Music is an amazing tool for learning. When I was a kid, I learned a lot of Jewish music. It wasn’t choir music, or strictly for prayer. No, I learned “everything” Jewish through music. I sang parts of Pirkei Avot (Sayings of our Fathers), Israeli pioneering songs from kibbutz life, Torah verses, Israeli pop songs and commercials, and even, yes, a lot of liturgy.
It happened on autopilot. I wasn’t forced into anything. There was no strong emphasis on performance. It was “Naaseh v’nishmah,” “We will do and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:7) When you participate and enjoy singing, sometimes the words sink in. I remember my mom putting on records (of Jewish music) and I’d roll around the living room rug, listening and singing.
When Christian classmates were busy memorizing Bible verses to earn rewards at church, they’d ask me how many I could recite. I had no idea what to say. “Oh,” I’d say, “We don’t do that.” We did do that, I realize now, but it was so intuitive, so much a part of our daily experience, that I never even noticed what was happening. I knew the words, in Hebrew and English. I understood them, but I never thought of it as reciting religious text. It was part of a summer camp song session, or a regular Sunday at religious school, or in the prayers we sang at services.
Years later, I still have that musical memory bank. It comes in handy. Recently, exhausted and stressed, I was able to sing along without thinking when someone introduced a new tune at services. It might have been new to others, but I’d heard it before. I also used this treasure trove to dig up something I needed to think about – work/life balance.
Rabbi Tarfon said the day is short and there’s a lot of work, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the master of the house is pressing – it’s not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:15)
I remembered the whole quote by hearing a bit of the tune in my head. Suddenly, I was singing to myself on the street as I walked to an errand. I went home to look it up on sefaria.org, an online nonprofit that offers open-source access to Jewish texts.
The bigger issue that I wrestled with was that of work and community involvement. How much is enough? How can we decide where to invest our time and why?
I don’t think of myself as a big volunteer, but lately I’ve become overwhelmed. I had to reduce my volunteer load. Managing my work, household, kids, community commitments and health felt like too much. Only one thing might need more time – an extra freelance job, a couple kids sick with viruses or a volunteer gig – and the whole tower of cards will tumble.
As a relative newcomer to Canada, I cannot call up a family member in the neighbourhood or a longtime friend to bail me out. Our extended families are far away. Although some friends might be able to help, they, too, are caring for kids, juggling jobs, etc. It’s my observation that many newcomers feel this way. The process that recruited them to Canada felt very positive, but after that? It can be a daily struggle. It’s hard to find a place in a community where long-established families have strong roots.
So, what does Rabbi Tarfon have to do with this? Well, this song helped me realize that, while I felt deep responsibilities towards my commitments, I couldn’t “finish them” on my own. I could work, volunteer and try to help, but our effort has to be a communal one. It’s not all my personal responsibility – and if my health or family’s well-being is at stake, that has to come first.
Bringing a good attitude to the work we do is important. We can’t all be like the curmudgeons on the Muppets. Those grouchy men are the ones who sit in the balcony, scowls on their faces, as they criticize all the other Muppets who put on the show. Instead, we need to each do our share, because the grouchy puppets in the corner aren’t contributing.
We have to stop ourselves when our efforts to contribute become too much, too taxing and risk our well-being. When we start criticizing everyone else? It’s time for a break – because we aren’t finishing all that work by ourselves, in any case.
What we are doing is contributing to a whole, healthy (Jewish) community. And, if you keep reading, Rabbi Tarfon says, “If you have learned much Torah, your reward will be much.” This is an interesting circular argument. The rabbi suggests we work hard, and we do our share. Then we’re rewarded for our learning. Guess what? My reward for stepping back from volunteering was more time to study Rabbi Tarfon’s wisdom. I learned it again – and now offer it to you. That’s a sign of a healthier work cycle.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is now available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.