All Creation Is Service

Rabbi Alon C Ferency
May 12, 2014
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water well

As a friend commented, I am “touchy-feely” but not “new-agey.” When a yoga teacher sonorously intones “your ‘self’ impairs your ability to ‘be present,”’ I glaze over and wonder when I next need to cut my nails. Yet, there is some truth to her statement, if we re-frame the sentiment: one’s sense of what would be pleasing often impairs one’s vision of what is actually needed in the moment. Creation is often about finding a niche, and filling a gap – seeing clearly what is lacking, what is needed, and what can be done. Creation is a form of service, and service has to be determined ultimately by the served, not the servant. The simplest and best gifts are often when we perceive what the recipient really wants, even by asking directly.

In 1997, I trained in the poorest region of Cameroon, the East Province, along the rainforests near the border with the Central African Republic. Trainees worked with an experienced Peace Corps volunteer, and attended site visits to one of her projects near completion: a spring-box, a water capture system which would provide safe, potable water to the local citizens. At the time, I remember feeling disdain for the work; it seemed so trivial, unimpressive, even homel.  Years later, my respect and fondness for that volunteer have grown exponentially, and I see the enormity of her accomplishment: in spite of tremendous obstacles to development – ignorance, corruption, apathy – together with her leadership, those villages made an enduring advance in their health and welfare, sowing seeds for future community mobilization.

I, however, was too blind to achieve even a simple, ungainly spring-box. I cast about for ambitious projects, something that would suit a need to “leave my mark”:  A dam, a bridge, a theater. I fell victim to the fallacy of hordes of politicians, economists, and development professionals before me and afterward: an edifice complex. I thought that what I believed to be of value would become what the host country nationals needed; that looks matter; and that size, scale, and construction were somehow important. In the end, I spent so much time looking for the perfect project that I completed none.

Would that I had known and followed the advice of the early Zionist Josef Trumpledor, “We need people to serve at any cost at whatever task Palestine requires…  Is there a wheel lacking? I am that wheel. Nails, screws, a block? Take me. Must the land be dug? I will dig it. Is there shooting to be done, are soldiers needed? I will enlist. Policemen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, water-carriers? If you please, I am ready to do it all. I am not a person. I am the pure embodiment of service, prepared for everything. I have no ties. I know only one command: Build.”

Build! Not a community center, nor a monorail, not a water tower left to rust in disuse. Find what is needed and become a part of the creation. And, when you offer the gift of your creativity, let the words of the prophet Isaiah ring in your ears: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And I said, here I am; send me!”

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Rabbi Alon C Ferency pursued Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the 1990’s at Harvard University. After a bicycle trip from Seattle to Boston, he entered the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Community Health organizer. Then, he worked in the music industry, before receiving a Master’s Degree in Informal Jewish Education from J.T.S., and rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School in 2010. Today, Alon is the rabbi of Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he serves as a board member of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and served on the Community Health Council, Together! Healthy Knox, and the ethics committee of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He is also a regular contributor to Conservative Judaism quarterly, and an alumnus of Leadership Knoxville and the Tikvah Fellowship. His sermons are available at heskaamuna.org/sermons.html; and, you may follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/EclecticCleric) and Twitter (@EclecticCleric).

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