Down and dirty
The ability to delegate is often viewed as a crucial quality for leaders to have, allowing them to focus on more important activities while leaving basic tasks to their followers. Being able to delegate is considered a significant tool in reaching one’s goals. If you try to do everything yourself, you will burn out; but if you can delegate, you will accomplish much more.
Of course, there is truth to that. Team leaders shouldn't have to do everything themselves, as delegating allows for the bigger picture to take form. This is especially the case when the task at hand requires one to get their hands dirty, so to speak. The boss shouldn’t be the one in the trenches but rather managing things from behind the scenes.
While this is certainly true, not always is delegating and pawning off responsibilities a good thing, especially when the task can be viewed as an end in and of itself.
A trivia question I often ask my students is, “When is taking out the trash a mitzvah?” After several attempts at answering the question, some being quite creative, I give the correct answer: “When your mother or father asks you to do it.”
Since honoring our parents is a mitzvah in the Torah, doing something they ask of us is a mitzvah, as menial as it may seem. Taking out the trash because you need to clean your house is not the same as doing it because your mom asked you to. The same action that any other time would be seen as just a regular mundane task is suddenly imbued with the divine power of a mitzvah.
That doesn’t change the fact that the task is still to take out the trash.
The same applies to any task that requires us to get our hands dirty in order to accomplish it. When the purpose of this activity is to fulfill the divine will, be it shopping for Shabbat or cleaning the house for Passover or building a sukkah, the task itself becomes holy.
An example of this in the Torah is the task of removing the ash accumulated by the offerings on the Temple’s altar. Every so often, in order to allow the fire on the altar to burn properly, a Kohen had to collect the ash and bring it to a designated spot outside of the Temple. The Torah acknowledges that this is a menial job, to the point that the Kohen carrying it out was advised to change his clothes, so that his regular priestly garments do not become soiled from the ashes.
But this job has to be done by a Kohen and nobody else, even if it would make his clothes dirty and unfit for regular service in the Temple. It couldn’t even be done by another Kohen, it had to be done by the same person who was carrying out the regular daily service. Despite it seemingly being a demeaning task, it still had to be done by the designated Kohen, even if it meant changing his clothes.
Sure, being able to delegate is a necessary quality in a leader, but a leader must also be able to set his or her own stature aside and get the job done. When a certain task is associated with a mitzvah, it doesn’t matter how dirty you will get from it—be prepared to do it yourself. And have an extra set of clothing ready to get the job done.
In our times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose birthday is marked next week on the 11th of Nissan, demonstrated this leadership trait more than any other Jewish leader. While he did send emissaries to represent him and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement around the world, he did not shy away from tackling issues himself. Even things that seemed better off handled by aides and emissaries, the Rebbe stayed on top of every detail and engaged in them himself.
The Rebbe was able to switch gears, or “change clothing,” at moments notice. He dealt with matters of utmost sensitivity such as geopolitics and local communal concerns, and at the same time he handed out coins to young children for them to place in a charity box and regularly answered people’s questions about personal mundane matters.
The Rebbe taught us that no one is too big and no task too small; if something comes to your attention that needs to get done, that’s G-d’s way of informing you that you should be the one to do it. Every Jew is like a Kohen, and every Jew can emulate the Rebbe’s example of showing concern for the most seemingly trivial aspect of life.
Because if it’s part of the mitzvah, it IS the mitzvah.