Imitate God By TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE
You can tell a great deal about someone by just observing them for a while. Observe how someone is dressed, the kind of work they do, how they are addressed and how they address others and you can determine a person’s social standing. A boss is generally called by title—like doctor—or by Mr./Ms. and the last name. A secretary is often called by the 1st name. The boss generally doesn’t make the coffee, or water the plants. The secretary does. Even at home up until the last generation, it was the wife—even if she was working—who did most of the menial tasks at home. Today there is more of a sharing of responsibilities—but, unfortunately, not always.
We tend to associate service tasks like cleaning, feeding, watering with a lower social status. The more powerful and important a person is, the less they are likely to sully their hands with them.
Consider, for example, the path of a very motivated and intelligent young man. For a 1st job, he might deliver papers or work in a fast-food restaurant clearing dishes. All who know him would admire his discipline, energy and seriousness. But if he’s still doing this kind of work 10 years later, his parents will wring their hands in frustration at his lack of ambition.
During his college years, he might volunteer to work in a politician’s office licking envelopes and answering the phone—again, a laudable demonstration of determination, drive and a desire to help build a better world. But if he’s still doing this at the age of 30, no one will see this as status-enhancing. We expect a certain progression so that at some point, to retain our respect and admiration, this young man had better acquire an office of his own with his name on the door—or at least on a website. And we don’t expect him to answer his own phones either. The less menial tasks he does, the more we recognize his power and success.
If you’re eager for prestige, don’t be the one bringing drinks to your co-workers. Such a hierarchy of values creates a competition to force others to care for you while you don’t reciprocate. But this is not the Jewish way!
In today’s Torah portion, Gd compares the Land of Israel, which the Children of Israel are about to enter, to the Land of Egypt. Praising the land Gd says, “There [Egypt] the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors…but the land you are about to cross into and possess…soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which Hashem your Gd looks after.”
The Midrash (Sifre Devarim) tells the story of a group of Rabbis who were at a banquet held by the Nasi, the head of the Jewish world, Rabban Gamaliel, in honor of his son. Rabban Gamaliel made a point of himself preparing and serving the wine, which one of the subordinate Rabbis refused to drink, not wanting to appear to compromise the stature of the Nasi. His colleague, Rabbi Joshua, responded, “Let him serve. After all…if Abraham, one of the great ones of the world, served those he thought were pagans, should not Gamaliel…serve us?”
Rabbi Tzadok went even further in praise of serving others: “You have ignored Gd’s honor in order to deal with the honor of flesh-and-blood. But if the One-who-spoke-and-the-world-came-into-being causes winds to blow, brings up clouds, brings down rains and raises vegetation, thus setting a table for everyone, why should Gamaliel…not serve us?”
Rabbi Tzadok and Rabbi Joshua understood that a person’s dignity is not enhanced by refusing to serve others. Dignity is an inner quality—an ability to care about others and to embody responsibility and righteousness in one’s deeds. Abraham serves as the paradigm example of a prominent figure who saw his own dignity enhanced by personally attending to the physical needs of others.
The ultimate role model of such caring for others, Rabbi Tzadok taught, is Gd, Who causes the rain to fall as a demonstration of His love and support. If Gd and Abraham don’t link status with a refusal to help others, then why should we? Perhaps the foolish fear that one’s dignity would be compromised by bringing someone a cup of coffee or by watering their plants. This is nothing more than an admission of insecurity—as if such trivialities really could diminish one’s inner worth.
The ultimate example of this for me was our founding president, may he rest in peace, Dr. Allen Rosenthal. Allen, as we know, was a very prominent doctor of dentistry. What many of us do not know because he was so modest is that he was internationally renowned in his field. He taught at the Emory School of Dentistry and was sought after to lecture far and wide. He loved fine things, dressed in unusual but fine clothes and always carried himself with dignity. However, on any given Sunday morning, you could see him with a vacuum in his hand cleaning up after the Shabbos Kiddush. He was the 1st to volunteer to build the Sukkah or to clean up before Passover. Did all this diminish his dignity? Hardly!
It reminds me of the story several years ago when a young couple came before Rabbi Mordecai Gifter—Rosh Yeshiva of Tells—asking him to rule on a family dispute. The husband was a student in Rabbi Gifter’s Kollel and felt that as one who studied Torah all day, it was beneath his dignity to take out the garbage. His wife felt otherwise. Rabbi Gifter concluded that while the husband should, in fact, help his wife, he had no halachic obligation under Jewish law to take out the garbage.
Early the next morning before services, Rabbi Gifter knocked on the door of thy young couple’s apartment. Startled, the young man invited Rabbi Gifter in. “No,” responded the great rabbi, “I’ve not come to socialize but to take out your garbage. You may believe it’s beneath your dignity, but it’s not beneath mine!”
We see this as well in the Torah (Lev. 6:3), where the 1st task of the kohanim, the priests, the holiest of people, every day in the Temple of old was to remove the garbage—the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices.
What is true dignity? Where does it come from? True dignity comes from being a Baal Chesed, from serving others and making their world a little brighter as did Abraham, the rabbis of the Midrash, Rabbi Gifter and Dr. Allen Rosenthal. May we be so dignified. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis