Author's Note on Parshat Naso
Date: June 5, 2020
13 Sivan 5780
In Parshat Naso, we see an interesting contrast between two types of service. In one famous passage, we read about each of the 12 separate offerings brought to the Mishkan (the Holy Tabernacle) by each of the 12 tribes. In paragraph after paragraph we read the identical language describing each tribe’s offering with the only difference in description being the name of the individual tribal chief bringing the offering. The classic question asked is: Why does the Torah have to repeat each offering word for word? Wouldn’t it be more concise to say that each tribe brought the same offering and then explain what that offering was? Instead, we learn (through no less than two full volumes in the Midrash) that each otherwise identical offering was indeed unique for each tribe, depending on, among other things, which tribe brought it and day on which the offering was brought. We learn that although the offerings were seemingly identical (in that no one was better and no one was worse), in fact they were unique and different.
Then, there is a description of the roles and tasks of the Levite families – Gershon, Kehot and Merari. The Merari family was responsible for carrying the very heavy and crucial infrastructure of wooden posts and beams. The Kehot family was responsible for all of the holy implements needed to conduct the service to Hashem. These things were so holy that we learn that the Kehot family did not need a wagon to carry them because the holiness of the items themselves literally carried the individuals.
So what did the Gershon family have to do? Surely the descendants of the first born of the holy tribe of Levi must have had a really important job. Well, it turns out that they had to schlep the curtains. Can you imagine how embarrassing it must have been for them? The Merari family received twice as many wagons and oxen as the Gershon family. And, we are told that the Kehot family didn’t even need any wagons because the implements carried them. When it comes to the Gershon family, though, we see that 2 sets of wagons and oxen is enough. After all, they only have to carry the table coverings and wall coverings.
The commentary goes to great lengths to explain why these different roles were all actually essential and essentially equal in importance. The opening words of the parsha have G-d commanding Moshe to count or, literally, raise up (Naso) the heads of the sons of Gershon “as well.” The reference to “as well” perhaps can be read as a way of saying, “Do not minimize the work of schlepping the curtains and hides that make up the coverings for the Tabernacle. It might not look as important as the work of others, but all work involved in building the Mishkan is holy and essential. So raise them up as well as their brothers and let them know how important their work really is.”
All that said, let’s compare what these two stories show. On the one hand, when all the service to be performed looks to be identical, we go to great lengths to learn how each one is really different and how some are really more important than others. On the other hand, when the Torah describes work as different and seemingly more important or holy than other work, we go to great lengths to learn how all the work and service is really the same – it is all equal in importance to the bigger goal of serving G-d through the Mishkan.
Can’t we just take one theory and stick to it? Either we are the same and wonderful or different and celebrate the differences.
In truth, these stories really do have a common theme. That theme is a lesson to us as to how we are to perceive our work. In that context, when G-d commanded Moshe to lift up the Gershon family “as well”, it means to raise them up as well as us, the readers, for all time. When we pray with the same words every day, day after day, can we see the repetitive identical behavior as in fact invested with unique significance based on our individual circumstances and experiences? Can we appreciate the inherent dignity in an honest effort even if the work seems to us to be “menial” or “beneath us”?
We are all involved in our own unique roles. We are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, bosses, workers, supervisors, leaders, and followers. It is sometimes easy to be down and depressed and wonder why we are always the ones who have to “schlep the curtains” so to speak. Naso teaches us that we need to look beyond the external trappings of our tasks to see that, to G-d, we are each holy and unique and invested with the opportunity change the world.