When I was a rabbinical student, my classmates and I were once addressed by a famous rabbi, someone who has won a well-deserved reputation as a scholar, thinker and orator. I was thinking whatIf a congregant is out of work, a rabbi should want to know about it a privilege it was to learn from him and be introduced to his method of presenting Torah, when he digressed from the topic and shared his thoughts about how a rabbi should interact with his congregants.

“You’ve got to be firm about keeping your conversations focused solely on Torah,” he instructed us. “They’ve got friends already; they don’t need you for that. Your job is to raise their spiritual level, not chat with them about nonsense.

“You’ll find, if you’re not careful, that they’ll just waste your time. Who cares about their cars, their jobs and their holidays? You’ve got to demonstrate your real priorities, and, if all else fails, master the art of looking as if you’re interested.”

With the greatest respect, I vehemently disagree.

While I am not advocating a rabbi wasting his time on shallow amusements, or engaging in petty foolishness, I do believe that your congregants should not just be targets for your religious preachings, but also interesting to you as people.

If a congregant is out of work, a rabbi should want to know about it. Even if you won’t be able to find people jobs, at least you can celebrate with them when they do find employment. If you’re not a friend, and you don’t know how your people think or what excites them, how can you possibly hope to find a way to inspire or engage them?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, author of the chassidic classic Tanya and founder of the Chabad chassidic philosophy, used to declare that a Jew’s material possessions are spiritual. We can use our cars to drive to do mitzvahs, our money to give charity, and our holidays as an opportunity to refocus and recharge so that we can be spiritually effective when we return home.

But if you’re not listening when your congregants are talking, they won’t be paying attention when it’s your time in the pulpit.

In the Parshah of Ki Teitzei, we read the laws of helping someone whose animal has dropped its load: “You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up [the load] with him.”1

While on the face of it, this reads as aIf you want to uplift someone spiritually, you've got to minister to the whole person relatively simple instruction to help those in trouble, it can also be read as G‑d’s suggestion to rabbis on how to best engage with their congregants: Don’t ignore their donkey or ox, meaning, their physical needs. Don’t focus your attention exclusively on the spiritual side of your brother’s life. If you want to uplift someone spiritually, you’ve got to minister to the whole person, and then, when they know that you care, they’ll be willing to work with you.

If we rabbis can keep this concern for the whole person constantly in our minds, our congregations will flourish, and we will be all the richer for the experience of dealing with totally real Jews. And this applies to all of us, laypeople too. When we are concerned for our friends in their totality, we will all grow spiritually from our encounters.