Recently our younger son Ben celebrated his 35th birthday. I am thrilled that he is at a very good place in life with a wonderful wife, two beautiful children and a fulfilling career.
Ben is my youngest child, and I was my father’s. I rejoice that I have lived to see my son celebrate his 35th birthday, and I don’t want to stop there. But my father died when I was 24.
He never saw me become a rabbi, and he never met Vickie nor, of course, our children and grandchildren.
I am grateful, though that my father saw me conduct one service and deliver one sermon the year before he died. It was in the summer after my first year in rabbinical school, and I was asked to fill in for vacationing Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, in my home congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ.
My dad was already very sick, but he arranged for special treatment including a blood transfusion that day just so that he could be there. It was a Herculean effort on his part, and I will always treasure the memory of that night.
The service went well, and my father was jubilant. When a friend asked him how he felt, his reply still reverberates in my heart: “With medicine like that, how can I not feel wonderful?”
Later he shared with my mother, “Now I can die in peace because I know my son has the talent to succeed in the career he has chosen. What I worry about is how will he deal with the criticism both warranted and unwarranted that a rabbi must endure.”
Dad, you were right to worry!
I have learned so much over the years from constructive criticism that I have received from teachers, friends and even casual observers.
But to this day, unthinking, harsh personal comments cut into my soul like a sharp knife.
The fact that I have learned that such attacks “come with the territory” and are the “price of doing business” a rabbi pays for putting him or herself out there in a public or semi public way does not diminish the pain.
On a trip to Israel during the intifada our small group met Israel’s former Prime Minister and later President, the late Shimon Peres. After his talk to us, I asked him how he deals with the vicious criticism people have hurled at him during his long career.
He replied, “If I believe that what I am doing is right, it does not bother me.”
I wish I had his fortitude.
It is nearly fifty years since I began to prepare to become a rabbi. I am still working on dealing with gratuitous criticism. To be honest, I still have a long way to go.