When Sarah was a freshman I told her I thought she was bored; that the towers of the university were too narrow for her. That was before she traveled to New Orleans to do Katrina relief; before the following spring when she organized her peers to work on the California/Mexico border; before she decided to join Teach For America, and before she organized a service trip – was it to Central America? – with her inner-city high school students. She is certainly not bored anymore. She tells me there is too much work to do.
According to Jewish tradition, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Our mystics believe every soul born into this world represents something new and unique. We each have distinct gifts that we are called to direct toward repairing our world. It is our job as Jews to discern where the intersection between the world’s great needs and our individual talent’s rest, and to dedicate and rededicate our lives to that work — be it the work of easing suffering, improving literacy or welcoming the stranger. Indeed, the mystics go on to say, it is precisely because this is not done that the world is yet to be redeemed. As if to drive the point home, a first century sage, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said, “If you happen to be planting a tree and someone says the Messiah has arrived, you should finish planting the tree and then go out to greet the Messiah.”
We are told, we will do and then we will hear. Often times it is not until we are working with the homeless that we begin to understand the social dynamics leading to homelessness. It isn’t until we have tutored in an inner-city school that we can even start to comprehend the challenges students face. It is in the doing that we come to hear, and in the hearing that we come to understand; understand that while our work may never be complete, as Jews we are never allowed to sit quietly on the sidelines and ignore life’s biggest social challenges. Sure the Messiah may have arrived but she will have to wait because I am busy combating global warming — now pass me that shovel.
Judaism is a tradition that very much concerns itself with our actions in this world and not the next. How am I treating the person next to me? What am I doing to contribute right now? These values are not placed in the context of mere suggestions or good ideas; they are framed as commandments. And extraordinary things can be accomplished when one feels commanded. Our political or religious differences do not matter. Even if we don’t fully understand the nuances of the topic, what is important is that we do…and then we will hear. And in the doing and the hearing we may begin to feel the command to serve the person in need before us and the image of the Divine that is reflected in their face.
“We are here to make a difference,” says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “To mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion. Where the lonely are not alone, the poor are not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard. ‘Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual obligation.’” And I promise you, you will be too busy to be bored.