by Rabbi Brent Spodek and Adam Gaynor
Some time ago, Carly Simon sang of an oh-so-vain partner, buoyed by privilege and wealth, who traveled through the world thinking it was all there for his enjoyment and self-aggrandizement.
Sadly, when we Jews go into the world to serve others (or “do service” as we are wont to call it) we are often that partner obsessed with our own needs. This focus on ourselves is expressed in myriad ways – when we establish sites at which young Jews can serve, we tend to be preoccupied with our needs – for comfort, for amusement, for the right blend of familiar and exotic, for opportunities to take good pictures. We know who we are and what we are looking for, but we are often less clear about who our partners are and what they are looking for.
When it comes down to it, most of us find it really hard to be focused on anything other than our selves, but ultimately, that’s what serving is about. On the one hand, it is about recognizing that we are not the alpha and omega of existence; that there is something legitimate and compelling outside of ourselves. Not for nothing does the prophet Micha say that all the Divine asks of us is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The humility is of the essence, as serving those in need in our cities and in our world is not about being an egomaniac masquerading as a master of mercy, nor is it about being the paternalistic great white hope that can swoop in and save the needy ones. It’s about humbly seeking to help those who suffer carry their burdens.
How do we do that? How do we live as servants of the Divine, and do our best to meet the needs of fellow humans who are also images of the Divine? Here are three possibilities:
- View service as commanded.
Serving those in need is heavy work. We don’t do it because it is fun or interesting, or heaven help us, its a good opportunity to take pictures. Recognize that we serve because we are commanded to. For some Jews, the command comes from our ethical obligations to those with whom we are bonded in covenental relationships; for others, the command comes from by the trace of Divinity manifest in the face of all human beings. However we name it, true service originates in response to something outside of ourselves.
- Acknowledge the expertise of those we serve.
Local communities are the experts about their own lives and needs. Flying to New Orleans with the intention of rebuilding homes may be less important than clearing trash out of the school that would draw families back to a neighborhood in the first place. Effective service projects are guided by those who can clearly define the most pressing needs – usually the local community – rather than the degree of fun the servant can expect.
- (Strive to) Be in relationship.
The people with whom we work are not simple props to occupy our time; they are real people to whom we owe the respect of hearing their specific stories, not the generic role they play in our narratives. If we are in a situation in which language, brevity of time or other circumstances don’t allow us to enter into relationships, perhaps we should consider if we are serving in an appropriate way.
Within the Jewish tradition, one of the greatest names given to Moses is eved ne’eman – the faithful servant. He served out of a commitment to the Most Holy, not a commitment to his own ego. He served steadfastly for generations and he knew how to raise up leaders from among those he served. More than anything, he served with a sense of humility in the face of the task. When we serve, lets do so honorably and humbly, as befits inheritors of Moses.
This article is based on It’s a pleasure to serve you today by Rabbi Brent Spodek on the RepairLabs site of Repair the World, which is available here. Rabbi Spodek is Founder and Director of the Emek Project, home to deep Jewish learning in the Hudson Valley. Adam Gaynor is Executive Director of The Curriculum Initiative and a doctoral student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU.