middot diligence besorah why this waste?

why this waste?

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-alabasterjar“Enthusiasm,” for most of its history as an English word, has had a mixed connotation. The word literally means “being possessed by a god” and by the 18th century had come to mean “ill-regulated religious emotion or speculation.” The Oxford Universal Dictionary gives a 19th century example: “Everywhere the history of religion betrays a tendency to enthusiasm.”

The followers of Messiah Yeshua might have had this sort of unregulated devotion in mind when they rebuked a woman who had come up to Yeshua with “with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and poured it on his head as he sat at the table.” An alabaster jar was a pricey item in itself, and was used to store the most precious fragrances. Often the jar was sealed and had to be broken to release its treasure. When the disciples saw this extravagance, they became angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”

Now the disciples’ concern for the poor seems reasonable enough, and even virtuous. Hadn’t Yeshua just finished telling them that whatever they did for the poor—the hungry, thirsty, ill-clad, outcast and imprisoned—they actually were doing for him? (Matt. 25:35–40). Wouldn’t this unnamed woman have done better to curb her enthusiasm for Yeshua, or at least redirect it and use her resources to help the poor?

But no, Yeshua stands up for the woman and rebukes his disciples: “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Messiah isn’t renouncing the service to the poor that he so beautifully pictured in the preceding chapter. He’s simply quoting the Torah when he says the poor will always be with us (Dt. 15:11), and we’ll always have the opportunity to serve Messiah by serving them. But genuine enthusiasm, zerizut, looks for ever-greater opportunities to serve, and so Yeshua defends the woman:

“By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Matt 26:6–13).

We encounter Messiah in the needy other, and we also encounter him in direct acts of devotion. Our enthusiasm can be directed to either, or ideally to both. But without enthusiasm we won’t go anywhere. As with all the middot, enthusiasm can become imbalanced and problematic, as the origins of the English word imply, but we’ve got to have enthusiasm to serve Hashem properly and to grow in the middot. Our Messiah defends enthusiasm rightly directed. So, perhaps an exercise for this week will be to make sure we rightly direct our enthusiasm each day. We might get enthusiastic about the precious ointment in its beautiful jar, or, like the disciples, about the good things we could do with the money it would bring. But the best enthusiasm, Messiah says, is directed right at him, and it’s never a waste.

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