It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met.
Who is greater: a person who is obligated to perform a certain act and does, or a person who is not obligated to perform the act but does it anyway? According to modern sensibilities, the second person is a hero, whereas the first may just be a drone. According to the Talmud, however, the first person is the hero. It is often easy and fun to volunteer. Whatever you do is appreciated, and when you get bored, you can stop. It is difficult and rare, however, to fulfill one’s own obligations constantly.
Yes, we appreciate those who go beyond the letter of the law, or go lifnim meshurat hadin. A world in which people fulfill worthy tasks they have not been assigned is likely to be full of pleasant surprises. But that world would not be nearly so pleasant or safe as one in which everyone simply and reliably did his or her duty. To explain the Talmudic hierarchy of values, consider how you respond to deadlines. My writer friends and I have discussed how that a month before a book is due, our closets are clean, our correspondence is updated, our desks are organized, and — while we are getting ourselves and our offices “ready” — our manuscripts are neglected. Human fears and resistance dictate that it is easier to tackle what is discretionary than what is required.
The Torah portion Naso includes laws of the Nazarite. Nazarites assumed additional obligations, beyond the commandments given to all Israelites. They vowed, for a period that could range from 30 days to an entire lifetime, not to cut their hair, not to drink intoxicants, and not to come into contact with dead bodies. Often, the vows were inspired by a danger or illness that was overcome. Other times, piety was the only motive. These men and women went lifnim meshurat hadin. Yet all Nazarites who successfully fulfilled their vows were instructed to present a sin-offering. What was the sin? The Rabbis teach that it was arrogance. Are you so confident of executing the commandments that you take on additional vows? Love of God may well drive that decision, but so, to some degree, does hubris.
Later in Naso, leaders from each tribe bring offerings for the dedication of the altar. Nachson of the tribe Judah comes first, and it takes six verses to list the gifts: one silver dish and one silver basin, each of a certain weight, and each filled with flour and oil; a gold ladle of a certain measure, full of incense; one bullock, two oxen and six goats for various sacrifices. Curiously, this listing is repeated in full for each of the subsequent tribes; all brought the same exact sacrifice.
Yet the Bible takes 77 verses to convey information that might have been communicated in just six or seven lines. This twelvefold repetition in our normally laconic text imparts a message about the equality of the contributions. According to popular interpretation, it shows that no tribe was superior to any other. At the same time, the repetition also drives home the importance of doing what the community does, of bringing what the community brings. Nothing less will do, but something more may be distracting. There is a danger that “more” may be an exercise in self-importance, rather than generosity. And adding new items along the way could lead you to forget a bullock — or a mitzvah.
It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met. Give more when the gifts already promised are on the altar.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, co-editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” will be installed this Friday night as a spiritual leader at Makom Ohr Shalom Congregation in Tarzana.