to move ahead to greener pastures. Since I’d bonded with the predecessor and half-expected him to “say the words” over me at the goodbye hour, his decision to leave had left me utterly disconcerted.

We’d met to talk about it.

“I thought a rabbi was a shepherd of souls,” I’d said, in muffled reproach.

He didn’t think so. “A rabbi is a teacher,” was his view, and you can always get another teacher.

A teacher? I’m a teacher. A teacher doesn’t get you married, buried, or convert you to the teacher’s religion — an identity change as momentous as marrying or dying. A teacher doesn’t take on the burden of being your official liaison to your Creator along the lines prescribed by a 3000-year-old covenant with said Creator.

No. It’s a funny job and I wouldn’t wish it on any civilian person who is going along, minding his or her own business, and looking for a career. But a teacher, it’s not.

Last Saturday I went to Torah Study (the weekly Bible class) as usual, but with a dread that was not usual.

  • First, would there be a full house around the study table, as a gesture of group solidarity?
  • Nah, the usual “remnant,” neither more nor less.
  • Second – and I hoped not – would we dissolve into group therapy?
  • Don’t know why not. The group is therapeutically inclined. But perhaps they were taking their cue from the Rabbi.
  • Third, would the Rabbi show up for duty looking like a punch-drunk fighter?
  • No and therein lies a tale.

He had made deep commitments to the temple, taking his family out of a town they loved and promising that he would not follow the example of his predecessor. He was ours for life. He would marry us and bury us and convert us. He did not need to climb higher or to suit himself. He had already left a good career as an engineer to heed what felt to him like a Call, and we could count on him.

With all this in view, I approached Torah Study last Saturday with a heavy and a fearful heart.

To my infinite relief, he was in fine spirits — even exceptionally fine. He did not look like a man reeling from a blow to the solar plexus, which was what I fully expected to see.

In the class, we discussed a new ruling that had just come from Jerusalem, expanding the number of foods licit to eat during the week of Passover. He drew a timeline on the whiteboard. The encounter — of a large group of people with a single, hyper-active God — began around 3,000 years ago, at the time of the Exodus; it underwent modifications at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, further modifications after the Second Temple fell, and has continued since then, with markers for the significant dates and places. On the timeline, he hung the successive interpretations of the command, in Exodus 23, to “eat unleavened bread for seven days,” to commemorate the haste with which the Israelites left their servitude in Egypt – such haste that the bread in their ovens had no time to rise.

That night at the temple, there was a Second Seder (ritual supper commemorating the Exodus), where the Rabbi showed the same spirit. Once again, I discerned no significant added presence of supportive congregants. Maybe the news had come too late to make reservations. Maybe scores of sympathetic congregants had been turned away. (Or maybe not.) The Rabbi’s family was present and, to my eyes, they looked more in shock than he did, as can easily be comprehended.

But the Rabbi? Like his predecessor, he was “a teacher” too, after all, conducting us through stages of the Haggadah (the text read in common around the Passover table), with pauses to discuss and comprehend its specificities.

But the real “teacher” was his presence. Gossips will rush to the misjudgment that he’d been fired. Those past keepers of the books whose distraction led to this shocking failure will go unnamed and unblamed.

But his mind is not going there – not headed out into the vast terrain of bitterness and blame. The Call he first heard is the one he still hears. Evidently it consoles and sustains and reassures and inspirits him.

Now that’s a teacher!

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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