At my synagogue before the High Holidays three women with busy lives take on the annual task of putting name labels on the appeal cards that worshippers use to indicate how much they will contribute to the synagogue for its own and community needs.
The labels must be printed by the synagogue office staff before the volunteers can put them on the cards and often the printing isn’t done until the last minute, waiting for the last congregants to sign up for seats. Yet despite the mad rush at the end, every year the three women set aside the time to complete the work. Asked how they could give up precious hours when so much is needed to be done for their jobs, in their homes and for their families before the holidays, the women all said it was a task they took on delightedly each year knowing that “just a bit of peeling and sticking” would result in needed funds. “It’s my service to the synagogue and community,” said one.
The Hebrew word for service, avodah, is the same as the word for work and for worship. The three acts, say many Jewish commentators, are necessarily connected. Why? Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, the author of The Jewish Catalogue answers with a story he was told of the owner of a moving company who only hired the most compassionate people for his staff. Surely, he was asked, the key skill needed is brawn? “Yes,” they need to be strong,” said the owner, “but they need to be patient and understanding more. Moving is a stressful time, sometimes filled with anticipation, sometimes with heart ache, and I view it as an act of service to connect with people as they move their possessions from one home to another. And I view caring for my fellow man at such a vulnerable time as being in service to God.” Work, service, worship.
I’ve thought a great deal about service recently as I prepare to give up the presidency of a board, a prominent community position that I have loved because we have been able to make a difference, and because it gave me a seat at the community table. Now as I move forward with no new role to take its place, I wonder: how will I be of service? Until now, for a decade or more, my “service” has been board meetings, fundraising dinners, conference calls, and I admit I have liked the public recognition. And as I end my board position, I have wondered what is next for me in my service to G-d and my community.
One day, a bit lost in thought about what acts of service might be next for me, I bumped into a friend whose father died two years ago, well into his 90s. That reminded me of meeting up with him, then in his mid-80s, on his way to his volunteer job for the mikvah, the ritual bath. Some mikvah water must be drained and refilled at regular intervals. As a retiree, he was a good choice for the job because the draining took hours and needed someone who could not only pull the plug but then also press the button to refill the water once the pool was emptied. He told me about his role with a shrug and a smile. “Doesn’t seem like much, but the rabbi says without me, no one would be able to use the mikvah.” Seems like much to me.
Perhaps the most regal service Jews know of is the service, called the Avodah, of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, in the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, on Yom Kippur. In many synagogues around the world the order and structure of that service, all the majestic clothes the Kohen Gadol wore, the painstaking steps he took with each sacrifice, is read, often aloud intricately following along with the proceedings in the Temple.
Why make the Kohen Gadol’s service a part of what we want to say to God as we review the last year and prepare for the next one? In a blog post for the American Jewish World Service writer Adina Gerver quotes Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator, who said that kahuna, the Hebrew word for priesthood, is also another word for service and that the Chizkuni, a thirteenth century commentator, explained that the bells on the clothes of the Kohen Gadol would ring when he performed his service in the Beit HaMikdash so that the children of Israel would hear the bells and “turn their hearts to God.” A call to service.
But lest you think the most important work is reserved only for the Kohanim, Gerver also brings down a passage from Exodus 19:6, in which God tells Moses to tell the Children of Israel that they are to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, in other words, fully responsible for service.
Following along the path of the Kohen Gadol in the synagogue over the High Holidays further intensified my search of what I will do next and what service now looks like to me. For inspiration I turned to music, and found it in two songs. One is called What’s Your Avodah, by Rabbi Josh Snyder, executive director of Hillel at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. The service in Rabbi Snyder’s song includes a car salesman who refuses to sell a car with faulty parts and a diner waitress who serves up her ears, ready to listen, along with that pie a la mode.
And I’m listening again to a song from a CD no longer available that introduced my children to tzedakah and service when they were toddlers, thrilled to think about the continuum of the Jewish people always beginning anew, and my own chance to reinsert service once again from the beginning into my life. The refrain: “Since I am little, I’ll give just a little but when I am big, I’ll give more.”
Fran Lunzer Kritz is the president of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington and a member of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. A writer, her work has appeared in many publications including the New York Jewish Week, the Forward and the Washington Post.