June 2, 2005
Task at Hand
Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
In the essay "The World as I See It," Albert Einstein wrote: "A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give the same measure as I have received and am still receiving."
I understand tikkun olam, the repairing and healing of our world, as the central calling of our people. All of the prayer, teaching, outreach, pastoral work and congregational activities that I help facilitate lead me back to the notion that they are somehow helping to add the necessary energy into our global cosmos, which can facilitate the advent of a new and better time for all people. And I know that each of us is working, in our own way, to help better the world.
But how do we know what to do, when to do it and how much energy to apply to any given task? We are all so busy, so overscheduled that we need to prioritize the ways in which we help others, ways in which we give back to the world. All of us need the reminder that Einstein found in his life. I know that I struggle with balancing my time among the needs of my local community, my larger Jewish and American communities, Israel and the rest of the world. I learned from the Torah this week, however, that my balancing act might actually not be appropriate.
This Shabbat, we begin Bamidbar. Two verses near the end of the parsha, speaking about the roles of the Levites, say, "But thus do unto them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach unto the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in, and appoint every one to his service and to his burden. But, they shall not go in to see the holy things, as they are being covered, lest they die" (Numbers 4:19-20). It is clear that the work of the Tabernacle was incredibly holy and invariably dangerous, as both the Torah and subsequent mishnaic writings tell us. However, one midrash from Bamidbar Rabbah expounds on the unique dangers facing the Levites:
Rabbi Eleazar Ben Pedat said, in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra: The sanctity of the ark caused the people to be struck down by it, and all would run away preferring, at all costs, to take some other vessel -- the table, the candlestick and the altars. The ark would thereby be slighted and the Holy One Blessed Be would be angry with them: let Aaron and his sons come along and give each one their task and burden so that they will not be able to transfer from one service to another and from one burden to another.
In Bamidbar Rabbah, Rabbi Samuel Bar Nachman said: Heaven forbid that the sons of Aaron should leave the ark and run to the table and candlestick. On the contrary, they were ready to give their lives for the ark.... Rather, they knew that whoever carried the ark merited greater reward. All would then leave the table and candlestick and come running to the ark, in order to reap a greater reward. As a result, quarrels would arise and each one would claim the right to carry the ark, thereby slighting the other appurtenances. Let Aaron and his sons come along and give each one their task and burden....
To me, the opposing rabbinic views here illustrate the great struggle in doing tikkun olam. Many of us want to do the work of local healing, which is perhaps not that exciting or glorifying, as incredible and necessary as it is. Yet, if the chance comes along to be part of a larger effort, one that might bring recognition, greater reward and is exciting, we might take that chance, leaving the ordinary, but as important, work to someone else. Conversely, there are those of us who shy away from the larger efforts, seeing them as too burdensome, cumbersome or overwhelming, choosing instead to stay focused on the needs of our local community.
There are dangers in all of these choices, dangers that the midrash helps us to sort out. The work of local efforts, namely homeless shelters, soup kitchens, clothing drives and volunteering in a number of capacities, can't be dropped when the chance to work on a larger campaign presents itself. And, the larger campaigns, such as ending the genocide in Darfur, making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, fighting our government as they strip social services from the poorest and neediest in our country and ending poverty and hunger in the world, cannot be shied away from because they are too daunting or overwhelming. We need to be battling on all fronts, each one of us taking the task that we are best suited to fulfill.
That does not mean that we cannot sometimes interchange our tasks and do different things, but rather, we must always be certain that someone is working on both the smaller and the larger tasks of tikkun olam. As Pirke Avot teaches, "The day is short, the work is long ... it is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we ever free to desist from trying."
This midrash helped me to focus my attention and not juggle everything; I hope that it can do the same for you. May God bless our hands as we work in all corners of our community, nation and world to bring about a world of peace, humanity, justice, food and love for all beings.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Learn more about PJTC at www.pjtc.net.