True service: No act too humble, no person too great

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Tzav – Leviticus 6.1-8.36

“He (Moses) washed the innards and the feet {of the offering} (Leviticus 8.21).”

Many Chicagoans are familiar with the name Zollie Frank, or, for short, Z. Frank, associated with a large-scale, full-service automobile enterprise, an important component, at the time, of the General Motors industry. He is also credited, by many, with an early introduction of rental automobiles. But his significance to me, personally is on an entirely different plane.

When I arrived in Chicago to take the post of Senior Rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel, Zollie himself, though busily engaged in his own work, took the time to drive me extensively around the North Shore to get the feel of the area and, in his main office, to talk with me about the substance and accomplishment of success. He took it as a great favor to him personally that I, myself, would subsequently affix the mezuzah and say the prayers at his new home, where later I performed the outdoor wedding of his son Charles (Chuck) and his wife, Deborah, and during which, I first heard Elaine, Zollie’s wife, singing so beautifully as she did regularly on such personal occasions. Literally, a rainbow shined over that wedding.

Surpassing all of these has been my personal amazement over the years, and to this day, at the breadth and scope of the philanthropies of the entire Frank family, as well as the services of members of his family to Jewish causes and to the general advancement of the community; philanthropy, seemingly without end. Beginning with Elaine, often in memory of her husband Zollie, these have ranged from hospitals to the humanities, from educational institutions to environmentalism (such as the closing of coal-burning furnace factories in Chicago) to leadership in the Sierra Club Organization, highest leadership in great institutions of education, such as the University of Chicago, to Jewish Community Centers and camps, and the funding of various performances and productions such as those of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. One might call these, and many, many more, an iconic representation of the Jewish ideal of Tzedakah/charitable giving, parallel to the enormous contributions of the Crown Family which has played a huge role in philanthropic enrichment of the life of the Chicago Community, Israel and elsewhere throughout the world.

Zollie himself came into my mind particularly recently when I read the Biblical verse (Leviticus 8.21): “He (Moses) washed the innards and the legs {of the sacrifice} with water (Leviticus 8.21).”

As if not wanting to accept the assertion in the Torah, though stated plainly, that Moses himself would do such a humble service to G-d as washing the innards of a sacrificial animal, the new Torah translation avoids the literal text and changes the exact meaning of the text by rendering the Torah verse in an impersonal and passive manner: “the innards and the feet were washed with water.” This avoids the idea that Moses himself would perform such a humble task. But it seems to me that the text is trying to communicate just that; no service to G-d, even if we might consider it humble and even demeaning, is unimportant. So the text states plainly and directly that Moses himself washed the innards and feet of the sacrifice performed at the installation of levitical priests. Moses does not “order” or “arrange” the washing of the innards and the feet. He does this very humble service himself.

In connection with this text, I thought of Zollie. Why? Two memories come to mind. When my wife Tamar, and I first arrived in Chicago, we naturally had, at the beginning, very few pieces of rental furniture in our home. I remember Zollie sitting on the floor while methodically and tediously going over the names of members of the congregation, those who could help make up a few hundred thousand dollar deficit in the budget of the congregation, which I told him I had discovered when I arrived.

But the following instance is even more important. Zollie, you see, was one of a few people in the congregation who made it possible to build the now famous Yamasaki sanctuary of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe. What is the instance to which I refer?

After I arrived, a janitor told me that he had witnessed Zollie, on the evening before the first service, no one else being present, the janitor saw Zollie himself sweeping the carpet. Apparently Zollie did not consider this a task too lowly for him to perform.

Over the years I have noticed different reactions to Service Honors awarded to various persons in the congregation during the High Holidays for their service to community or to the congregation. On the one hand, I remember persons who would become irate because they were given an honor which they thought was less distinguished, like opening the doors of the Ark, while someone else had been awarded, a higher honor, so they thought, such as saying a blessing before reading the Torah.

On the other hand, I remember the delight of the patriarch of the hugely philanthropic Crown family and the delight of his children, when Colonel Henry Crown was simply asked to sit on  the bimah during one of the services.

The point of Moses washing the innards and the feet of an offering is to communicate that in the service of G-d no act is too humble. It might be simply stopping to take the time to give a “hello” and smile to someone who, by most people, would not at all be considered to be “significant” or “important.” It might be making telephone calls for a worthwhile cause or signing up people for a helpful event; no credit given.

Poets and philosophers have expressed the same idea: One is by the Hebrew poet Levi ben Ammitai; is called “In the small Kibbutz).”

By day I rake manure

Under foot of cows in the stable,

Or knead the clay to close a breech,

Or lead the horses out to graze.

 

Humble and low my portion in Your great world O G-d

The role of the splitters of wood and carriers of water

A nameless worker, one of those

Who do low service in Jerusalem.

 

And in the evening I wash my hands in a shirt of white.

As if  amidst a gathering of priests, I take my place,

And on this simple bread, my portion;

I say the prayer of thanks to G-d.

 

And on this simple bread, yes, as if among the ancient Levites,

I lift unto You a melody of praise;

“Praised are You O G-d for the rejuvenating dung,

And for this piece of bread, and for the joy of prayer.

 

Or these famous lines from the blind poet, John Milton:

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent,

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning, chide.

“Doth G-d exact day-labor, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “G-d doth not need

Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best

Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is Kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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