Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, April 5, 2024

Back from Sabbatical

British Writer Douglas Adams tells a story about a time he was a bit early for the train in Cambridge. He went to get himself a newspaper to do the crossword, as well as a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. He sat down at a table. A man wearing a business suit sat down opposite him. A few moments later, Adams noticed the business man lean across, pick up the packet of cookies, tear it open, take one out and eat it. 

Adams was astounded, but [being a respectable Brit and wanting to avoid confrontation] he didn’t say anything. He simply took a cookie out of the packet for himself. But a moment or two later the man did it again. He took another cookie.

“We went through the whole packet like this,” writes Adams. “When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back. A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper and underneath the newspaper were — my cookies.”

“The thing I like particularly about this story,” he continued, “is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been, wandering around for the last quarter-century, a perfectly ordinary guy who's had the same exact story, only he doesn't have the punch line.”

Adams told this story as a giggly example of just how “British” he is. Subsequent bards have understood it as a lesson in perspective. And that is how it hits me. It highlights how we are so entrenched in our own narratives that often we fail to see the forest for the trees, or the cookies for the newspaper…or something like that.

Returning from my sabbatical, this anecdote resonates. Before I left, I shared that I love the ever-evolving, immersive and intimate nature of rabbinic life; and I missed it in many ways. And yet, more than anything, clergy sabbaticals are important reality checks. Rabbinic life moves at an intense pace and consists of holding grief, joy, existential questions and calm all together all the time. I love it, and I understand, deeply, the need to step away and find perspective. Normal life does not consist of the intense highs and lows of a clergy day.

And this is not unique to the rabbinate. I know we all experience this, whether in our workplaces or our homes. We often grumble as we watch our cookies get eaten only to discover they were under the newspaper the whole time. With some time and distance, we can find ourselves less jaded, less quick to judge, less myopic in our perspective.

Early on in my time away, I realized that my sabbatical would be about perspective shifting and reconnecting with my spiritual self. It was time to take parts of myself out of the freezer, so to speak.

I began with becoming certified in a program called Prepare/Enrich, which enhances clergy’s ability to work with couples, including engaged couples. Its goal is to help strengthen their partnerships. I also spent a week immersed in our tradition’s texts at the Hadar Rabbinic Yeshiva Intensive - a pluralistic neo-traditional yeshiva-style learning program in NYC. I followed that up with a trip to Philadelphia for the CCAR conference - the gathering of over 400 Reform rabbis. Both of these conference experiences nourished me spiritually as I basked in the greatness of my colleagues and teachers and learned just for the sake of learning.

I also read a lot of books - non-fiction and fiction - and rediscovered the beauty of getting lost in the page. I had lost that joy as work and motherhood filled most of my waking hours.

Like cookie crumbs, I swept jadedness away by putting myself in the presence of people and ideas larger than me.

If we are connected on Instagram or Facebook, you also know that I visited, on average, a museum a week. I used practically every free Museum Pass from the Greenburgh Library. (As a side note, my appreciation for our public libraries is at an all time high - what treasures in our communities!)

From the Met, to the Jewish Museum, to the MoMA, to the NY Historical Society, Natural History, and the Guggenheim, a common experience started to strike me. I realized I felt most enriched by large-scale installations.

One powerful experience was at the MoMa. I visited Richard Serra’s “Equal,” which the museum describes as “eight forged steel boxes stacked in pairs. Each box measures five by five and a half by six feet and weighs 40 tons in a rectangular cube. To differentiate one stack from another, Serra has rotated the position of the shorter and longer sides of the boxes. Despite the varying orientation of the individual components, each stack measures 11 feet tall. This simple construction—one block sitting atop another—yields a variety of experiences; the massive sculpture may overwhelm the viewer and, in this sublimity, invite contemplation.”

“Overwhelming” in a “sublime” way. This was exactly how I felt. The room seemed to hum. Standing in this mini-Stonehenge, I felt peaceful. It felt good to feel small, to surrender to my surroundings and accept that I need not contemplate everything in the room, or even be able to see all of it. There was no need to control or understand. I could simply exist within it.

As the weeks went on, I realized that I was spending my time finding my place in the world…not in terms of role, per se. I feel quite confident in my role as rabbi, as mother, partner, etc. But I went looking for who I am in the overwhelming shadow of the gargantuan reality of the world’s violence and desperation. In the continued unraveling of October 7th’s horrors and the swelling devastation that has come in its wake, I, like all of you, have despaired in my feelings of helplessness and indignation.

I asked myself: what can I do, one person awash in pain? As I journeyed through museums, novels, forests and even Disney World, I came to a sublime, simple conclusion: I can control those things closest to me.

I can nurture and fortify my relationships. I can articulate the values our community holds dear and make sure we manifest those values in our immediate Rivertowns and Westchester community.

This became powerfully clear to me on March 8th, when I stood in the Ardsley town square and participated as a Jewish representative in the first-ever lighting of a large crescent moon sculpture in honor of Ramadan. I was there because of some hard, but honest conversations between neighbors after October 7. Amid the pain, we realized that our job as neighbors is to help one another feel seen and safe. This security and love was the gift we could give one another in a moment when it felt like current events were tearing us apart. This, I could control.

This is just one of the many ways I put myself in context and gained some important perspective. With this comes inner calm and fresh perspective.

In my travels, I came across a passage of the Talmud (Taanit 7a), that examines a contradiction in the prophecy of Isaiah. In Isaiah 21, it commands us to “bring water to the thirsty,” but in Isaiah 55, it reads, “if you are thirsty, come for water.” The rabbis wonder aloud: which is it? Should we seek out a thirsty person and serve them or should the thirsty come and ask for water? The rabbis interpret the “thirst” here to be the “thirst for knowledge.” Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa reconciles Isaiah’s contradiction by saying that if a student is ready to learn, then you should seek them out to teach them, knowing it is what they need. But if a student is not yet ready to learn, they must begin the journey and seek a teacher themself, discovering the need on their way.

Our sages understand there are times where we will see folks parched - whether by true thirst or some other sort of need. When we sense that need, we should provide it. At other times, there is value to a person beginning to journey towards nourishment, discovering their thirst along the way and then seeking out its resolution.

My sabbatical would seem to be both of these. Three years ago, you generously provided this time in my contract, knowing that one day it would be valuable. You anticipated that need and provided for it. And when it started, I found that my journeying into it was often the lesson itself. Throughout the three months, I was able to clear away some newspapers in my brain and find some parts of myself, or some interests, that I thought had been lost.

You too are on your own journeys. My return tonight coincides with Sacred Seasons, the time when we bring you a blessing. It is also a time when you set out in search of one.

I’d love you to come join me for this sacred season of return or venturing forth - whichever it is for you.

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