What Does It Mean to Serve

In rabbinical school I participated in interfaith dialogue. We had a monthly group of Jews and Christians that would go to a different theological seminary each month to study together. At one of the sessions I was asked why I became a rabbi. I gave my answer about helping a community grow, teaching Torah and bringing godliness into every encounter. Then I was asked if this was a calling for me. I paused-I had never considered a career choice a calling. Vocation yes, but a calling no. At the same time, it made me think about why we do what we do.

There’s a great Hasidic story in the book Tiferet Ha-Yehudi which I learned from Rabbi Brad Artson of the American Jewish University. It’s about Rabbi Hayim Krasner going to the town of Kransy to see an acrobat balancing himself on a high tightrope walk across the river. The Rebbi was fascinated and stared with intensity as the man made his way across the river. The crowd gasped with great amazement. When the walker finished, the Rebbe’s Hasidim, or followers, asked him, “Why was this so interesting to you?” He replied, “You might think the acrobat crossed the river because of the financial reward offered to the person who would do it. Indeed he might have stared with that motivation. But once he was up on the tightrope, if he had thought about that reward for even an instant, he would have fallen. While on the tightrope, the only thing he could think about was the next step, and the step after that. And maintaining his balance on a very narrow perch.”

Often we do things with thinking of the end benefit. After all, Stephen Covey’s second step in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “begin with the end in mind.”[1] However, if we are solely focused on the desired outcome and not the process that it will take to reach that outcome, we will likely struggle in our endeavors. We can only go one step at a time, one day at a time, in pursuit of our goals.

Rabbinic teaching illustrates this beautifully with the principles of  תורה לשמה Torah Lishmah, learning for its own sake, and תורה שלא לשמה Torah Shelo Lishmah, learning which is for an ulterior motive. As Rabbi Meir states, “One who occupies him/herself with the Torah for its own sake acquires many things and s/he alone is sufficient for the existence of the entire world.”[2] Interestingly, the word in Hebrew is לעסוק, to occupy oneself with, meaning this is not a passive act of study but rather one of active engagement, of “living Torah.” However, we cannot do everything from a selfless feeling-after all, wanting to apply our teachings to something real and meaningful, rather than exclusively studying theoretics, is important. I appear to be in big trouble from this passage, as I apply much of what I learn to my sermons and classes, and part of my motivation for learning new things is to acquire new material to teach. However, another passage from the Talmud helps reconcile this: we should engage with Torah even for ulterior motives (שלא לשמה) because it will lead us to engage in Torah for its own sake (לשמה).[3] Even if we have an agenda, a desired outcome to achieve, and Torah is a means to this end, this does not negate the importance of what we’ve learned, and it will motivate us to continue to learn out of pure enjoyment.
The sages tell a similar teaching as to which is preferred-study or action. What do you think they concluded? Surprisingly they went with Rabbi Akiva, who said study because it leads to action.[4] Often we think that we need to do, do, do. However, if we act blindly without introspection it can be worse than not acting at all. We must be reflective, know why we are doing something and never losing sight of our ultimate goal.

Our learning must lead to action, to service of G-d and to others. At times service means actually doing the work oneself rather than relying on others. Those in the workplace know this. When there’s something you deeply care about, you show your dedication on that matter by doing it yourself rather than giving it to someone else. In this morning’s Torah portion, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, it reads וישכם אברהם בבוקר ויחבוש את חמורו, “Abraham woke up early and saddled his donkey.”[5] The rabbis ask why did Abraham saddle the donkey on his own? After all, he had numerous servants! Rashi, citing the Midrash, states הוא בעצמו ולא צוה לאחד מעבדיו, שהאהבה מקלקלת את השורה; “He himself did this without commanding his servants to do so, because love trumps propriety.”[6] Abraham’s love for G-d led him to act on his own rather than relying on a servant. One can question Abraham’s motives as to why his love for G-d superseded him challenging G-d to let his son live, but what we have here is our patriarch himself being the one to prepare for the journey to Mount Moriah.

Another more humbling example is that of Hillel, one of our great teachers from the 1st century BCE. The Talmud states that someone who fell upon hard times should be returned to his prior standard of living. In following this tradition, Hillel purchased for an individual who had become impoverished a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him. One day, he could not find a servant, so Hillel himself ran before him for three miles.[7] Hillel lowered his personal standing to that of a servant to preserve the dignity of this man. What this man was accustomed to mattered more to Hillel than his own stature as a rabbi. Perhaps Hillel remembered his difficult days, when he could not afford to enter the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, to study Torah, instead sitting on the roof of the academy and once even being covered by snow![8] Whether or not we agree with Hillel, we know that he valued helping others in the way in which they were accustomed, even if he had to directly serve as a servant.

At times, like in these examples, being of service means taking an active role by oneself rather than relying on others. At other times it means being present for key moments in the lives of others. One summer in rabbinical school I had an internship with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago. The internship involved two days of learning Jewish texts on social justice, two days working at a social justice organization and one day of self-examination and reflection. A week and a half before the internship began, I found out that I was going to be placed at the InnerCity Muslim Action Network on the southwest side of Chicago. Some had concerns for my security as well as for my working with a Muslim organization, but I was stubborn and insisted on doing so.

This internship more than anything taught me about what it means to serve a community. I was a Jew working with Muslims on criminal justice reform, helping mostly Christian African Americans in inner-city Chicago. At times I felt that I wasn’t doing enough, as I was there on a very part-time basis and was not given core projects. I’m by nature an outcome-oriented person, not always having the patience to be present, waiting for an opportunity. I spoke to my supervisor, who told me, “Ben, your being here by itself means a lot.” Since then I have always kept that in the back of my mind.

So many other experiences in my life have been about being present rather than doing something. I served as a chaplaincy student at Bellevue Hospital, visiting the detox, medical and surgical units as well as prison psych. Much of being a chaplain is about listening to people’s stories and bringing out their true emotions. The prisoners were from Riker’s Island and were at Bellevue for a psychiatric evaluation before being sent back to Riker’s. Of course they wanted me to convince the psychiatrists to allow them to stay. I also never received so many requests for a kosher meal plan, as the kosher food was superior to the regular prison food.

One of the prisoners I visited stood out to me.  Jason was my age, and he had chronic pain in his knee.  He was also experiencing kidney failure and was anticipating going on dialysis.  Jason had been arrested because of illegal possession of painkillers.  I met with him four times, each for half an hour, and every meeting he was depressed, hallucinatory and suicidal.  I listened to and affirmed Jason, and I read him two psalms that addressed pain and suffering.  After I read these psalms, Jason told me that this was the first time since his Bar Mitzvah that he found meaning in Judaism.  He also said, “You’re the only one here who believes in me.” For Jason, what was most important was that I believed in who he was and had faith that he would succeed despite his challenges of being in prison.

Since entering the rabbinate, I’ve also learned that a lot of what it means to serve is being a listening ear, whether comforting a family, listening to students’ reactions in the classroom or attending a board or committee meeting. The concept of service, or  עבודה, is also reflected in our tradition, for this is the word used for worshiping G-d. During Temple times, our ancestors worshiped through sacrificing animals, a reminder that “this could have been you-repent your ways.” Today we worship through prayer, known as עבודה שבלב, the worship of the heart. Our being truly present in a moment of prayer, striving to transcend our momentary crises and to connect with something greater than ourselves, is what it means to be a servant of G-d. At times this is not easy, as when the road ahead is fraught with great difficulty. I’ll always remember Rabbi Neil Gillman telling me that he needs to pray because sometimes “I need a G-d to cry out to in anger.”[9] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik talked about what it means to be the Lonely Man of Faith, to believe in a better future when the foundations and anchors that surround you appear to be crumbling down.[10]

When we continue with our davening, I’d like everyone to think about what it means to you to serve others, whether through your work, your family, or our community. How are you present for others at moments of vulnerability and how do you affirm their struggles without losing your own faith? At times we are called upon to do great things but at other times our job is to be present and engaged with our inner self, which we need to do before we can engage in the struggles of those around us-and that is one of the central purposes of coming together on the High Holidays. In 5777, let us strive to be more present and engaged where we are at as well as with our loved ones. In so doing, may we always remember who we are, why we are here and what we can do to be present with ourselves and with those who need us.

[1] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), Page 95.

[2] Pirkei Avot 6:1

[3] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105b

[4] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 40b

[5] Genesis 22:3

[6] Rashi on Genesis 22:3 citing Bereshit Rabbah 55:8

[7] Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67b

[8] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 35b

[9] Conversation with Rabbi Gillman.

[10] Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 42.

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