THE BLOG
09/20/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

The Most Important Lessons I Have Learned From 37 Years as a Rabbi

Hard as you try to control your life, to make the best decisions you can, to be the best person you can be, the reality is that life has a mind of its own, and most of the time you can't really choose the circumstances of your life. Things just happen. Good things, bad things, no one makes it through life without pain and loss, sorrow and disappointment, and most of the time we don't even get a vote -- life just happens.

But one truth I have learned over and over again from my own life and from the privilege of being intimately involved in the lives of thousands of men, women, and children of all ages over the last 37 years I have been privileged to be a rabbi, is that it isn't the ups and downs, the traumas or successes, or the circumstances of our lives at all that really matter. It is always the one thing that every one of us brings to each of these moments in our lives, and that is our own ATTITUDE. It's our attitude that always matters most, which is why lesson number one for me, is that "attitude is everything. That's why it is always true that the happiest people don't necessarily have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything. I have a wonderful 95-year old congregant named Bob Schiller who is one of the premier comedy writer's of all time -- he wrote for I Love Lucy, Maude, All in the Family and so much more. Every time I ask Bob how he is doing, he always answers, "Perfect, but improving." That's what I mean by attitude!

The second most important lesson I have learned as a rabbi, is that most of the time the most important thing you can do in life, is simply SHOWING UP. A family experiences the tragedy of a death -- whether a parent, a sibling, or God forbid a child, and people all around them will turn to me and ask, "What can I do? What can I say? I feel so inadequate to comfort them, to help them in any meaningful way at a time like this."My answer is always the same -- the most precious gift you can give to those who are bereft and lost in their sorrow, is just showing up. Your presence is the present.

Since I sent an announcement to my congregation a few months ago about my impending retirement, I have been humbled by the letters and sweet notes from people, sharing rabbi moments from the past with me for which they are grateful. Even though I spent many years earning two BA's, two Masters degrees, a PH.D., and two Doctors of Divinity degrees, it is never what I learned in school that has made a difference in the lives of people I serve, or people I love. Instead, here is what people tell me:

"Thank you for your love and caring and for all the times you showed up when I needed you."

"I will never forget how wonderful I felt when you showed up in my hospital room after my mastectomy, 20 years ago. I barely knew you and there you were -- for me. That time in the hospital is mostly a haze, with you clearly emerging out of it."

"From the moment we walked into your office over 14 years ago we could not have asked for a clergy member more caring or sensitive... in good times and not-so-good times you have always been there for us."

You get the point. So far not one letter of thanks has come in, grateful for all my degrees. And so my third lesson is that PEOPLE DON'T CARE HOW MUCH YOU KNOW, IF THEY KNOW HOW MUCH YOU CARE.

What I have learned from my 37 years as a rabbi is that being smart, or knowing a lot about a lot of things doesn't ever matter as much as simply being a mentsch. If you want to make a difference in other people's lives, first be a mentsch, and the rest will follow.

The fourth lesson I learned is reflected in a medieval rabbinic text in Hebrew called, Ecclesiastes Rabbah which teaches, "A man cannot say to the Angel of Death, "I'm not ready yet, wait till I make up my accounts." "Wait till I make up my accounts." The lesson is simple: Don't wait until there is time to say the things that matter, because you never know when that time will suddenly be gone. Don't wait till someone's funeral to tell them how much they mean, to share how much they matter, to say the words you want to say and they long to hear. The lesson to remember is simply, DO IT NOW.

Someone once wrote if everyone in the world suddenly knew they only had five minutes to live, every phone would be ablaze with the whole world calling each other to say, "I love you." None of us ever get more than one day at a time -- this day. But this day, right now is all we need to make our lives matter, to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done. That is what a vibrant, fulfilled life is really all about -- living each day as fully as we can. Embracing every day as if it is the only day -- because indeed it really is the only day we get -- ever.

Lesson number five appears in the wisdom of the Talmud, as a lesson taught in the name of an ancient rabbi named Ben Zoma -- he is quoted as teaching the following: "Who is wise? One who learns from everyone." Ben Zoma's words are a lesson in humility, in never thinking that you know it all, that you are above learning something of value from someone who is younger, or older, or speaks another language, or whose skin is a different color, or even who appears to be your enemy. No matter how smart I might think I am, no matter how much I might know about a variety of things, everyone knows more about something than I do.

Frankly, the only way any of us continue to learn and grow throughout our lives is by embracing humility. The Talmud teaches that the arrogant can never learn. The best students of any age are always those who are humble enough to say, "I know that I don't know." I constantly remind myself, that no matter how many people are in the room, there is probably someone there who is smarter than I.

The sixth lesson I have learned is that real "success" as a rabbi has nothing to do with how large your congregation might be, how beautiful your synagogue building might be, how many benefits are included in your contract, how many books or articles you have published, or how often you are quoted in the Huffington Post or the L.A. Times.

Success is a small child from our pre-school holding up her hands and saying with delight, "RABBI REUBEN." Or a letter of gratitude from a family whom I have helped weather a personal crisis or tragedy, or a quiet "thank you" from a lonely senior citizen with whom I have just spent time sitting and talking about their lives and the things that have mattered most to them.

The real lesson is that success as a human being is recognizing that you just never know what words you might have said, what smile of comfort or support you might have given, what gesture or embrace you might have shared that ultimately meant all the difference in the world to someone. And the miracle is, that someone will cherish that moment forever, and you probably will never even know.

All of the lessons I have learned might be summed up in the story of the young man who felt so overcome by a sense of despair when he thought of all the injustice, pain and cruelty in the world, that he lifted up his voice to God in anger and sorrow and said, "Dear God, how can you allow all this injustice, pain, and cruelty in the world and do nothing?" Then he heard the gentle, inner voice of the divine whispering in his heart, "I didn't do nothing. I made you."