The Hebrew word for service,"avodah," is the same word we use for both work and worship. This is not an accident.
Our tradition teaches that the call to serve another does not fall among the activities of leisure. It is not what we do with our surplus time and energy. On the contrary, it falls among the activities we must do in order to sustain ourselves in the world. What we do for others is no less than eating, drinking or sleeping. Moreover, since we might not be inclined to include such service in our understanding of what our survival depends upon, we learn that survival itself is not guaranteed merely by meeting our physical needs.
The imperative to serve others safeguards our spiritual survival and is no less essential. Meeting the dual obligations to sustain ourselves physically and spiritually through service is thus characterized as worship. Similarly, to worship is not a voluntary act, but, rather, the taking of full responsibility for our spiritual survival by providing for the physical survival of our neighbors. Avodah (worship) in Jewish life cannot be voluntary any more than working to meet our own needs is voluntary.
For many, the disciplined structure of worship through words represents and even fulfills this obligation; the true obligation is not merely to worship in words, but to do the difficult work of service.
Rabbi Ira F. Stone is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City Philadelphia and an adjunct instructor of modern Jewish thought at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA.