PRESENTED 3/23/19 AT CONGREGATION BET SHALOM, TUCSON, ARIZONA
Last year, with the help of my family and a few friends, I founded the San Diego Outreach Synagogue a small, independent congregation in San Diego. We hold Friday night services once a month and began holding holiday celebrations with Purim and look forward to our first Passover Seder. Our Friday night services are held in a local Recreation Center and we provide a vegetarian dinner after the service to 35-45 people. And we’re growing!
We are required to be completely cleared out of the rec center by 8:00 pm, which means that at 7:35, I announce that it’s time for us all to clean up, and everyone goes into action. Tables and chairs are put away, leftover food is packed up, musical equipment is loaded onto carts, and utensils, paper goods, prayer booklets, etc are all packed into our three portable plastic bins, the floor is swept, and trash is taken out. With everyone’s help, we always have our rented room completely cleaned up and get all our attendees and belongings out of the building by 8:00.
During this clean-up process several months ago, I grabbed a broom and began to sweep the floor. Someone came up to me and said, “You should not be doing that!” In other words, this was a job that was just too menial for the head of a religious community to be doing. I was moved by her kindness and thoughtfulness but assured her that it was totally fine and I was happy to do it.
Yet this comment stuck with me. To me, in creating this beautiful community, we are all in it together. Yes, I’m the one leading the service and providing a few words of Torah that I hope will offer insight into coping with the challenges of contemporary life. But really, underneath it all, I’m still just Cheri. The Cheri who drags herself out of bed to go to the gym, who worries about her adult children and little dogs, who is concerned about doing and saying the right thing to those who ask for guidance, etc. So it would just never occur to me that any job connected with our new synagogue would be something I should not be doing. After all, I am part of a whole community, and for that community to actually feel whole, we all have to do our share and realize that no task is too small for any of us to do.
So, it was of great interest to me to read a commentary by Rabbi Benjamin Spratt of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York about this week’s Torah Portion, Tsav, in which he addresses a really important question: With the incredible amount of sacrifice that went on at the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary the Israelites used in the desert after escaping from Egypt) on a daily basis, who actually was in charge of the daily clean up of ashes and charred remains? The answer is not “the janitorial crew” or even “the Levites.” Actually, it was the Kohanim themselves, including Aaron.
Chapter 6, verse 4 states:
וּפָשַׁט, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו, וְלָבַשׁ, בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים; וְהוֹצִיא אֶת-הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, אֶל-מָקוֹם טָהוֹר.
“And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes without the camp unto a clean place.” According to the Biblical commentator Rashi, this was such a messy task that the Kohen Ha’Gadol (High Priest) first changed into dirty clothes in order not to ruin his sacred garments. That would be like asking a surgeon to clean up the operating room to get ready before the next patient comes in for surgery!
There really is nothing wrong or humiliating about having those held in the highest esteem be responsible for this seemingly menial task, which according to medieval Spanish scholar Rabbeinu Bahya, was actually a part of the sacrifice proceedings. We know that there was great pomp and pageantry with the Mishkan sacrificial proceedings and the Kohanim (Priests) were the stars of the show, dressed to the nines, so to speak. Yet they are the same people instructed by God to take out the trash. Daily.
Perhaps everyone needs a daily dose of humility if only to remind us that we are no more important than any other member of our community. As Rabbeinu Bahya notes: “The smallest act from a place of humility is greater than the largest act from a place of arrogance.”
Many years ago, I was a cantorial soloist at a young synagogue that had transformed a suite in an office park into a working synagogue. One day I came into what was considered the sanctuary and I watched a woman painting something beautiful above the Ark. It was some kind of Tree of Life. As I watched her lovingly paint each leaf onto the tree, I thought of how it seemed unfair that I as soloist would receive kudos and praise for my voice while this lady, who was bringing such beauty into our environment, would receive very little. It didn’t seem fair. Her part in bringing joy and beauty to our community with her graceful talent was every bit as important as my vocal offering. I hope she felt as much happiness in her work as I felt (and continue to feel) in mine.
And the same is true for the people who work behind the scenes to keep our new community functioning. Those who bring food to share, give people rides to our services, help set up our room for services, greet people as they arrive, distribute flyers and help promote our events, offer their home for a holiday celebration, meet to share ideas on service projects are each working in some small way to help build and sustain our growing congregation. Every small action contributes to creating a vibrant and — I hope — meaningful community. Because as Jews, we need community, and we need each other. Every act counts. Every task matters.
The Torah portion teaches us that the priests were responsible to keep the fires burning constantly as a sign of the commitment of the Israelites to God. Today, we have the opportunity to show our commitment to God – and to our community -- one task and one mitzvah at a time.
So, while I will continue to be the face and leader of our fledgling and growing congregation, I’ll also continue to sweep up the floor or take out the trash when it’s needed. And I’ll be happy and proud to do so.