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Bemidbar 5783 - Assign Each Person to Their Task

May 20, 2023 - 29 Iyar, 5783

In a small synagogue community, everyone has a hand in every process and program. Volunteer email chains go out to half of the congregation, and our building is often bustling with people working on our finances, security, kitchen, or rabbinic search process. While the communal passion for our congregation is exciting, that passion sometimes leads to confusion about who is responsible for what. We have had weekends when two people have thought they were sponsoring or preparing the oneg and Kiddush lunch, and we have had two people make the same phone call or send out the same email email. Even in a volunteer setting, we have learned time and time again the importance of clarity in assignment of roles. Of course, we are not the first to learn such a lesson.

In Parshat Bemidbar, when God commands the Levites to carry out their specific roles, God models the clear communication and boundaries needed to carry out holy work. The descendents of Gershon are tasked with carrying and assembling the mishkan’s outer cords, coverings, hanging, and screens (Numbers 3:25-26). The descendents of Kahat are tasked with caring for the holy objects inside - the ark, table, menorah, altars, and other sacred utensils (3:31). The Merarites are tasked with carrying and assembling the planks and posts of the mishkan (3:36-37). Finally, Aaron and his sons - the Kohanim - are responsible for the active bringing of sacrifices and all care associated with the inner sanctuary (3:38). No Levite may intrude on anyone else’s assignment, especially on the assignments of the Kohanim, lest they die (4:19-20).

While at the synagogue, we may not encounter the consequences of life or death associated with division of tasks, we know well the relationships that can be affected by one person stepping on another’s toes. We know well that projects can be held up by too many cooks in the kitchen. Even worse, when too many people are involved in one task or project, we know well that other projects may be left undesignated and unfinished. Our 15th-16th century Italian rabbi Ovadiah ben Yaakov Seforno puts God’s assignments into surprisingly modern terms. He comments on the verse:

And assign each person to his job and his task. (Num. 4:19)

Assign each person to his job and his task in order to avoid a free for all. By doing this, you will ensure that each Levite will wait patiently until his turn comes to carry out his assigned duty (Seforno).

With clear assignments for not only each group of Levites, but also, each individual, the many pieces of the mishkan can efficiently be assembled and disassembled, and the sacrifices can be completed with the utmost care and sanctity. 

In both our volunteerism at Agudath Achim and elsewhere in our lives, we can benefit from the mindset of clear communication and role assignments as sacred responsibilities. When one person is assigned to take charge, that person must be the one to delegate and to carry out the tasks for which she volunteered. When one community member decides to contribute his time and energy, that time and energy should be public enough knowledge that a second person will not spend his time and energy accomplishing the same exact thing. Just as each of the Levites are assigned a specific role, when we head committees or groups, we can make sure that every single person has a job to do, so that no one feels left out or tempted to do something upon which the group has not agreed. Once a person completes a task, if they are itching for more, they should be assigned another task by the person responsible for delegation. Remember: You are very, very rarely the only person who can or even is willing to get the job done. In a rewording of Rabbi Tarfon’s lesson in Pirkei Avot: While you are not free to neglect [the work], it is not upon you [alone] to finish it! (Pirkei Avot 2:16ish)

This Sunday afternoon, we will vote on our updated congregational constitution. Our new constitution outlines the specific responsibilities of members, clergy, the board, and its officers. Whether or not you approve of the particular roles for each, I hope you are as excited as I am that we have these baseline assignments and that we are reviewing them as a community. Also on Sunday, we will have the opportunity to sign up for specific committees, set aside for specific tasks. At our annual meeting, we have the chance to fulfill the model God sets forth in Parshat B’midbar. By reevaluating each individual committee and role, we are continuing and expanding our position as a thriving Jewish community, a home for positive relationships, and a center for the sacred work set out by our Torah.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784