This past Shabbat I led services at the Jewish Home for the Aged. My affection for this congregation grows every time I attend services with them.
During yesterday's service, one gentleman snagged me during hakafah [the parade of the Torah around the congregation] and reminded me, sotto voce, that I needed to announce Rosh Chodesh [the beginning of the Hebrew month.] Oops, right, Cheshvan starts Sunday. So, when I returned to the bimah, I thanked him for his reminder and stopped the service to backtrack briefly to announce the coming New Moon.
After the service, a woman in the congregation took my elbow at the oneg [snack after services, literally, "delight"]. "Rabbi," she said in heavily accented English, "We should have out the Torah when we bench Rosh Chodesh." Ahhhh! Right. I thanked her, and said that I would do it differently next time. Then she paused and looked sharply at me and said, "I haf not embarrassed you, I hope? I don't want embarrass you." I assured her that I am a student, I am still learning, and I am grateful for kind corrections like hers. And indeed, she made a point of speaking to me about it privately, quite a trick in that setting.
Now you may be thinking, oy, does this go on all the time? And the answer is, yes, it does. I am quite competent in leading a typical Reform Shabbat morning service, but this is something a bit different: at, JHA, we daven [pray] out of the old Conservative siddur [prayer book] and do a very traditional service. I worried terribly about it when I got ready to lead for the first time. I was going to make mistakes, I knew it. I hate making mistakes.
And I definitely make mistakes, and they let me know about it. The surprise has been the gracious, generous way that these old Jews give me their criticisms. They speak from the heart, in the spirit of teaching, and there is no meanness, no "gotcha" in it. They honor my dedication to the rabbinate, and I honor their years and deep knowledge.
The knowledge base in the congregation is diverse: at least one person (a woman, no less) studied for several years in yeshiva in Europe until the Germans invaded her country and the yeshiva was destroyed, with most of her classmates. The gentleman who reminded me about Rosh Chodesh seems to carry an internal Hebrew calendar with all the complex details. At the other extreme, some know the prayers only by rote. All have decades and decades of Jewish living under their belts, though, and I am absolutely sure that every soul there knows things I need to learn.
Mitzvot [commandments] are a relative matter, I find. I am there to visit the sick, to honor the generations older than myself, to help those who need a little help, to pray, and to assist in the performance of mitzvot. They, for their part, have found a mitzvah to perform too: they are teaching the next generation -- me.