Being truly SEEN by the rabbi

Posted on December 24, 2007

This, they would say in counseling, is progress.

It is ten minutes since I finished that last post and what I was writing sent me into a new flurry of anxiety. I managed to calm the hair-pulling by forcing both hands on the keyboard, but then those anti-anxiety cleaning instincts took over. I really should clean my keyboard. Not a wipe off the surface cleaning, but a take off all the keys and deep clean with Q-tips and rubbing alcohol. My mouse isn’t looking so shiny, either. And there’s dust on the monitor and the windows need cleaning and the carpet needs to be vacuumed and the children keep getting out of bed and anything–anything–but sit here and write about how I will not be needy and I’m not worth the rabbi’s attention.

I will combat faulty self-talk with logic.

All in all, I met with my rabbi five times over the span of four weeks. This was not at my suggestion. I would have been happy with something more frequent than once every two years. But he saw some necessity in it, and he thought it was worth his time, and he could have had his choice of excuses why we couldn’t meet and he didn’t take any of them. I know that I cannot always trust my sense of self-worth, but I am certain I can trust his. He thinks I am worth it. I am overruled. Case dismissed.

I wish it were all that easy.

At my third meeting with him, I asked him if he had any idea how hard it was to come see him without an agenda. He gave me a smile that–if interpreted correctly–was somewhere between “It’s good for you” and “I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.”

He wanted me to talk more about reintegration at shul. How was it going? I told him. Some people did just pick up where we left off. Some had forgotten about my late miscarriage last spring and didn’t understand why I felt a pang of hurt when I saw the babies who had been born around the time of my due date. And some asked what I’d been up to, why I’d been gone so long.

How do I answer that?

  • Not much, just a little mental breakdown
  • None of your beeswax (said politely, of course)
  • Well, see it all started with a scarcity of the neurotransmitter seratonin
  • Doesn’t everyone leave shul for months at a time?
  • I overslept
  • I gave it up for Lent (a good friend reminds me it’s the wrong time of year for that–she finds my ignorance of Christian rituals quite amusing)

I shrugged. I smiled. And then I asked about them. It works almost every time.

One person came up to me during kiddush and said quietly in my ear, I don’t mean to out you but I’ve heard you’ve been dealing with depression. I’ve dealt with it too. A lot. Anytime you want to talk, I’m here.

I didn’t know how to take that. Did that mean this person wanted to talk? Or was just offering to be on my safe list? What if when I was feeling fragile, they were too? I’m still not sure.

But then as I was talking to my rabbi it all fell apart. I couldn’t keep past hurts from intruding on the present and some of them were making me gun-shy. So he encouraged me to tell him what these hurts were. I hesitated.

I don’t want to turn this into Let’s Bash the Shul or Let’s Bash the Rabbi Day, I said. No, no no, he said. This wasn’t about him, or the shul. This was about why I felt hurt. So I told him and with it came the tears.

And then he was very quiet and I feared I’d stepped over some invisible line. It was one of those times I wish life had an Undo button. I felt horrible.

Then he said, you take your responsibility to the shul very seriously. I nodded. Yes, of course, the shul means a lot to me. Doesn’t everyone feel this way?

He shook his head, inhaled sharply, paused, and said no. And then he said, “you have an overly heightened sense of responsibility. I suspect, from everything I know about you, that you developed it very early as a coping skill, because otherwise there would have been too much pain to endure, and without it you probably wouldn’t have survived.”

I didn’t know what to say. I nodded silently, tears unchecked. This rabbi, this man, didn’t just get it. He had Seen me.

There was pain low in my stomach, as if something shifted in the core of my being. He had managed to do what few people in this world have done. He had truly Seen me without judgment or labels or an agenda to “fix” me. We both knew it. And I was grateful.

And then, of course, we were out of time. He asked if I was free to meet again on such-and-such day. I pulled out my PDA and brought up my calendar. Yes.

Doesn’t that thing make you more anxious? he asked. Always knowing everything that’s coming up?

I was surprised. No, I said. It makes me less anxious because I can look at it and say here’s the appointments for tomorrow, I’ve got notes for this meeting, nothing needed for that one, it’s not my turn to bring snack, good, I’m prepared and I can relax.

That’s where we differ, he said. Knowing everything that was coming up would make him very anxious. The only way he could relax was having no clue what the next day would bring. Neither one of us saw the need to go into the pros and cons of that approach.

I started to put our next meeting in my calendar, accidentally selected the wrong time, and took a moment to fix it. “Rabbi” he said helpfully.

I laughed and said, cute. Then he told me about this training seminar he’d gone to about conducting hostage negotiations. The part of my brain that censors what I say–especially to my rabbi–had apparently shorted out and I heard myself ask slowly, do you find you need to do a lot of hostage negotiations in your rabbinate? He got up and said, you never know.

We’d meet again in a week and I had no idea what we were going to talk about.


  1. Rivka

    RWAC: I wish I could send him your comment, although for reasons I know you understand, I have not told him about this blog yet and I am not sure I will.

    A part of me fears he has already found it and knows who I am, but I think maybe by now he would have said something. Or maybe not.

    Shira: I didn’t think it would–or even could–happen like that. But I am very glad it did.

  2. Shira Salamone

    Your rabbi may not always be available, but when he’s there, he’s takkeh/mamash/really *there*! This sounds very promising.

  3. rabbi without a cause

    Hi Rivka,

    Thank you so much for posting this; I am thrilled beyond thrilled to see it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    And ‘thank you’ to your rabbi as well, who is doing an excellent job.

    And please: The rabbi is never “too busy” for you. I don’t know him, and I don’t know where you live, but that much I do know.

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