A voluntary obligation

A voluntary obligation

A radioactive meltdown threatens the crew of the USS Enterprise. There is only one possible way to save the starship: Someone must go into a chamber and pull the proper switch. There is a catch, however. Anyone entering that chamber faces a certain and quick death.

Yet go into the chamber is exactly what Mr. Spock does. He does not even give it a second’s thought.

"Why?" asks his friend Jim Kirk as Spock lay dying.

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," answers Spock.

"Or the one," adds Kirk.

That, in a nutshell, is how Judaism sees it, too, which is why last Shabbat was designated as "Volunteer Shabbat" by the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

We are all busy people (well, I hope we are). We all have "lives." We all have various myriad life-threads competing for our attention and our time. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 the highest, the communal life-threads all too often rate a minus 3. They are ignored, dismissed, discounted, left to "the other guy," because, let us be honest, someone out there will step in anyway and, besides, we already cannot get to everything that we need for ourselves and cannot concern ourselves with what anonymous others need.

Do not take my word for it, however. Just attend two or three committee meetings at your synagogue or a local agency. The first thing you will notice is that the same people are there every time. The committees may play musical chairs, but the committee members are pretty much the same burnout-bound crowd from one committee to the next.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Jewish life. The fact is, this "no, no, not me" attitude applies throughout American voluntary life, whether one is an Elk, a Moose, an Oddfellow or just the odd patron at the local public library oblivious to its need for volunteers or the roles these volunteers play so he/she can read for free.

In truth, then, the Jewish community is just like everyone else. Only, we are not supposed to be "just like everyone else." We are supposed to be the trendsetters for a better way.

Judaism insists that volunteerism, communal involvement, must be high on our individual agendas, not just something we might try the day after we finally clean out the garage.

An excellent example of this is found in Sefer Ha’Kuzari 3:19, by the mid-11th-century rabbi, poet, and philospher, Yehudah Halevi.

He begins his discussion by equating "one who prays only for himself" to "a person who at a time of danger to the city would be satisfied with the well-being of his home and does not want to participate with the people of the city in [assuring] the well-being of their [city] walls."

Two points are made here. First, praying in the plural helps create a sense of community. By praying for the "we" instead of the "me," a person eventually should get the idea that he or she is part of something greater than him- or herself. Second, there is a religious dimension to communal involvement.

As he continues, Halevi recognizes that not everyone can give an equal amount of time, or an equal quality of effort. Many may not even be capable of completing what they start. Indeed, he says, for most people, "the outlay is small," but small is good, and "whatever the one [person] does not manage to do, another comes and completes it. And thus the city will endure with the greatest completeness that is possible for it and all its people will enjoy its blessings by way of a small outlay [of time, skills, etc.]."

In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot 58a, the sage Ben Zoma looked at a slice of bread and came up with the same message: "How many labors the First Man performed until he found bread to eat! He plowed, sowed, harvested, bound [sheaves], threshed, winnowed, selected, ground [flour], sifted, kneaded, baked and afterwards he ate. But I get up and find before me all of these [labors already] accomplished."

People, with their limited time and long to-do lists, may not think that what they can offer is important. Yet when you put all the pieces together, something of substance emerges, Ben Zoma says. More important, by being relieved of the need to do all those things for himself to get bread to eat, he is free to do for the community that which he does best.

To return to Halevi, he says that ignoring the needs of the community is serious business.

From "the moment that the individual disregards his being a part of the whole, in other words, [disregards] his duty to work for the sake of the well-being of the community of which he is a part, and decides to keep his usefulness to it [the community] to himself," says Halevi, "he is a sinner against the whole people and especially against his soul. For the individual within a community is like one limb in the wholeness of the body, for in fact if the arm would hold back its blood when there is a need for draining it, the body would come to an end and the arm would end along with it. Certainly it is proper for an individual to bear even the bitterness of death for the sake of saving the whole people, but at the very least the individual needs to think about his part in the whole people so that he will always do his part and not disregard it."

Ignoring the community’s needs, therefore, is both a sin against one’s own soul and a crime against the communal whole. All may be in jeopardy because one person decides to sit on his or her hands.

Volunteer. Call the JCRC, or UJA NNJ, or your synagogue, or JCC, or club, or library. You may just have the very skill they — and we — are waiting for.