Volunteering for the Jewish community is not a new phenomenon. Those who know some Bible often point to Exodus 25:1, when God invited the Israelites to offer their gifts for the construction of the tabernacle. Biblical sacrifice, the primary way of connecting with God, allows for individuals to make a free will or voluntary offering as well. (Leviticus 22:21).
In the Middle Ages, a structure of volunteer societies existed to meet social welfare and educational needs. And many of today’s venerable educational and social welfare organizations grew from pressing, unmet needs which arose over a century ago. So if volunteering is so deeply embedded in Jewish culture, why do we lack a vocabulary to describe the act of volunteering? (And thanks to Jill Friedman Fixler for raising this question.)
Here’s my guess: from Biblical through the late medieval periods, the framework within the Jewish community for doing good was that of “commandment” or “obligation.” Doing good was not optional, but obligatory. In fact, the Talmud states that one who is commanded to fulfill a right action is actually greater than one who voluntarily takes on an obligation. That idea runs counter to our thinking today. Many of us probably believe that doing good because you want to is superior to doing good because you have to.
But at a time when we value autonomy, maybe it’s time to develop a vocabulary for the act of volunteering for a congregation. Having such terms can heighten appreciation for the work of volunteers and rethink our relationships with them. For example, the root meaning of the Biblical Hebrew word for a voluntary offering translates as “noble.” That can suggest that we consider some acts of volunteering as acts of nobility. For those who know Hebrew, what words would you suggest? And for everyone, aside from “volunteer,” are there other English terms we might use? Looking forward to hearing from you.
Rabbi Hayim Herring