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What is greater? Volunteering or Doing What You Have to Do?

Thursday, 13 February, 2020 - 6:08 pm

Who is greater, a volunteer or one who is just doing their job? In our society we generally value volunteer above all else. An employee who does their job is not valued as much as one who goes above and beyond and is willing to step up and volunteer. In a relationship the day to day, mundane and basic things we do for each other are not appreciated as much as the extras, the gifts or flowers etc. There is a good reason for this. A person who does their job or fulfills their requirement is just doing what they need to do, whereas a volunteer has accepted something on themselves for which they had no obligation.

There is, however, another way to look at it. It is true from the perspective of the volunteer, they have done something they did not have to do, and this is admirable. But in terms of relationship and connection to another, if you think about it, it is not necessarily so. At the end of the day, a volunteer’s motivation is the fact that they have chosen to do something. Even an altruistic act, if done as a volunteer, is still the decision of the person who did it, and therefore on some level self-centered. Sometimes an act is motivated by great spiritual heights, and often it is a wonderful thing that brings great benefit, and that is really wonderful, but it is nevertheless a decision made by the volunteers. When someone does what they are required to do by another, the motivation is to fulfill the other’s needs, and this creates a much greater bond.

Think of an employee hired as a receptionist who decides to spend a lot of time making sales calls. He or she might actually bring in some income to the company, but when the largest customer shows up there is nobody available to greet them, and they get mad and cancel their order. The boss is angry at the receptionist, who points out all the sales they made. The boss’s response is that they were hired to be present when the customer shows up, and by doing something else, no matter how noble, they defeated the purpose of their employment. The connection between the boss and the employee is obviously not going to be enhanced by the volunteer work, and in fact in this case the employee will be lucky to keep their job. 

We need both - to go beyond the letter of the law and do more than is required is noble and necessary, but to fulfill the requirements set for us by Hashem is what makes our connection with Him. A Mitzvah done as a voluntary act feels good, and is often very good and uplifting, but a Mitzvah done because we are commanded connects us with the One who commanded it. In a marriage, there are times when the couple feels very close to each other and does all kinds of favors for each other. Then there are times when they feel a little distant. Even so, they continue to do the things that make a marriage go around. If you think about it, the acts done when the couple feels distant from each other are much more meaningful in terms of sustaining the bond between them, because they show that the underlying connection is more important than the current mood.

The above analogy will help explain why the Giving of the torah at Mount Sinai, that we read about in this week’s Parsha, was such a big deal.  There was a great revelation of Hashem, as the verse says “Hashem came down onto Mount Sinai,” with thunder and lightning and great miraculous sights.  Why? The Jews already knew what the Mitzvot were, and our forefathers kept the Torah before it was given. (Tonight we will discuss how Avraham kept the Mitzvah of remembering and mentioning the Exodus from Egypt every day, before the slavery in Egypt even started.) So what was all the fuss about? The answer is that until Sinai, whatever the forefathers observed was volunteered. They weren’t commanded to do it, so as holy and spiritual as their Mitzvot were, they did not connect the physical world with Hashem. The only exception was the circumcision, which was commanded to Avraham and his children. It was only after the commandments were given at Sinai that a physical Mitzvah done in the physical world by a physical person can create a true connection and bond with Hashem. Because now the Mitzvah is no longer something we do on our terms, as volunteers, but something we are doing because Hashem commanded it, and therefore connecting us to Him on His terms.

A rabbi once told me that she feels sorry for me that I “can’t choose for myself” and only do things that others tell me. I let the “can’t choose for myself” part go, and told her that doing only what I choose is all about myself, and only by doing Hashem’s Mitzvot because they are His Mitzvot lifts me above myself and connects me to the eternal.

This is why a Mitzvah is translated not only as ‘commandment,’ but also as ‘connection’ (related to the Hebrew word ‘Tzavta’). We can stay on our level and do nice things because they make us feel good and spiritual, but the gift of the giving of the Torah is that we can lift ourselves up and connect to the Eternal.

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