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Parashat Naso 5782

June 10, 2022

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What’s Your “Work Work”?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Naso
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

The original sacred ritual space of the Jewish people, the Mishkan, was portable. Whenever the Israelites moved from place to place in the wilderness, the Mishkan would be disassembled and transported to its next location. The Levites were the ones in charge of its porterage, and the different families of the Levites each had different holy objects to carry whenever the Mishkan would travel with the people from place to place.

This is the context for one of the more unusual verses in the Torah, a verse in the beginning of the book of Numbers (Parashat Naso), that describes the Levites’ roles. After specifying that the Levites were to work from age 30 to age 50, the Torah (Numbers 4:47) divides the labors of the Levites into two categories, referred to by the Hebrew expressions avodat avodah and avodat massa.

The second of these expressions, avodat massa, is easier to understand. Avodah means “work” or “service,” and massa means “carrying,” so avodat massa could be translated as “carrying work,” or “porterage work,” referring to the Levites’ roles as the transporters of the sacred items of the Mishkan.

The first expression, though, is more challenging. Avodat avodah is an unusual and redundant phrase. If avodah means “work” or “service,” then avodat avodah could be translated as “the work of service,” or simply “work work.” Some commentators say that this phrase refers to the actual service and ceremonies that would take place in the Mishkan, performed by the Kohanim (who, after all, were a subset of the tribe of Levi); others say that these words refer to labors performed by the Levites to assist the Kohanim with those ceremonies. Still others say that avodat avodah refers to the actual labor of setting up and dismantling the Mishkan before it is to be transported, or to the songs sung by the Levites.

However we are to understand the phrase avodat avodah, “work work,” it is contrasted with avodat massa, the “carrying work” that was necessary in order to bring the components of the Mishkan from place to place. Avodat massa refers to what is necessary to bring the Mishkan to its new location; avodat avodah refers to what actually happens in the Mishkan now that it has arrived to its new place.

Both of these kinds of work are essential. Without the avodat massa, without the transporting of the Mishkan’s components to its next location, the actual work of the Mishkan could never actually take place. And if you had only the avodat massa without the actual avodat avodah, the “work work” that constituted the core purpose of the Mishkan, then what would be the point? You would be carrying all these items to a new place but never using them for their sacred purpose.

The Mishkan lives on today only in our hearts. But each of us, and the Jewish people as a whole, continues to engage in these two kinds of work avodat avodah and avodat massa. We each have our own avodat avodah, our own “work work,” the roles that we feel we have been put here on earth to accomplish, which we might describe as our core mission. And we also each have our own avodat massa, our “carrying work,” referring to all the supportive tasks we have to do to make it possible for us to accomplish our “work work.”

Organizations, too, are sensitive to the need to identify the organization’s avodat avodah, its core mission, and the organization’s avodat massa, the “carrying work” that sustains and strengthens the organization to make sure it is capable of carrying out its core mission. Both of these types of labor are essential. For example, my synagogue relies on numerous volunteers engaged in leading prayer, reading Torah, teaching, performing acts of hesed (lovingkindness) on behalf of the community, and volunteering and advocating for the causes we identify as promoted by the Torah, all of which could be considered examples of how my synagogue sees itself as fulfilling the avodat avodah of the Jewish people. A synagogue could not endure without these volunteers. And a synagogue also could not endure without those who figure out how to pay the bills, how to raise funds, how to clean the carpets, and what kind of insurance coverage we should have, among other vital tasks. These tasks are part of the avodat massa, the “carrying work” of the organization that helps to enable the synagogue to endure so that ever more avodat avodah can be accomplished. (And there are various volunteer roles that may fall into both of these categories.)

We make an error when we dismiss the importance of avodat massa, without which an organization, and the Jewish people, cannot survive. But we make a bigger error when we start to think that the avodat massa actually IS the avodat avodah. Helping an organization to survive is not necessarily the same thing as helping it to achieve its mission. When we are confused about this, we may find ourselves investing tremendous energy in organizations that are not focused on sacred goals.

Decades ago, the journalist Zeev Chafets quipped that the American Jewish community was so focused on survival and so uninterested in mission that the anthem of the American Jewish community appeared to be the old camp song, “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here because we’re here.” That’s the tragic consequence of confusing avodat avodah and avodat massa. They’re both essential, but only when we remember their distinctions can we, our institutions, and the Jewish people as a whole stay focused on doing our “work work.”
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.