Van Lanckton liked practicing law, but he loves being a rabbi. His “aha” career change moment came as he recovered from triple bypass surgery in 2001. He thought a lot about a single question: For what purpose had his life been saved? He decided to retire from the firm where he had spent the last twenty years of his legal career in order to enroll in full-time study in rabbinical school – at the age of 60 – and graduated six years later.
What does he love about being a rabbi? “The opportunity to accompany people both at times of great joy and great sadness is an amazing gift,” he says. “Whether you help name a child, help that child pass through the rites of puberty as a bar mitzvah, marry people, or be with them when they are sick or dying, these are chances to assist people that you just don’t get as a lawyer, even when you represent individuals.” When he practiced law, he notes, there was a limit to the amount of stress his clients were under because their problems were financial. In contrast, he says, the help he can give as a rabbi is priceless.
I was stunned to learn that at least two other rabbis in greater Boston are former lawyers like Van, but he points out that there are many similarities between lawyers and rabbis. Being a rabbi is “simply studying law from a higher authority,” he notes. “And sermons are just like closing arguments, with no judge or opposing counsel.” I ask whether the counseling aspect is the same. ‘Not really,” he says. “When you counsel clients as a lawyer, they have a fixed set of options. When you’re counseling congregants, you are mostly just listening.”
For Van, changing careers was “a million dollar decision,” as he puts it. When he compares what he would have earned as a lawyer in the years since he resigned to what he has earned as a rabbi, he thinks the differential is about a million dollars. But it’s not money he needed, he points out. “Many people think they can’t make a change like this, but they can,” he says. The tendency to be conservative about our personal possessions may make it hard to distinguish what we need from what we have, and therefore want to keep. “You may not be able to keep up with the mortgage on that five bedroom house,” he says, “but do you really need to live in such a large house?” Van says he has seen too often people who end up frustrated and bitter when they give preference to making a living over making a life.
Drawing on both his legal and rabbinic careers, Van believes strongly in living the examined life. “If you don’t examine your choices carefully,” he cautions, “you may be wasting the only life you get.”