Census time has come around again in Australia!.
A national census is conducted every half-decade in Australia. It gives us all the opportunity to indulge in a bit of nostalgia as we think back to where we were, what we were doing and what’s changed in our lives in the last five years (That is, apart from growing a little older, a little balder on top or a lighter shade of grey!)
There’s a couple of questions on the census form that never fail to get me thinking. One of them is: What are the main goods usually produced in your job? I wonder, what are the main goods a rabbi produces? Maybe relief from insomnia during his sermons?
And what about this question: What are the main tasks usually performed in your work? I feel like replying: if I list them all, will you read them all?
But last time around it prompted me to reflect on the most unusual things I’d done during my career as a rabbi and my mind went back several years to when I became …. an actor for a day!
No kidding! I got a call: “Rabbi, we want you as an extra for a movie that SBS is screening!” I said “you specifically need me?” “Yes” was the response “we need somebody who can act the part of a rabbi!”
Well, I’d been acting the part of a rabbi for some 20 years at that time, so I figured “why not!”
I turned up for work on the appointed day at the movie set otherwise known as Chabad House of Bondi. I recognised a few familiar faces among my fellow-thespians or should I say fellow extras.
We waited … I made a few phone calls …and we waited…
I opened a sefer, a Jewish book, and started learning which is, after all, acting like a rabbi …. we waited some more …and I discovered that in the acting profession, as one of the pros told me, you are paid for your patience and you’re so grateful to be paid for long hours of doing nothing that you agree to do a few minutes of filming in between pro bono!
Eventually we made it onto the set. The scene was, unfortunately, an all-too-familiar one – a shiva minyan, a house of mourning. The rabbi – that was me – had to lead the line of visitors approaching to wish the mourner long life.
Now that actor playing the part of the mourner appears destined for a very long life – because we must have shot that scene some 30 or 40 times! After every take, we wondered\ “What’s the problem?” Wasn’t it just perfect? No, we were told, the movements weren’t quite correct, too stilted, too fast, too slow, now we have to shoot short lens, now long lens. Lens, shmenz, I thought – I’ve got a Bar Mitsva student waiting for me! No, we have to get it exactly right.
Of course, Murphy’s law kicked in as usual – because on our best take they ran out of film just before the end of the scene!
Eventually we had it perfect – and I was able to make my great escape. “Rabbi, you were terrific” the director said as I was leaving. I smiled sweetly and said “here’s to the next time!” I was half-disappointed and half-relieved that there was no next time.
Why do I relate all this?
There’s a remarkable comment by Rashi, doyen of Bible commentators on a verse we know well from the second paragraph of the Shema (featured in this week’s parasha).. The context is: if we as the nation chosen to serve G-D keep His mitsvot faithfully, we are going to be rewarded, if not we’ll be exiled from our natural home, from the land of Israel. And then we’re told: Place these words of mine on your heart and soul, bind them to your hand and between your eyes. Teach them to your children, speak about them constantly,, write them on the doorposts of your houses …. Practices familiar to every active Jew, tefilin, mezuza, learning and teaching Torah.
It is here that Rashi writes these extraordinary words: Even after you go into exile, even after you wander the globe, be distinguished, excel – the Hebrew word is metsuyanim – through the performance of precepts, and for what reason? So that they won’t be unfamiliar to you when you return to your land!
Astonishing! What Rashi seems to be saying is that the only reason we’re doing mitsvot now, in our pre-messianic, unredeemed world, is for practice. We’re just role-playing so that when Mashiakh, our righteous Messiah, arrives and we return as a complete nation to rebuilt Jerusalem, we won’t have forgotten the Torah and we’ll then be able to keep all His commandments for real.
Can this really be! Are we then just players acting out religious duties, like when I was an actor in that shiva scene for a TV movie? Have we just been acting out the Torah for the last 2,000 years? Has nothing been for real?
Heaven forbid! And in order to explain I again need to draw upon my brief career of half a day as an actor to illustrate what I believe Rashi is really saying here.
On that movie set, we from an untrained perspective were getting more and more frustrated because we thought we’d done the scene so well so many times and this repetition was all a waste of time and energy.
But that’s not the way the professionals saw it – the real major actors, the producer, the director. They saw with their trained eye that with every take we did we were getting better and better, we were drawing closer and closer to the level of excellence that was required – and then finally we broke through the barrier and we achieved it!
That’s what Rashi is saying. Not that we are, Heaven forbid, only dong the mitsvot here and now, for pretence, for a play. But rather that with every daily donning of tefilin, with every word of Torah learned and taught, with every coin placed in every charity box, in every home or synagogue, with every word of genuine comfort to the bereaved, to the sick, to the lonely, with every Shema said, we are getting closer to perfection, nearer to the level of excellence that will turn this unredeemed world into a redeemed world, tikun olam bemalkhut Sha-dai, a perfect world under the rulership of G-D and Godly values.
Rashi cites as a proof text a verse from Jeremiah hatsivi lakh tsiunim, erect signposts for yourselves. Tsiunim, related to tsion, Zion, refers to Jerusalem. But tsiunim is also related to metsuyanim meaning to be distinguished in excellence, that same word Rashi uses in his comment. “Establish for yourselves renewed levels of excellence” is what Rashi understands Jeremiah to be saying.
Another Rosh HaShana beckons! Another new year! Every year we make resolutions to practise our Judaism a little better. Do we always succeed? Do we ever succeed? These are questions we may ask ourselves in moments of frustration.
As bit-players – as we all are – in the movie called Life on the Global Operations film set, we can’t see how we may be inching closer and closer to the goal – just as we novice actors could not see how our performances on that movie set were getting any better – but the Global Operations Director or G.O.D. for short, does see and He does take note. He sees a Jew improving slowly but surely in his grasp of prayer-book Hebrew, in her charity-giving, or in his and her attachment to the keeping of Shabbat or strict kosher living or growth in Jewish learning.
A little bit better, a little bit closer – it may be any moment now that our G.O.D. will say “cut – that’s the final take! And here is the star of my show, Ben David himself, to take you all on giant eagles’ wings to the Holy Land in preparation for the grand climax of world history and destiny”.
And so, to return to the census forms and to the question that prompted this whole spiel. What are the main task usually performed in your work?
The reality is that whether we’re rabbis, doctors, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, students, retirees or indeed professional actors, if we’re Jewish – which is our main job in life – there’s only one way to answer that question. It isn’t the answer the Federal Government is looking for. But had I been bold enough, this is what I would have written on that census form: “The main task performed in my work is to practise towards perfection”. Because that’s what really counts!
Perhaps I’ll be bold enough to write those words on the form this time around!