Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Holy Work

Every now and then, I get asked to contribute to the URJ's "Ask Your Jewish Question" (formerly known as "Ask a Rabbi") feature. One recently came my way:
Could you do a piece about how going to work during the 6 days of the week is part of the mitzvah of fulfilling Shabbat, and how we should also find meaning in what we do during those 6 days? Sometimes it is easy to forget that going to our jobs can be meaningful...and even a mitzvah. I get easily lost in the daily grind of my own job. Thanks for all the hard work you guys do. Best—Marie (Chana)
It's not published yet, but here's my response:
During the week, are we allowed to work, or are we commanded to work? And, is any of that work holy?
“6 days you shall labor and do all your work, but the 7th day is a Sabbath to Adonai your God: you shall not do any work…” That’s what God said at Sinai, according to Exodus 20:9-10. And, in its context, the Hebrew is probably saying that we’re allowed to work during the 6 days. That’s just a preamble to the real commandment, which is Shabbat.
But, whatever the original intent was, that’s not how the rabbis of old read it. Midrash Rabbah, an ancient collection of Midrashim (Rabbinic teachings on the Torah) reads the text hyper-literally and understands both parts to be commandments—you must work during the 6 days, just like you must rest on the 7th. In fact, we are told that “Great is work, because God’s presence does not rest upon Israel until they perform work, as it says, ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’ ” Holiness doesn’t come to those who sit around and wait for it; holiness comes to those who are willing to work for it! So, our tradition understands that there is, indeed, holy work to be done during the week. Anything that we do which makes it possible to experience holiness in the world is, itself, holy work. And, although not every moment of every job is easily understood as helping to bring holiness to the world, each of us can find ways to do so, at least some of the time. We can challenge ourselves by asking how our jobs, how our efforts, can not only justify our salaries, but can also make the world a bit holier.
There are, however, some rabbis who are willing to go a step further. Rabbeinu Bahai, speaking in the name of Maimonides teaches that even seemingly mundane acts can, in fact, be holy. Deeds which seem totally secular, such as commercial matters, can be done with holy intent. That’s a grounding principle of the spiritual philosophy of the Hassidic masters—the intent with which we do something has more to do with its holiness than the act itself. Anything that we do, no matter how far from holy pursuit it may seem, can be holy if we decide to make it so. By inclining our minds and our hearts towards holiness, the simplest, least obviously holy work can be filled with sanctity. After all, if there is really no place without God (and, we seem pretty sure that there isn’t!), then there is also no action where we can’t find God’s presence—God is everywhere, including in our jobs, even if it’s not always obvious how.
So, find ways to use your daily work to make our world holier, and find ways to make our daily work holy itself. Then, and only then, will we be fulfilling the full mitzvah of Shabbat!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Prophetic Teens

A few days ago, it came to my attention that some of the teens at our synagogue were upset with me. They felt that I hadn’t been publically supportive of their participation in the March For Our Lives. As you probably know, the march was organized as a reaction to the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, just over a month ago. About a dozen of our teens are joining some others from this area to head up to DC to join in what is shaping up to be a historic march. To make this trip more accessible to anyone who wanted to go, they also ran a GoFundMe, with all money raised going to subsidize the trip.

From what I heard, at least some of them feel that I should have spoken about the march and about their fundraising from the pulpit, and that I should have encouraged more donations in that way, too. There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t, but that isn’t the point—even if I was right on some level to not speak about this (at least in that forum), they are also right that I should have done so, because what they’re doing is so deeply important.

This shooting, and the movement which has been growing in its aftermath, has had a profound effect on some of our teens. For one thing, this was geographically close, which always seems to make tragedies feel more personal. But, more importantly, this shooting was close to our kids in other ways, too. Many of the students at Stoneman participate in NFTY-STR, our youth group region, and some of them also attend Camp Coleman, where some of our teens attend. A family who used to attend Beth Am send their child there. The point is that some of our teens personally know people who attend that school. Some of them were friends with one of the victims, Alyssa Alhadeff z”l. This is personal. And so, they are finding themselves deeply committed to this new, student-led effort to get something done to make our schools, and our society, safer. This isn’t just another march to these youth; this is bigger than that.

What we’re seeing—from our kids, and from the leaders of this new movement—is sacred work. And, I’m not using that term lightly, or generically. I think that we’re watching a group suddenly find themselves in the role of Prophets, whether or not they realize it.