The story goes that in medieval Europe two people were laying bricks, and were asked, “what are you doing?” One said, “I’m laying bricks, can’t you see?” The other said, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Back in the 1970s, at the beginning of feminism, a woman’s work in the home was demeaned and a woman’s career in the marketplace was esteemed. Leaving aside that things turned out to be rather more complicated, the work that a woman (or man) performs is appraised from the perspective of the worker.
Example. Part 1: A woman bakes at home. It’s hot in the kitchen. She is not paid for her labor. It takes a lot of time. One woman can say: “This is drudgework.” Another woman can say: “I am nurturing my most precious possessions, my children.”
Part 2: A woman owns a bakery. It’s hot in the bakery. She is paid for her labor. It takes a lot of time. One female bakery owner can say: “This is a horrible way to make a living.” Another female bakery owner can say: “I’m proud of my independence and entrepreneurship.”
It’s the same work. Why the different responses to it? It’s all a matter of perspective. One person is fixated on the grime in the work; the other is achieving something great, be it a family or a career. One sees mortar; the other, a cathedral.
THIS week’s Torah portion makes the point with respect to the hot and messy Altar in the Tabernacle. The priests — the elite, the upper caste, as it were — were commanded to deal in ashes; in two ways, no less.
First, a priest must scoop up a shovelful from the innermost ashes of the burnt flesh of the previous day’s offering. That’s the priest’s first order of the day: Scoop up ashes (Lev. 6:3). Second, a priest must clean the excess ashes from the Altar and take them away (Lev. 6:4).
That’s it: The upper caste mucks around in the ashes.
One priest might say: “This is drudgework. Worse, I can’t get out of it! The priesthood is hereditary. I have no choice. I’m stuck with this dirt work for life.”
Another priest might say: “I am privileged to play an indispensable role in reconciling Jews with their Creator in the Holy Tabernacle. I can’t thank G-d enough for my lineage.”
It’s all the same work. It’s all a matter of perspective.
IN any Jewish community some people contribute more than others; some raise the standards of the community — and others lower them. Some strive to be helpful and pious; others couldn’t care less. Some sparkle; some smell — as in the incense offered on the Altar. It contains eleven ingredients. One of them is the chelbenah.
Yet, the incense was incomplete and invalid if the chelbenah were omitted. It was essential, writes Rashi (Keritot 6b), in order to teach that “any fast in which the sinners of Israel are not included is not a fast; for behold the chelbenah. Its smell was bad yet it was counted by Scripture among the spices of the incense.” Rashi elaborates, “It should not be unimportant in our eyes to include the sinners of Israel in our groups of fasting and prayer.”
To this, one might respond:
“It is tough enough to concentrate in prayer; the last thing I need is a sinner alongside me. He smells, so to speak. Let him straighten him- self out before entering the holy precincts of the house of prayer.”
The Torah wants us to respond very differently:
“Who am I to rank myself above the sinners? They humble me and make it possible for me to be sincere in my prayers. My job is to make certain that I am fragrant, so to speak; not to focus on the failings of others.”
It’s all a matter of perspective.*
THE Talmud relates that Onkelos ben Kalonimus was a righteous convert who was able to convince his Roman guard to convert to Judaism with a single comment.
He told the guard that with earthly kings, each officer of the king holds a torch before his superior officer, until the second-in-command holds a torch in honor of the king him- self. It is a long line of honor leading to the king. In contrast, G-d Himself holds the torch for His people, as it says in Exodus (13:21): “The L-rd went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel day and night.”
When the Roman guard heard the love that G-d has for His people, he abandoned his mission to arrest Onkelos and converted to Judaism.
Another guard was sent to arrest Onkelos, who offered another single comment. The guard forsook his mission and converted to Judaism.
Finally, another guard was dispatched with strict orders not to engage in any dialogue with Onkelos. As Onkelos was being escorted from his home, he kissed the mezuzzah. The guard asked why. Onkelos answered: The way of the world is that kings sit inside and the servants guard him from the outside. With the L-rd, the servants sit in their homes and G-d stands outside to protect them, as it says: “The L-rd is your protector, the L- rd is your shadow by your right hand” (Psalms 121:5).
This guard, too, converted to Judaism.**
One person might say: “To persuade a person of the correctness of Judaism, I must offer a comprehensive justification of Judaism’s theology of one G-d, its stress on community, and the meaning of its ritual.”
Another person might say: “A single, sincere, piercing comment does it all.”
It’s all a matter of perspective.
* For more on the implications of the chelbenah and many other beautiful Jewish ethical teachings, see The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, by Berel Wein and Warren Goldstein (Maggid, 2012).
** As told in Bring out the Best: A Jewish Guide to Building Fami- ly Esteem, by Yisroel Roll (Targum, 2009), based on tractate Avodah Zarah 11a.
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