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Our service this week, in honor of Labor Day, is about the dignity of work. Lucy Bunch, our intern minister, and I had a great conversation planning it yesterday, and today I went looking for passages for our centering words. We have a new practice, requested by our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, of including a passage from a religion of the world (or another UU source) in every service. It isn’t necessarily keyed to the theme of the service, but the Talmud has an abundance of opinions about the value of work. For example, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, one of the religious obligations of every parent is to teach their son (let’s make that “child”) a trade.
Then there’s this:
I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also His creature; my work is in the city and his is in the field; I rise early to my work and he rises early to his. As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work. But you may be tempted to say, “I do great things and he small things!” We have learned that it matters not whether one does much or little, if only he directs his heart to serve the divine purpose. (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakot 17a)
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: When the Holy and Blessed One told Adam, “Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, but your food shall be the grasses of the field,” Adam began to well up with tears. “Master of the Universe, shall my ass and I both eat at the same trough?” But as soon as God said to him [immediately following]: “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat,” his spirits were soothed. (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Pesahim 118a)
And, in a modern commentary written for a Haggadah, this:
A man was once sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor, and was shackled to a huge wheel fixed in the wall, which he had to crank during all his waking hours. As he turned the heavy wheel, he would often try to imagine what he might be achieving through his backbreaking work. Perhaps he was turning a millstone that was grinding grain into flour, or perhaps he was bringing water up from a deep well to irrigate a field.
When the long sentence came to an end and the shackles were removed, the first thing this man did, broken in both body and spirit, was to go to the other side of the wall to see just what he had been accomplishing for twenty-five years. How shocked he was to discover that there was nothing there! Just a wheel in the wall, not attached to anything. At this point he broke down in tears. “Twenty-five years of hard work, all for nothing.” The awareness that all his work was of no avail was far worse than the hard labor itself. The Egyptians knew this, and this is how they tortured their slaves. (From Bondage to Freedom, Passover Haggadah with commentary by Rabbi Abraham Twerksi)
I was inspired by a Facebook friend’s inquiry (“What songs give you goosebumps every time?”) to bring Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 in the car yesterday and start it up at “Blind Willie McTell.” The goosebumps are still there.
Something I love about Dylan is that how, when he has a refrain, he will sing it differently every time. There it was on “Blind Willie McTell,” five verses and the two-line refrain sung five different ways. Next song, “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” same thing. I’ve been listening to “Jokerman” for 25 years, hearing new things in it all the time, and part of the reason is that no two refrains are sung the same way.
It doesn’t sound at all gimmicky the way Dylan does it, but like the result of a singer really listening to the words he sings. He’s there with every nuance of meaning, with what’s happened in the preceding verse, and it flows out in his voice. When a singer elicits so much from the music–when his voice is so present to his words, gives them such immediacy and power, reaches down through the depths and pulls so many layers of meaning from them–the listeners do the same. My dream of a perfect Sunday morning is for my preaching to be like that.