A friend recently told me he had served only half of his term volunteering on a committee when he received a letter retiring him from it. Months earlier he had actually offered to step down because professional responsibilities made his attendance uneven, but he was reassured that even his irregular participation was valued. “I reached out to the head of the commission to convey the hurt caused by the impersonal, unexpected letter” he conveyed, “a call or some more personal outreach would have felt fitting.” Curious, I asked, “What did the commission head say in response?”
“I still haven’t gotten one” he lamented.
We reveal our sincerity not only by our handling of a situation, but also by how we respond to any mishandling of it. Packages with fragile content used to read, ’Handle with care’. Yet how often are people and sensitive situations handled clumsily. And today’s trend toward multi-tasking does not suggest that things are poised to improve. All year long we weigh our words and our works. On this eve of the High Holy Days, it is time to measure our ways.
This week’s portion of Torah points to substantial consequences for not performing even a correct work in the proper way. “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness for the abundance of everything” (Deut. 28:47). The ways we perform mitzvot, literally the ways we lend form to generous deeds matters deeply. One person warmly apologizes for being unable to help a homeless person seeking financial support, while another abruptly stuffs $20 into his collection jar just to shut him up. A purely outcomes-based analysis makes it clear that money will help more than the kind words will, but our tradition urges us to be purposeful, sincere, and sensitive with human contact and connection.
Social scientists have also discovered that effort matters. When you perceive that somebody is really trying, that she or he is genuinely struggling to make something right, this can matter more to you than the actual result of such efforts. In this sense, effort shows that you care and thus becomes a measurable result in and of itself.
As we approach the Jewish New Year, we are mindful that our response to mishandled incidents of the past can also be telling. There’s a way if there’s a will. May this be the season when we find the will.