A rabbi wears many hats and has numerous roles to play in any community. But which is the most important?

The rabbi is a teacher of Torah. He is the posek (decisor), who hands down halachic rulings and the one called upon to make life’sHe must be able to direct, inspire, galvanize milestones meaningful and memorable. Of supreme importance is that he must be a spiritual leader, able to direct, inspire, galvanize, and move the community in the right direction. Who should care for the widows and orphans, the needy and disadvantaged if not the rabbi? The rabbi’s door, ear, and heart must always be open to those in need. He is a trusted counselor whose advice is sought by all types of people for all kinds of problems. All too often, we even get dragged onto the fundraising committee. And preaching (what an old-fashioned word!) is a huge part of the job too. The rabbi is expected to deliver a high-quality sermon every Shabbat and holiday.

I recall the late Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, a congregational rabbi of many years, and one of the eminent leaders of American Modern Orthodoxy, lamenting the fact that rabbis are expected to come up with a winning sermon week after week. In his view, a rabbi should speak no more than once a month. Then, congregations could anticipate an excellent sermon every time the rabbi ascended the pulpit. (I must say, I strongly identify with his way of thinking, although you would probably need a team of rabbis so that the congregation would still get a meaningful sermon every week.)

I confess, I more or less ‘fell into the rabbinate.’ I never dreamed of being a pulpit rabbi. My interest was always in outreach—to introduce the uninitiated and share the beauty of Judaism with as many Jews as possible. That is how I came to be sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to direct the very first Chabad House in South Africa, back in 1976. When I was invited to take up my current position in the iconic Sydenham shul 10 years later, the Rebbe advised me to accept and I saw it as a golden opportunity for outreach in an even broader context.

Some observers argue that ‘a rabbi is only as good as his last sermon.’ Others claim ‘they will forgive you a lousy sermon, but they may not be as forgiving of a personal slight.’ “What do you mean you forgot our 37th wedding anniversary? Rabbi, how could you?!” Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point.

One thing is for sure; the ‘people business’ is not an easy one to manage. In fact, when one of my old friends, a shochet (ritual slaughterer), heard I was becoming a pulpit rabbi, he quipped, “Trust me, Yossy, it’s easier with chickens!”

A while back, a group of us congregational rabbis would get together every few months to discuss some of the challenges unique to our positions. It was a helpful little support group we had. Just knowing that I wasn’t the only one who had to deal with the challenges of this demanding position was itself comforting.

As chairman of the South African Rabbinical Association, I once facilitated a meeting of South African rabbis with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was visiting from London. Rabbi Sacks asked us “What, in your opinion, is the most frequently asked question of rabbis?” One rabbi answered, “Where was G‑d in Auschwitz?” Another suggested, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A third ventured that perhaps it was questions of the traditions surrounding mourning.

To all of which Rabbi Sacks said, “No.”

What then was it?

“In my experience,” he said, “the most frequently asked question of rabbis is, ‘Rabbi, do you remember me?’”

Of course, I feel unfairly challengedPeople crave recognition and acknowledgment when a couple walks up to me in the supermarket and says, “Rabbi, do you remember us?” and it turns out that I did their chuppah 20 years ago but haven’t seen them since. Sure, it is unrealistic of them to expect me to remember them (I mean, they don’t even look vaguely similar to how they looked then, and I can’t count how many couples I’ve married since!). Nonetheless, I do acknowledge their need to feel acknowledged.

It is a fact of life that people crave recognition and acknowledgment - of their significance, or at least of their existence! It is a human need. And they really want to be reassured that the rabbi remembers them and knows who they are.

One thing I have learned in my years in the rabbinate, is that of all the hats the rabbi wears and of all the multiple roles a rabbi must play, there is none as important to people as simply being there for them. Whether in times of need or for joyous milestones, whether in a crisis or in the day-to-day, people want to know that their rabbi is concerned for their well-being, that he is their confidante, their shoulder to cry on, a dependable sounding board and source of guidance - not only a rabbi, but a trusted friend.

As the old axiom which has gained recent popularity goes, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.”

My colleagues and I endeavor to be the best spiritual leaders, Torah teachers, halachic experts, milestone managers, public speakers, and welfare workers that we can possibly be. Let’s hope we also remember to always extend that helping hand of support and friendship to everyone we meet.