What’s In It For Me? (Part One)
I had just completed my term as president of a small specialty hospital, and someone asked, ”What are you going to do now for aggravation?” When I answered that I was beginning to get involved in my synagogue, my friend said, “Larry, you don’t know yet what aggravation is.”
Despite the warning, I persisted, headed various committees, and went up the officer ladder to the presidency of the temple. My friend was right – the hospital was a piece of cake compared to the synagogue – and yet my twenty years in intensive synagogue leadership gave me both more satisfaction and more aggravation than almost anything else I’ve ever done. So why did I do it? Why does anybody do it?
If you ask your friends who serve on the boards of their temples or other not-for-profit organizations why they agreed to serve, chances are you’ll get one or more of these answers:
- I love my temple and am pleased to have an opportunity to support it.
- Judaism is important to me, the synagogue is its central institution, and I feel an obligation to be part of it.
- Life has been good to me and this is a way I can give something back.
- A friend asked me to serve and I couldn’t say no.
If your friend is being really honest with you, he or she may add one or more of these additional answers:
- A prestigious group of people serve on this board, and I’m glad to be able to hob-nob with them.
- I expect to make important contacts with people that may become customers or clients.
- I will be able to showcase my professional abilities and thus attract clients.
Now, ponder this: which of these reasons are legitimate, and which are not? And does it matter? My teacher, Rabbi Fred Schwartz z”l, always reminded us never to scorn the inferior motivation. Im lo lishma, ba lishma – even if it didn’t start for a holy purpose, holiness enters. If Joe comes looking for a personal pay-off, the congregation will still get a pay-ff from his efforts. And one of three things will happen to Joe: He’ll get his personal pay-off and therefore redouble his efforts for the cause; he won’t get the pay-off he was looking for, but will get other satisfactions that cause him to keep at it, or he won’t get any pay-off and he’ll leave.
I really started to crystallize my thinking about pay-offs when I was a new member of the temple board. The Regional Director for the Union was invited to talk to us about what was expected of us as board members. When he opened the floor for questions, I asked, “Now that you’ve told us what the temple has a right to expect of each of us, what do we have a right to expect in return?” I think everyone was shocked I had had the chutzpah to ask such a question, and, in fact, our guest responded, “I’ve never been asked that before.” Nor did he have any off-the-top of his head answers, so I sat down and developed my own list of what I thought were reasonable entitlements in return for volunteering. In another post, I’ll share that list, but until then, I’d say all of the reasons for serving mentioned above are perfectly valid.
This point of view may put me at odds with our Rabbinic guidebook on ethics, Pirke Avot, which teaches, “Be not as servants who serve the master on condition of receiving a reward; be rather as servants who serve the master without condition of receiving a reward; and let reverence for Heaven guide you.” In his masterful commentary on Pirke Avot, William Berkson (a frequent participant in the discussions on this blog) puts this mishnah in the context of evolving Rabbinic concepts of the afterlife, stating, “Instead of serving to receive a reward, we should serve God out of love.”*
But the Rabbis also teach us that we are all endowed with a yetzer tov and a yetzer rah, a good inclination and an ignoble inclination. And if it were not for the innate ignoble inclination, neither they nor I would have had to discuss the question of reward for service. My bottom line: doing good is a good thing to do, and if you do well by doing good, so much the better!
*Pirke Avot, Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life, Jewish Publication Society, 2010
The URJ has published a Brit Avodah, a Covenant of Service, for board members of Union congregations. You’ll find it here.
Spotlight on Leadership and Transitions- This month the URJ is highlighting resources to help congregations with governance, leadership development and transitions. Learn more on the URJ website.