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The Many Meanings of Avodah

by Rabbi Eric Solomon

Avodah, like many Hebrew words, has multiple meanings.

In the Torah, avodah means “worship” and refers to the way that Moshe, Aharon, and the kohanim (priests) of Leviticus offered sacrifices to God on behalf of our people. Later when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the Talmudic rabbis re-defined the word to mean “prayer.” As a famous line in the Talmud says, “What is prayer? Avodah that is in the heart.” Instead of priests offering sacrifices, avodah transformed into the word that we use to describe heartfelt prayer. When modern Hebrew arrived on the scene, avodah came to mean “work.” Especially among the early kibbutzim of the State of Israel, avodah performed by the Zionist settlers was considered a holy act. It wasn’t simply tilling the soil; it was putting one’s hands in nature’s bounty — sacred harvesting.

For us Beth Meyerniks, all three versions of avodah have a role to play. Avodah-worship comes alive most prominently when Rabbi Jenny and I lead prayer services from the bimah. In fact, when I wear my kittel (white robe) on Yom Kippur, I most feel the privilege of performing something akin to a modern avodah on behalf our congregation. All of us offer our personal avodah-prayers when we pray either on our own or with the congregation. And all of us, whether we are hustling in our careers, with our families, engrossed in our hobbies, or serving as volunteers — we are doing avodah-work. To give it an umbrella definition, avodah could be seen as work, done for a higher purpose, that takes a lot of energy.

And yet, there is also avodah that while spiritually-rich requires very little exertion and, instead, asks us simply to open up our hearts. An example: A few years ago, I went to visit our preschool to teach the kinder (children) about the mitzvah of wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). I took out my black-and-white striped tallit, showed them the tzitziot (fringes) on all four corners and how I placed it in front of me as I prepared to recite the blessing. I then closed my eyes and in one swoosh, whipped the tallit up in to the air and over my shoulders. The children were mesmerized.

I then asked — not really expecting an answer — “Does anyone here, by chance, know what this is called?” One boy shot up his hand, “It’s God’s blanket!” God’s blanket, indeed. What an incredible answer! This angel of a child understood that sometimes connecting to God (or God’s blanket) doesn’t take so much hard avodah-work. Sometimes, one can just take a deep breath, put on a tallit and feel like God is resting a blanket on our shoulders.

Our shul engages in avodah in a myriad of ways. Whether it is formal prayer on the bimah, the kavannah-filled (heartfelt) prayers of individual Beth Meyerniks, or the ways that our shul members do the holy work of community service — all of them take avodah seriously.

But remember, being serious about our avodah doesn’t mean it has to be hard. Done with the right intention, it can feel as comforting as a hug. A holy hug.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784