I once had a student who asked me a little angrily, “Why do you always answer every question with another question??!!” Of course, I had to answer, “Why do you think I do that?” 🙂 My student left exasperated that day, but a week later he returned and told me he had been thinking about why it is that I always answered his questions with another question and had an answer. He said:
“I guess it’s because eventually everyone loses his mentor and has to mentor himself.”
I have been thinking a lot lately about mentoring myself, about being my own Rabbi. Recently, as I have been dealing with issues of illness, life, birth and death, I have found that all of my training goes right out the window when I’m dealing with my own life and my own family. Sure, philosophical thoughts sound wonderful when advising someone outside of that inner-sanctum, but when everything hits close to home, all of those lofty ideas can sounds straight up silly to me. However, as I have been traveling through the realities of my reality, I have tried to ask myself, “Well, what would I tell me right now if I was my own congregant?” Asking this question actually helped. If we can quiet down our minds long enough to step back from our own situations and imagine what we would tell another, the answers come more easily.
I don’t think this conundrum exists only for clergy. I think it actually pertains to most of us. How many of us are teachers who get frustrated when there is some new technique or topic we struggle to master, and meanwhile we just spent all day helping students move past their hurdles and hang-ups? How many of us are therapists who find ourselves faced with conflict and momentarily forget how we advise others when dealing with our own dispute? How many of us are employers who make sure our employees have ample vacation and sick time but we, ourselves, are running ragged? How many of us are parents who exhibit as much patience with our children as we can muster but have no patience for ourselves? Maybe we know a librarian who doesn’t have enough time to read, a politician who forgets to ask himself what he really thinks (no, never!), or a cardiologist who keeps eating fatty doughnuts for a quick snack between patient visits.
It is definitely challenging to be our own best rabbi or pastor or teacher or librarian or doctor or parent or therapist or employer. But we have to be.
Tonight, the Jewish people begin celebrating Shavuot, which honors the receiving of the Torah. The Torah (especially if we don’t just mean the 5 Books of Moses but include the Prophets, the Writings, and the generations of commentaries that followed) is kind of like a Jewish guide book for better living. As we celebrate the fact that the Torah exists and that it is all of ours (not just for Jews of course!) to study in order to make life a little more complete, I think it’s important to remember that we have inner guide books as well. Those tools we use in our professional and parental systems… those nuggets of good advice we hand off so easily and nobly to others but often forget to apply to ourselves… these are our internal guide books and are as important as any external religious text. We must pull from the wisdom that exists inside of ourselves as well as outside in order to create our paths and find Shalom (completeness).
So, on this eve of Shavuot, maybe do a little study as is the tradition (some stay up all night learning in honor of this holiday). I don’t expect you to do that, but you could take a little time tonight or tomorrow to learn a bit of Torah or gleam a morsel of wisdom from some other external text. Or… maybe even more importantly, you could take a little time to ask yourself what your inner guide book says. Ask yourself if the guidance you have been giving others can be a gift to give yourself as well. Tonight and tomorrow, take a few moments to close your eyes, read your own guide book, and start taking your own advice.