By Ethan Balgley
Why do I get up and go to work every morning? To explain, I want to examine why in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, the Israelites bring all of their most valuable possessions to contribute to the building of a Mishkan. Moshe tells the Israelites everything they will need in order to construct the Tabernacle: precious metals, dyed fabrics, oil and spices, lumber and rope. Almost immediately, the people began bringing these materials, with such enthusiasm that the builders soon came to Moshe to ask him to order them to stop, since they had brought more than enough. Weird stuff happens in the Torah all the time, sure, but let’s think about this with a bit of psychological realism for a moment. Why would the Israelites bring so many of their cherished possessions that the builders felt compelled to stop them after what seems to have been a few days at most?
The text gives us a suggestion: the donors were “everyone whose heart stirred him up.” Now, by this point in Shemot (Exodus) we’ve already seen God harden Pharaoh’s heart numerous times, so divine manipulation is certainly a possibility. And last week we read Parshat Ki Tisa, where the Levi’im kill 3,000 blasphemers in connection with the golden calf incident, so sheer terror could also be at play here. As my speculations might suggest, I’m interested in taking this episode as a parable on motivation. However, I want to set these more sinister possibilities aside and focus on questions relating to social change and a sense of purpose. How do our hearts stir us up? To what ends? What about when we don’t feel stirred? How can we integrate this into a long-term purpose? And how can we develop sensitivity to the broader scheme of things—that is, a sense of place to balance our sense of purpose? In this post I’d like to use the example of the Israelites in this parshah to develop a framework for building a purposeful commitment to social change.
The use of the word “heart” in the text is, I think, revealing of the fact that motivation is tightly bound up with emotions. We act on the basis of love, or anxiety, or empathy, annoyance, nostalgia, or a host of other emotional states. Actually, my use of “or” here is somewhat suspect—motivation is complex, and being “stirred” by a single emotion is the exception, not the rule. Daily life, and more to the point, sustained social justice action, is fueled by the mundane and mixed feelings of compromised and compromising human beings, not by grand gestures of pure anger or compassion. For instance, why do I get up and go to work every morning? Certainly I feel empathy for my clients, anger over their plight, and frustration with the problems faced by my placement organization, but I am also keen to not lose my job, to impress my supervisors for the sake of future references, to boost my own ego by cultivating a self-image as a righteous person.
How do we move from these complex and proximal motivations to a coherent sense of purpose over the long term? I think we can extract two interdependent answers from the parshah: first, to take immediate action guided by the elements of short-term motivation that align with the purpose one wants to construct—as in bringing the materials; and second, to put those actions toward institutions that will reflect and sustain that purpose more stably than can an individual—as in building the Mishkan. I want to explicitly suggest a progression here: first we feel, then we act, then we build or join, and ultimately we integrate all of these stages in realizing a sense of purpose in our lives.
Well-built institutions are key in this process, in that they can bend our less-admirable impulses—for personal gain, for inertia, for self-aggrandizement—towards a nobler and more socially beneficial end. In other words, even if I sometimes shuffle off to work for the “wrong” reasons, the very nature of my placement organization functions to structure my presence into something worthwhile in the context of what I consider to be the broader trajectory of my work with poor people. My conscious possession of some kind of trajectory suggests another ingredient for developing a sense of purpose: regular, intentional reflection on the match between one’s values—which underlie what one feels—and one’s life and work. Reflection is precisely the process of integration that translates a life full of emotions, actions, and institutions into purpose.
Returning to our parshah, I have to say that I’m somewhat jealous of the Israelites, at least in an abstract way. They literally had a blueprint for how to build the Mishkan, and for how to organize their society. Their purpose was to serve God, and they had firsthand experience of God’s power. In comparison, we are fumbling around in the dark, trusting in the ideas of Marx or Rawls or whoever, searching for some kind of best practice, and tangled in layer upon layer of seriously messed-up societal strictures and structures. I don’t have all the answers, or any at all really; nor do I claim that any of this, even at the level of my single placement organization, will be easy.
What I do have are those things AVODAH helps to cultivate in my corps-mates and me: a critical and reflective political consciousness, a commitment to fighting poverty and structural violence, and, I think, a sense of purpose in doing so. It’s dangerous to take too salvationary of a tone—certainly I will make no claim that my generation alone will be able to build a just society. But I think that my analysis here presents a potentially useful way to think about how those of us who work for justice can sustain that work in the long run. Ultimately what’s important is not the progress made within a single lifetime, but, as our own existence as Jews today testifies in relation to those ancient Israelites, a resiliency and adaptability of purpose to place that allows for the building of movements that transcend one lifetime and that become capable of achieving real change. And that, I think, is ultimately what AVODAH is all about.
Why do you get up for work in the morning?
Ethan Balgley, from Portland, OR, attended Amherst College, and is a Health Outreach Worker at Project Renewal Primary Care.