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The Process (The Value of Volunteerism) Parshas Yisro

Dedicated to all the wonderful volunteers of Ner Tamid

In 1818, German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that life swings like a pendulum between boredom and pain. He was known by his colleagues to be a bit of a pessimist…

What he meant, was that if and when we achieve our goals in life, then we are in a state of boredom (what’s next?). And if we have not achieved our goals, then we are in a state of pain (or in modern terms, anxiety or frustration).

Some later philosophers have suggested that these feelings are the cause of mid-life crises; at a certain point in life, we either feel like we’ve accomplished everything we’ve ever wanted and therefore feel bored. And others, at that same exact point, feel pain in not having accomplished what they want to achieve. Some especially lucky individuals, typically those of us who tend to overthink everything, experience both these feeling virtually every week; bored at what you’ve already accomplished, and anxious about what you haven’t.

MIT professor of philosophy Kieran Setiya recently suggested a way of overcoming this existential challenge; by realizing that Schopenhauer’s analysis is actually quite flawed. Because while it’s true that many of our life goals are binary; we either achieved our goal or we did not, many of our greatest accomplishments are not binary at all.

Meaning, if your life goal is to get a doctorate, or to hike the Grand Canyon, to retire comfortably at a certain age, there are only two possible outcomes to all those goals; yes or no. You either did or not. And this is true for so much; either Maduro or Gaudio is president of Venezuela, not both, the government is either shutdown or open for business (maybe that’s not the best example).

But there’s a whole world out there, a world of life accomplishments that cannot be answered as simply. So many of the truly important things in life are defy quantification. How do you decide if you were a good parent or not? Which metrics do you use to quantify your being a conscientious citizen or a self-centered one? At what point in your life do you know that you are a caring spouse? A good friend? A good Jew?

None of those are easily tracked. There is no checklist to fill out that will tell you definitively what you are, certainly nothing that will inform you that you’ve made it; that because of x, y, or z, you now know that you are a good, fill in the blank. The most important things in life, the things we value are most often the ones that aren’t binary.

Dr. Setiya suggests that instead of beating ourselves up because we haven’t accomplished our goals, and instead of wasting away in boredom because we have achieved our goals, we recognize that many of the most important things in life, not the things that we could boast, not the latest news items, but the really important things in life exist on a never-ending continuum. Some days we take a step forward, some days a step back. (h/t Rabbi Josh Flug)


This coming Wednesday I’ll be speaking on a panel with a number of other rabbis or CEO’s of local shuls or Jewish institutions. We were asked to speak about our programming and activities. One of the speakers is Heather Moran, CEO of Sixth and I. Let me give you a little bit of background about the Sixth and I Synagogue. About a hundred years ago it was a beautiful, popular Orthodox shul. As the Jews moved away from downtown, the shul became a church, and about fifteen years ago, the shul almost became a nightclub, but a number of wealthy Jews stepped in, bought the old shul and designated it as a Jewish cultural center. Since then it has become the center of not just Jewish life in DC, but of all cultural life in that city.

To name a few of the people who have spoken or performed there in the past few years; former President George W. Bush, Justice RBG, Madeline Albright, Nancy Pelosi, Elie Wiesel, Tina Fey, Kofi Anan, Adele, Bryan Adams, Art Garfunkel, the list just goes on and on.

And I’m thinking to myself, here is a synagogue with a staff about the size of our membership, which hosts the hippest, most relevant speakers and performers, what can I possibly add to this conversation? What am I doing there?

I thought about it and I realized there is one thing we have that they don’t have, and they can never have. When you have a staff member for every job imaginable then by definition you don’t have volunteers. You don’t need volunteers. But when you’re paid staff can be counted on one hand, including your custodian, then you have a room like this one, in which virtually every single person volunteers. I tried compiling a list of volunteers a little while back and I gave up. Everyone does something here. If not on a regular basis, then from time to time. If not today, then you have in the past.

And that’s not only unique, it’s special, and I want to explain to you why:

If you are an employee, there is one goal and one goal only – succeed, accomplish, do what you’re tasked with doing, ensure that your company/ organization/ whatever does what it’s trying to do. It’s binary. There is only question to be asked at the end of the day, did you accomplish your task or not?

But if you’re a volunteer, then yes, you must have goals, of course, but the process, the work itself, the experience of trying to accomplish that great goal, that process is a goal in it of itself. There is a secondary or maybe even more primary goal of pitching in, of helping out, of being part of something bigger than yourself. That is, in it of itself, avodas hakodesh, holy and sacred work.

And that has tremendous ramifications.

For example, if there is a difficult employee, you try to talk to him or her, and if they don’t comply, you let them go. But if you’re a volunteer corps, and there is a difficult dynamic, you work with them, and then you work with them, and then you work with them (obviously with some limitations). Because the goal is the process, even if it detracts from some of the larger goals.

As an employee, if you work on a project for months and then it fails, then you just wasted a colossal amount of time. But if you’re a volunteer, and you just spent hours working on something for a higher purpose, even if it doesn’t succeed, did you not accomplish something of great significance? Of course you did!

You know, I used to look at our small staff as a deficit, but I’ve learned through Max Jacob who dedicated his every breath to the shul, to the crazy volunteers who slept in the hallway last night to make the lock-in such a success, and really, from everyone in this room, that a volunteer is first of all, so much more passionate about what they’re doing – no one’s forcing you to volunteer and it comes across. And even more importantly, that as volunteers you are accomplishing a goal in it of itself every time you show up. Whether the goal is met or not, your time and your efforts are avodas hakodesh, holy and sacred work.

I believe this is the message the Torah is to trying to convey to us, immediately preceding the giving of the Torah. The first passage of this week’s parsha is a very challenging one. Moshe is judging the entire Jewish People, from day until night, case after case after case. His father-in-law, Yisro, comes along and says, “Um, why don’t you delegate?” and he does. Moshe sets up a whole team of people who can help address questions that the people may have. And you’re left wondering, why didn’t Moshe think of this on his own? How did Moshe not think of this? Making it even more challenging is the fact that when Moshe recounts this episode in Devarim, he criticizes the Jewish People for accepting Yisro’s suggestion. What’s going on over here?

It’s quite clear that Yisro was a very pragmatic person. The Jewish People have questions, they need to get answers. It will be far more efficient if you have a team of people fielding those questions. Yisro was right – from the perspective of binary accomplishments.

But Moshe understood that religion is more complex than that. Yes, there are binary aspects to Judaism. Do you keep Shabbos or not? Did you put on Tefillin or not? But there’s another layer of Judaism called the process. It’s the act of trying to be a better person, even though the goal line keeps on changing, it’s the process of going back and forth in our relationship with G-d; feeling His closeness one day and wondering if He’s even there the next, it’s the struggle to figure out what is right and what is wrong, a spiritual experience in it of itself.

Moshe wanted to impress upon the people that waiting in line, struggling to seek out the truth, that is a goal in it of itself. It’s not only about the bottom line, it’ a never-ending process of growth, of accomplishments and setbacks that make up the religious life.

The entire structure of the Torah speaks to this idea. 613 concrete action items, with the most nuanced details, things that are either fulfilled or not. But what’s the backdrop? The backdrop is a group of people who never get to their destination. A group of wanderers, who spend 40 years, reaching the heights of spirituality, seeking G-d’s might at the sea, standing at Sinai, speaking to G-d, and the same people who get swallowed up by the earth, complain endlessly, and never make it to their destination. That too is the religious life. The process, the journey, the struggle.

And I would add, for those who feel like the struggle is too esoteric, maybe even too cheesy or cliché, that there’s a second benefit, a concrete benefit when we fight for the things that are important to us even if we don’t win the war, when we volunteer but never accomplish our goals, when we struggle but never feel a sense of having arrived.

It was John Adams who wrote to his beloved wife Abigail, I have been forced to study politics and war so “that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy… geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children the “right to study painting, poetry music, (and) architecture.”

You may not accomplish your life goals, you may not solve all the world’s problems, maybe not even all the problems in these four walls, but if you dedicate your life to a cause, personal or public, if you struggle endlessly to grow and to better yourself, then future generations will build on your enthusiasm, your hard work, and yes, even your failures, and move themselves and the world around them one step further.

The moment we feel bored because we’ve accomplished it all, the moment we feel anxious or pained because we feel like failures, we need to ask ourselves if we are using the right tools to make such an assessment. The important things in life, our relationships, spirituality, self-growth, none of those are measured with yesses and no’s, they are a life tasks that entail boundless toil but also boundless reward, for ourselves and for future generations.

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