Serving Royalty Every Day
"Do you see people who are skilled in their work? They will serve before royalty; they will not serve before obscure people." -Proverbs 22:29
When we came upon this verse in our congregational Proverbs study group, I was taken aback for more than a moment. There is something in this verse that points to greatness, but it seems to do so with a tinge of elitism. One could interpret this verse to mean that people do their work well only if they end up serving the most important leaders in society, who have greater value than the "common people."
This bothered me, partially because I have served for most of my rabbinate in small congregations. There may tend to be a lingering sense in American life that "large" means great. Some people still may believe that larger synagogues in larger metropolitan areas are necessarily great due to their size and location. They may very well be great, but greatness is not tied only to the size of a community.
My years spent serving congregations of 100-150 families have taught me, over and over, the positive impact that a few people, or even one person, can have on the lives of others, or on my life. Over the years, there have been many fulfilling and spiritual moments in prayer and song and ah-ha insights that emerged from "small but mighty" study groups. While I have officiated at the same number of bar and bat Mitzvah services during 28 years as some large congregations have in the course of two years, working with every student has been a joy. Small congregations and communities offer the possibility of minimal distance between clergy and congregant. While no city where I have served has had a population greater than 200,000 people, I have had a chance to meet Senators, congressional representatives, governors, members of the President's cabinet, one future president, mayors, and other individuals who made significant contributions to American life.
However, none of those encounters with public officials are the essence of my rabbinate.l If I and other rabbis serving small congregations and communities are doing our tasks well and with skill, then, in light of the Proverbs verse, we must be serving royalty. We can take this verse to mean that every one of our members has the potential to make a valuable contribution to the well-being of a congregation and to our lives. I would like to think that no one is obscure - and that serving with skill means finding a way to be sure that no one feels obscure or insignificant.
In recent days, magazines such as Newsweek and websites such as MyJewishLearning.com have compiled lists of America's "top rabbis." I see these efforts of ranking rabbis as productive when those lists include some of the very rabbis who have taught me some of the most valuable lessons I have learned.
Still, I find myself trying to reconcile the "top rabbis" list with Proverbs 22:29. When I do, it takes the verse to a place where I don't really want it to go in creating a narrow measure of success. Then I turn to Rami Shapiro's translation of Proverbs 22:29, which can be helpful to all of us in defining our own greatness: "A hard worker can stand tall before kings; there is no greater honor than honest labor.
And, finally, there is this Talmudic saying that puts us all on the same level:
“I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also a creature of God. I work in the city and my neighbor lives in the country. I rise early for my work and my neighbor rises early for work. Just as my neighbor cannot excel in my work, I cannot excel in my neighbor's work. Will you say that I do great things and my neighbor does small things? We have learned that it does not matter whether a person does much or little as long as one directs one's heart to Heaven.”
Every day, may we see the royalty and greatness in those we serve and within ourselves as we continue to do our work with dedication, enthusiasm and sincerity.