November 20, 2019

Rabbi counseling those at life’s thresholds shares her wisdom

“Rabbi” is derived from the Hebrew word for “my master,” which leaves a lot of room for describing what a rabbi actually does. A rabbi is trained to be the spiritual leader of a Jewish congregation, of course, but he or she may also serve as a teacher, a judge, an administrator and a pastoral counselor. And now Rabbi Sherre Hirsch adds “spiritual life consultant” and “motivational speaker” to her rabbinical portfolio, as we discover in “Thresholds: How to Thrive Through Life’s Transitions to Live Fearlessly and Regret-Free” (Harmony Books”). 

Hirsch borrows from anthropology the notion of “liminal moments,” that is, the moments when we stand at a threshold or — as she puts it — “those moments when we are standing between the way we were accustomed to living and a new way of thinking, feeling and being.” The birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, the beginning and the end of a marriage — all of these are examples of what Hirsch regards as the “thresholds” of life. 

“Crossing thresholds, even anticipated ones, is complicated and challenging…,” she writes. “And even when they are some of the most exciting moments we’ll ever experience, they can still be difficult, because they activate our deepest doubts about our choices and ourselves.”

The wisdom that Hirsch offers is not always or necessarily rooted in Judaism. “When I was training to become a rabbi, I incorrectly assumed that most of my congregants would come to me for advice about how to lead a Jewish life,” she explains. “And once in a while they did. But most of the time, they came to talk to me not when they were seeking answers about Judaism, but rather when they were facing a transition, a liminal moment.” Now that she has left the pulpit, the people she counsels are no longer exclusively Jewish. “And I have since discovered that while the challenges and fears of my clients are absolutely not uniquely Jewish, they are uniquely human.”

So Hirsch steps away from the formal teachings of all religions. While she invokes Talmud and Torah, she also cites wisdom she finds in medical and psychological journals, including one tellingly titled “Pain.” She quotes Moses and Maya Angelou, the Book of Ruth and Dr. Seuss. And she explicitly rules out the authority of religion over the decisions we must make in life. “I want you to stop turning to the so-called gurus and experts,” she exhorts the reader. “I want you to become your own rabbi, minister, priest, guide, and guru.” Indeed, she embraces a vigorous and uplifting humanism: “This isn’t about having faith in God,” she writes. “It’s about having faith in the most important person: you.”

Indeed, “Thresholds” is less interested in texts than in the emotions and experiences of real people — herself, her family and the many people she has counseled. Their problems become teaching moments for the reader, and Hirsch generalizes from the intimate personal issues on which she was consulted by “Gwen” and “Mark,” “Kevin” and “Alexis” and many others. Some of them face life-shattering crises, others are coping with issues that are annoying, rather than tragic. “No matter what the threshold in front of you is,” Hirsch writes, “it is not insignificant.”

Some of her best ideas, in fact, are prosaic and practical. To avoid writing or saying something she might come to regret, Hirsch created a file on her computer that she calls “the Wait Box.”  “Whenever I am tempted to react viscerally to a person or a situation, I write my response — holding nothing back — and file it in the Wait Box. There my emotional response sits for 24 hours and marinates.” More often than not, she writes, “it gets dumped in the trash and later replaced with something much more thoughtful, logical and productive.”

Hirsch is not your father’s rabbi. But she is an authentic embodiment of the many other roles that rabbis have come to play in our lives, both inside the synagogue and far beyond it.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.