Every retired preacher I know suffers from a tad or more of “Bima (Pulpit) Envy,” the obsession to again mount the pulpit and take just one more shot at it. My mentor Rabbi Shusterman, mused wistfully that “The only honorable way for most of us to leave the pulpit is in a plain pine box.”
For those of us who have left our pulpit so morbidly, as I did from raging bouts of bipolarity, it is especially ignominious. Once I loudly cursed the beloved Jewish mayor of Greenville, a Holocaust survivor, as he gently tried to calm me from my rage. I summarily fired our Hebrew school principal before I even interviewed her. I routinely launched into relentless diatribes from the pulpit, thinking that they were masterpieces, when they were, in fact, just paranoid ravings.
Finally, I became so bipolar that I quit the pulpit in a huff, blasting away that I could no longer stand the abuse to which I imagined the leadership had subjected me. It was, of course, all a figment of my unhinged psyche. Sure, I figured, I am still a hotshot. I blustered even to Linda that I could easily in a month find a $100,000+ job in another vocation. Now, eleven years later I am still unemployed, potchkeying with my circuitous writing and a weekly Bible class.
I was so sick that even Linda could do nothing but watch me decompose. How she begged me to get help, but each time I would scream at her for abandoning me. She knew that I was a timebomb that had already exploded. Finally, when I cursed out her entirely undeserving parents, she gave me her ultimatum. I capitulated to psychiatric treatment, pill and talk therapy, which I am not ashamed to say I continue to this day.
Few cases of bima envy are as grave as mine. More often than not, it runs along the lines of, “I can deliver a better eulogy than he,” or “I was better at conducting a wedding, a bris, a bar/bat mitzvah, delivering a sermon, a sisterhood book review, starring in the schule Purim schpiel, leading a Shabbat dinner singalong, entertaining the kiddies at a Tot Shabbat . . . you name it, and just call. “If they would just give me one more chance, I know I could do it better.”
Bima envy is a cruel master. No more tries for one who bears the stigma of the loose cannon. No more chances for one who has cruelly alienated unforgiving parishioners, no matter how many apologies or boxes of Godiva’s you send with notes begging forgiveness. Oh yes, some of them have, baruch HaShem, graciously forgiven me, but not sufficiently to turn me loose on their bima.
Yet, the neurosis (or shall I say “psychosis”?) has gradually abated. After apologies and confessions, the surest elixir for bima envy is joy, even if it is still sometimes tinged with a drop of the bitter. Over the Holy Days, I was privileged to hear the teaching of three extraordinary rabbis. Rabbi Mathew, Adam, and Eric is each a brilliant preacher and pastor. Each one has deeply touched my spirit. They sense how to “comfort the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.”
WAIT! NOT SO FAST!
Deep down I know that I could still preach it better! But finally, I know that I will never fully recover from the terror of bima envy. No, I will forever struggle with recovery, and still occasionally surrender to its ravages no matter how denatured they may be.
You see, when that glory-day comes, I know that as they lower my plain pine box into the ground, you will hear a rapping from down below and a voice bellowing, “A good eulogy, huh?? I could do it better!”
MARC WILSON is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC.