On My Own Two Feet
by Rabbi Sari Laufer
“Welcome to the community. You have some mighty big shoes to fill.”
If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me in my first year on the job, well, I’d probably have enough for some pretty great shoes.
Some pretty fabulous shoes… that I don’t own
When I was hired, the job existed because the longtime, very beloved, associate rabbi had taken a job as senior rabbi at a dynamic suburban congregation. While I hope to emulate many of his wonderful characteristics; he is warm, dynamic, engaging, and spiritual, I knew there were two things I could never be: male, and possessing a 13 year history with the congregation. I knew this: his shoes were never going to fit me.
In this week’s parsha, the people’s dissatisfaction with their spiritual leadership takes a dramatic turn. Korach, Datan, and Abiram rebel against Moses and Aaron’s leadership, contending that: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?”
It’s actually a parsha, and a story, that I love. I love learning it with lay leaders and clergy alike; I think we all understand why the teachers of Itturei Torah say that “the parasha of Korach can be used nicely at any time, because there are always disputes among Jews.” All kidding aside (not that they were kidding), I think that Korach and his not-so-merry band raise a lot of important questions about leadership, respect, and relationship. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic teacher, suggests that Korah could easily have been, or become, a leader of the children of Israel. He came from good yichus, he was a wise man and he was wealthy. Rabbi Bunim goes on to ask:
Why, then, was he not given such a position? It is because “וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח ,” Now took Korah—he took himself. He did not wait until he was offered the leadership, but sought to take it by force. That was why he was not worthy of it.
Six years later, I am part of a different transition. I watched as our community said goodbye to another beloved rabbi, my friend and colleague as she prepares to take on new challenges and celebrate new triumphs. And in a few weeks, we’ll welcome a newly ordained colleague. And I have no doubt that she, too, will be told that she has tough shoes to fill. Through this transition, I have spent some time reminiscing about my first year, in both practical and emotional ways. I want to be helpful to her and to this community in making such a shift, but in the end, I think she will learn what Korach learned, what each of us who wants to be a leader learns: that leadership cannot be taken, it must be given. That a leader is not automatically respected, one must earn respect. That true leadership cannot be solely rooted in personal ambition but in, as Rabbi Rachel Cowan writes in Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “an expansive covenanted life in a community of mutual care and responsibility.” In such a community, she says, all people are holy.
Holy, yes. The same? No. I knew I could never be my predecessor. During my rabbinic interviews, the man who is now my senior rabbi and mentor gave me a piece of advice that I now give to students about to enter the job market. He said to me, “Wherever you go, choose to go somewhere that loves its clergy.” I knew then, as I know now, that if they were to love me — and me them — it would have to be as me, not as a replacement for anyone. I would have to bring my own skills, my own challenges, my own teachings… my own self to the place. And in return, I hoped, they would come to know me, to love me, and to offer me the chance to be their spiritual guide and leader.
A few days ago, a parent came up and shared with me a story that I have been carrying in my heart ever since. “I get up early for work every day, so I lay out my outfits — including shoes — the night before. For the past few weeks,” she said, “my daughter has been coming into my room, putting on my heels, and saying: ‘Don’t I look like Rabbi Sari?’ And the thing is,” she continued, “when she does it, I see this confidence exuding from her. And I love that.”
I knew this then as I know it now: I was not looking to fill anyone’s shoes, and in the end, they did not want me to. No one else’s shoes were ever going to fit me.
Lucky for me, I have a fabulous shoe collection.
Rabbi Sari Laufer is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. She also blogs at Torah Blahnik.
Originally posted at Kol Isha, the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network