I was initially intrigued when asked to reflect on what it means to be “called” to one’s work as a rabbi — and then I was surprised by the layers of internal resistance I faced as I sat down to respond to the question.
First, I encountered the cultural baggage: The language of religious calling is more popular in American Christian circles than in Jewish ones, and so it feels a bit foreign to my ear, even though the idea of “calling” is certainly present in the Hebrew Bible and other classical Jewish sources.
Second, I noticed the theological baggage: I don’t trust people who are absolutely sure that they are doing what God wants of them. When people describe their work in the world — as rabbis, or anything else — as a response to a divine call, it makes me nervous. I hear hints of certainty and grandiosity that I find unsettling at best.
Third, I faced the emotional baggage: To reflect on whether I feel “called” to my work in the rabbinate is, on some level, to reflect on how I feel about what I have done and am doing with my life. I love my work, and find it engaging and enlivening on most days — but am I certain that this is what I am “called” to do in this world? The question feels intensely personal and scary, because the stakes are so high.
In spite of my resistance, I’m drawn to this question of “calling.” I don’t want to make the mistake that we so often make as Jews — diminishing our own religious vocabulary and experience by distancing ourselves from language that we have come to view as Christian and therefore un-Jewish. I don’t want to relinquish a religious category that has potential value because it has been tarnished by theological arrogance. And I certainly don’t want to avoid asking an important spiritual question of myself because the emotional stakes are too high.
The language of “calling” is compelling, I think, because it speaks to the human longing to live a life that matters to another (or to an Other). In the words of the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
“But the greatest desire of all is to be
In the dream of another
To feel a slight pull, like reins,
To feel a heavy pull, like chains.”
I became a rabbi because I wanted to feel that pull — sometimes slight, sometimes heavy — of belonging. From a young age, I felt claimed — by God, by Torah, by the Jewish people — and I have always treasured that feeling, even when I have strained against it, even when I have been tugged in other directions.
The longing to live a life that matters is universal, but it is not generic. It is deeply personal and particular. In many Hasidic teachings, this idea is powerfully conveyed through the language of “shlichut” — the idea that every person is “sent” to this world to fulfill a unique and particular purpose. (We might consider the different nuances of being “called” and being “sent.”) Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky writes eloquently on this topic in a teaching on avodat haShem (service of God) in his collected works, Netivot Shalom: “Every individual is a small world unto himself… No person has ever been identical to another person since the creation of the world, and therefore each and every person has a special shlichut, a distinctive purpose for which he was sent… The beginning of all avodah, all service, is discovering for what particular purpose one was sent to this world.”
Needless to say, the task of discerning our particular purpose is not simple, and our responsibility to the world does not remain static. According to the Netivot Shalom, it requires that we pay close attention — in every hour and season of our lives — both to our greatest struggles and our greatest strengths. We each have places within ourselves that are in need of deep repair — limitations we will wrestle with throughout our lives. And we each have our own distinct talents, our particular ways of serving God. Our avodah — our deepest service
in this world — flows from this awareness of and attention to what we lack and how we love. It is possible only if we open ourselves to difficulty as well as to delight. If we see our difficulties as failures, we lose our capacity to grow. If we dismiss our delights as distractions, we lose our capacity to give.
The role of the contemporary rabbi is expanding and being redefined in all kinds of ways — some inspiring and some decidedly uninspiring. Amidst the ever-growing demands on our time and energy, we would do well to return to the understanding of avodat haShem offered by the Netivot Shalom and ask: Are we drawing on our deepest struggles and strengths to be of service to our world? And are we inviting those we serve to do the same?
1 These lines are from “The Greatest Desire of All” in Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994, page 438.email print