I could not have been more wrong!
The first inkling I had that things might not go smoothly was the confusing menu of recorded choices I was confronted by. None of the choices seemed to be quite appropriate for my concern. But, before I was given the option to speak to a real person, a “customer service” specialist, I had to endure what seemed to be a never-ending series of unsatisfactory choices. Finally, when a person – a real person! – got on the line I was at last sure that the matter could be dispensed with easily and efficiently.
The first customer service specialist proved to be unable to take care of the issue and so passed me along to another specialist who, in turn, passed me along to yet another specialist, each assuring me that he or she would be sure to document our conversation in my file.
Impatient now, I asked to speak with a supervisor. This request earned me a lengthy stretch of silence while I was put on hold, followed by an abrupt woman who was clearly annoyed by having to spend time dealing with me and the matter I had brought to her attention. After listening to my explanation, she told me that she would have to pass me along to one of her colleagues.
“Do you mean that no one can simply fix the error?” I asked, my frustration obvious in my voice.
It was a rhetorical question. I didn’t expect her to give me an answer any more than I any longer expected her to solve my problem. I knew the answer. No one was able to correct what needed to be corrected because no one was responsible. At the utility company, like at so many places, decisions were made “by committee” after “consensus” had been reached. Individuals only dealt with their “piece of the puzzle.” If one person failed to do what he or she was assigned, the presumption was that someone else would do it, or at least do enough so that the appearance of things moving forward was maintained.
Somehow, someway this is how bureaucracies lurch forward day by day, month by month and year by year, defined by inefficiencies and frustration on the part of customers. Perhaps more significant, they lurch forward deadening the souls of those people who work there. It may be a passable method for the DMV or utilities or insurance companies but it is not the model of personal responsibility that God clearly values and expects of us or that elevates us to be the people we were created to be.
“…Thus shall you do for them, so they shall live and note die; when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and to his burden. But they shall come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die.”
What do these pasukim tell us about personal responsibility? Sefer HaChinuch makes clear that the mitzvah commands each person to have specific work (avodato) and specific responsibilities (masa-oh). This, in turn, not only benefits the individual but insures that the task to be completed gets completed.
Unlike the Kohanim and Leviim, who were engaged in the avodah of serving God in the Beit HaMikdash, few of us are required to be completely focused on our task in order to perform it perfectly. The Sefer HaChinuch notes that it is human nature that we do only that which is absolutely necessary. How many of us go “above and beyond” to perform a daily task? There is always tomorrow or always someone else to pick up the slack after all.
Doesn’t the Gemara, in Eruvin (3a) tell us that, “a pot watched by two cooks will be neither hot nor cold”?
When the spotlight does not shine directly on us, or when there are others who share responsibility, we tend not to perform to our highest potential. But when we focus on a task that is solely ours to accomplish, we work to our fullest capability.
To be honorable and meaningful, our work need not be as significant as the Kohanim or the Leviim. The honor and meaning we derive from our avodah is from the personal responsibility we invest in it.
The Torah decreed that a system should be established where it is clear to every person that his job is his responsibility. In doing so, the Torah not only ensures that the task will be done well but that the nobility of personal responsibility, the dignity of knowing you are the one who must complete the task, will also be embraced.