I've been thinking about my rabbi, Rabbi Jerome Malino (z"l), a lot recently. There isn't a particular reason or impetus for this post, but I keep coming back to a couple of stories about him, and I just feel the need to share one.
For those who don't know him, Rabbi Malino was the Rabbi of the United Jewish Center in Danbury, Connecticut. He spent his entire career there (which is extremely rare for a rabbi to do) and was, in nearly every sense of the word, a Great Man. Among Reform Rabbis, he's a bit of a rock star. He is almost certainly the greatest sermonizor I've ever met. Because he had a persistent tremor, he could never write out his sermons, so he taught himself to memorize an outline, and speak completely without notes. And, without fail, every time he spoke, it was a thing to behold. He could speak, off-the-cuff, with more eloquence, coherence and intelligence than I can manage on the best day of my life, with all the time in the world to prepare. I often said that I would happily listen to him read from a Chinese take-out menu; with the way he spoke, he could probably make it sound more interesting, and more profound, than anything else I was likely to hear.
Whenever I said that to someone who knew him, they always agreed.
Rabbi Malino taught sermon-writing at my Rabbinical School. When he would stand up after services to critique a student's sermon, it's no exaggeration to say that people would often pay closer attention than they did even during the sermon itself. We would often be discussing his comments long after we've forgotten what the sermon was actually about.
I'm telling you all this in part because it's fun; it's nice to have a chance to speak well of Rabbi Malino (who, sadly, passed away a year or two after my ordination). But, it's also important background for the story I want to tell. To really understand it, you have to understand who Rabbi Malino was. Incredibly erudite. Surpassing intelligence. Absolutely dedicated to excellence, especially on the bimah. A Rabbi's Rabbi.
And so, that brings me to the summer after my first year of Rabbinical School, when I had the chance to intern at my home congregation, where he was Rabbi Emeritus. One Friday night, I led a service and gave a sermon, one of my first. Afterwards, at the Oneg Shabbat, everybody was milling around and, in between bites of food, telling me what a great job I did*. Then Rabbi Malino came over to me, and pulled me aside so he could talk to me in semi-private.
*I'm not bragging—when you're a Rabbinical Student, and you give a sermon at your home congregation, people will praise you beyond belief, no matter what you do. Pretty much, if you can form complete sentences, they'll be thrilled and think that you're the best, ever.
I can't remember what I expected—if I thought he was going to praise me, too, or if I thought he was going to discuss some philosophical point, perhaps. But, I remember being surprised by what he did say. He corrected me on two small points. First of all, I had translated the word “Deuteronomy” as “second telling.” The book of Deuteronomy is, more or less, a retelling of what has come before, and so “second telling” is a reasonable interpretation of what the word actually means. But, it's not an accurate translation. More precisely, it means “second law.” He wanted to make sure I knew the difference.
And, he also corrected my pronunciation of one word during the kiddush (the prayer over the wine on Shabbat). I had said, “te-HI-lah.” But, it should be said, “te-hi-LAH.” I remember him saying that, for his entire career, he's been saying it correctly, hoping that someone would notice, and stop mispronouncing it, as we all did. I'll admit that, to this day, I can't get to that word in the kiddush without thinking about him, and that moment.
Why does that story stick out in my mind so much? I think it's because of his attention to detail. Rabbi Malino, a man of incredible intelligence and thoughtfulness, a man who could discuss theology and philosophy on a level which I'll probably never reach, didn't want to talk about all those high-minded things. He wanted to make sure I got the words right. He wanted to make sure I got the emphasis right, for God sake. No detail was unimportant.
At the time, I remember feeling a bit disappointed. I had worked hard on that sermon (even though I can't remember what it was about, now). I probably wanted praise; I definitely wanted serious engagement on the issues. What I got was minutiae.
My disappointment didn't last long. Because, as you can probably guess, I realized that there was a lesson in there (whether he thought of it consciously, I'll never know). The details are never unimportant. Excellence doesn't begin with big ideas, or grand eloquence. It begins with meticulous attention to every little thing, and the realization that there are no little things.
Growing up, Rabbi Malino wasn't really “my Rabbi.” He had mostly retired by the time I was involved in my synagogue. But, when I got into Rabbinical School, he took me under his wing, and treated me as a student, in the best sense of the word. The lesson he gave me that Friday night is only one of the many which I remember. But, for some reason, it's the most dear.