Why do Service?


Greenberg, Yitz. "Personal Service – A Central Jewish Norm for Our Time." CONTACT. 4.1 (2001): 3-4. Print.

…Personal service must be brought to the fore as a central value of Jewish tradition and culture. Every synagogue, school, and organization must teach this norm. Even unaffiliated Jews recognize education and family as synonymous with Jewish values: so should personal service become known as the indispensable expression of Jewishness. … This is not to say that Gentiles do not practice this value. Personal service to doers is widely recognized and valued in America. However, service must be upheld as a norm expected of Jews. We must teach and work so that personal service is a field pioneered and spearheaded by Jews…. A Jew is commanded not just to do individual acts of chessed (kindness) to others but to set aside regular time for volunteering and giving personal service. What is the minimum number of hours a week, a month, or a year that one must dedicate to nurturing the equality and uniqueness of other human beings? We must create a Jewish culture in which the final measurement of “was this life worthwhile” will be: Did one set aside regular times for nurturing other human beings?

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What is the benefit of service? How does it affect the recipient of the service? What about the volunteer?
2. Why does Rabbi Greenberg believe that service is such a critical element of Jewish life? Do you agree?
3. How can you better incorporate service in your Jewish identity?

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 63a

Translation Original
One must not go out [on Shabbat] with a sword, bow, shield, lance, or spear; and if one goes out, he/she incurs a sin-offering. Rabbi Eliezer said: They are ornaments. But the sages maintain they are merely shameful, for it is said, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift sword up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. A knee-band is clean, and one may go out with it on the Sabbath; ankle-chains are unclean, and one may not go out with them on the Sabbath. [Soncino translation. Edited for gender neutrality]
לא יצא האיש לא בסייף ולא בקשת, ולא בתריס, ולא באלה, ולא ברומח, ואם יצא - חייב חטאת. רבי אליעזר אומר: תכשיטין הן לו, וחכמים אומרים: אינן אלא לגנאי, שנאמר: +ישעיהו ב+ וכתתו חרבותם לאתים וחניתותיהם למזמרות ולא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה. בירית - טהורה, ויוצאין בה בשבת. כבלים - טמאים, ואין יוצאין בהן בשבת

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Why does Rabbi Eliezer say that weapons are ornamental? Why do the sages say that they are shameful? What is the reason for each argument?
2. Do you see evidence of the same argument in the world today? Where?

Elie Wiesel [on Indifference], US News & World Report (27 October 1986).

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And, the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference. Because of indifference one dies before one actually dies.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Why does Wiesel equate indifference to death? Do you agree?
2. According to this text, what is the purpose of living?
3. Can you relate to Wiesel's philosophy? How might you apply this statement?

BabylonianTalmud, Sanhedrin 73a

Translation Original
How do we know that if a person sees another person drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, s/he is bound to save him? From the verse, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” (Leviticus 19:16). [AJWS translation]
מניין לרואה את חבירו שהוא טובע בנהר, או חיה גוררתו, או לסטין באין עליו, שהוא חייב להצילו - תלמוד לומר לא תעמד על דם רעך (ויקרא י"ט).

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What are some ways to help people today that are targeted by violence?
2. What are some ways to help those who are kept poor by a trading and market system that benefits from their poverty?
3. What is the opposite of standing idly by? Does the directive here come with a measurable level of success?

Leviticus Rabbah 4:6

Translation Original
A man in a boat began to drill a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. "What concern is it of yours?" he responded. "I am making a hole under my seat, not yours." They replied: "That is so, but when the water comes in-it will sink the whole boat and we will all drown." [Translation by Hillel and Panim]
תני רשב"י משל לבני אדם שהיו יושבין בספינה נטל אחד מהן מקדח והתחיל קודח תחתיו אמרו לו חבריו מה אתה יושב ועושה אמר להם מה אכפת לכם לא תחתי אני קודח אמרו לו שהמים עולין ומציפין עלינו את הספינה

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. This text serves as an important example of areivut, or the concept that every Jew is responsible for all other Jews. How does it demonstrate this principle?
2. Have you had experiences in which you have felt bound up, or responsible, for other Jews?
3. Do you feel responsible for other communities or groups in the same way? Which other communities and why?

Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a

Translation Original
Choni, the righteous man, was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, “how long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “In about 70 years,” answered the man. “But you are so old, you will never taste its fruit.” “You are right, but I have eaten the fruit of trees that have been planted before I was born. I plant for my daughters and sons, granddaughters and grandsons.” Choni sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, “are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied, “I am his grandson.” Thereupon Choni exclaimed: “It is clear that I slept for seventy years.” [Soncino]
אמר: מי איכא דניים שבעין שנין בחלמא? יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא, חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא, אמר ליה: האי, עד כמה שנין טעין? - אמר ליה: עד שבעין שנין. - אמר ליה: פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין? - אמר ליה: האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה, כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי - שתלי נמי לבראי. יתיב, קא כריך ריפתא, אתא ליה שינתא, נים. אהדרא ליה משוניתא, איכסי מעינא, ונים שבעין שנין. כי קם חזייה לההוא גברא דהוא קא מלקט מינייהו. אמר ליה: את הוא דשתלתיה? - אמר ליה: בר בריה אנא. אמר ליה: שמע מינה דניימי שבעין שנין.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Thinking honestly, are you more like Honi or the old man in your every day approach to producing and consuming resources?
2. The definition of sustainable development is "meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs". How does this story relate to contemporary notions of environmental responsibility and sustainable development?
3. What might surprise you about the world you find (other than the length of your sleep!) were you to awaken after 70 years?