Dr. Susan Einbinder
Labor and porterage, cloths and coverings, screens and hangings, cords, planks, sockets and posts. Those of you who will be moving house shortly already wince. Naso -- this morning's reading -- is confusing for any reader, because it is hard to keep track of the parts and even harder to keep track of their meaning. In fact, our text sounds uncannily like one of those technical instruction manuals whose English was written in a faraway land. Well, I always tell my students to assume the medieval rabbis knew more than we do. So I turned to the thirteenth century exegete Nahmanides -- the Ramban -- and I was surprised, then oddly comforted, to find him quite confused:
"ve'amudei hehatzer saviv ve'adneyhem viteydotam umeytereyhem... [the posts around the enclosure and their sockets, pegs and cords]. These go with the posts, since the pegs and cords of the hangings go with the load assigned to the Gershonites. There were pegs and cords that went on the bottom of the cloths and hangings ... and pegs and cords ... to hang the hangings from the top -- ... as we learned from the construction of the Tabernacle. At least that's what Rashi says, but I don't know how ... the pegs for the posts differ from the rest of the pegs .... I can't find any pegs for the posts in the construction of the Tabernacle ... (Ramban, Num.4:32)
If the great Nahmanides' confusion was consoling, his determination was equally moving to behold. After all, a scriptural reading that begins with carrying, that uses some form of the verb "to carry" (nasa') eleven times in 27 verses, and that takes its name from its first word - Naso, carry, lift up -- must think carrying and lifting important things to do.
In struggling with his burden, Nahmanides was in fact following the model of his stubborn passage. For the Levites, too, take a communal journey towards meaning. They cannot move ahead unless they divide and share the structure that gives meaning to their lives.
They cannot read the whole picture from their individual assignment, and much of what they carry they cannot see at all. Only the priests see the holy utensils, and they carefully cover them when tying them down for transporting. Then the various clans of the Levites take up their unique burdens and step into the unknown. Ish ish 'al 'avodato ve'al masa'o, each one according to his service and his burden. Ishah ishah 'al 'avodatah ve'al masa'ah, each one with her task and what she must carry. Even in a passage that might cause a preacher despair, the Torah illumines a model of faith. Let me explore with you, then, what I see to be three recommendations of our passage: carry what has been given you, because each unique burden makes us who we are; carry those hangings and planks and sockets, because they are part of something sacred and greater; carry your posts and utensils and coverings, but do not confuse them with the meaning of the whole.
Ish ish 'al avodato ve'al masa'o. The dazing division of labor described in our passage in fact makes one thing clear: each one has a part, each part is unique. And sometimes it is heavy.
This is a difficult metaphor to pursue at this moment in American life. What we are hearing around us is not the language of carrying but rather of "getting rid of the baggage," of "needing to dump" the burdens of a personal or collective past. Who wants to carry? And so, we have shed a lot of baggage, done a lot of dumping and freed ourselves of the past until we no longer make sense of the present. We no longer know what connects us or where in the larger picture our plank or post might go.
The notion that we are free to miraculously reinvent ourselves is everywhere we turn. New bodies and new images, new tradition (!) and new age: we shed history and context and with it any way to make meaning of experience. In this setting, the last thing one wishes is to be burdened with the past, especially an unresolved one. But where to get rid of it? In public and private, in the workplace and in our relationships, in therapy and self-help groups, even on TV, we are endlessly confessing the intimate burdens of our lives. Confession without accountability has become another act of dumping the option to bear meaning in a confusing, chaotic world. If, in some moment of nostalgia, we lament the loss of what we once called "character" we must at some point admit we have made character impossible to attain. For that mysterious "character" was forged out of a dialectic of resistance and acceptance, struggling with obstacles and accepting limitations, meeting obligations and accepting challenges -- even defeat - - in ways we no longer think it is fashionable to do. Once we created meaning by taking responsibility. Now it seems paradoxical that bearing a burden might be the first step towards freeing ourselves from its weight. Our passage tells us simply to carry what we are -- to find meaning in the specific history and conditions that make our lives our own. There is no promise the load will lessen, but if we are willing, if we are lucky, we learn to carry with less pain, to transmute confusion, resentment and longing into awareness, compassion and love.
On a different level, part of what we are carrying is the message of inclusion, that no socket is too silly, no peg or post too cumbersome, no Israelite too lowly or great, too weak or too proud to be needed for the job. We who study the past know that history is more than what is offered by the people who wrote it down. We search for all the pieces -- the men and the women, the sinners and the saints, the mighty and the low. Sure, we still look for the heroes, but along with them we are seeking the men and women who have nearly vanished between the lines. Let me give you just one example from my own experience here. In the rare book room of the Hebrew Union College, scattered among the shelves, sit a dozen small, Italian prayerbooks one to three centuries old. Each one belonged to a woman, her name sometimes inserted into the blessings of the text. In Italian and Hebrew, there are prayers for the mikveh, for betrothals and weddings, for pregnancies and births. There are blessings for children and for their fathers, for interpreting dreams and finding spouses for daughters and sons. It is not a particularly important type of liturgy, in the larger scheme of things. Nor is it a particularly lovely kind of literature, in the greater sweep of options. But it is a remarkable weave of the personal and collective, whose soft and gentle language enriches our knowledge of the past.
Who knows what Bella bat Rahel and Allegra Simha bat Sole, were thinking as they carried their prayerbooks here and there through the years? Certainly they could not see the larger picture in which we place them now. On the other hand, one would have thought that women's piety and women's blessings were of interest now more than ever, but clearly the perceived need for a women's liturgy is not so new. But how would we ever have known that, if someone had not felt instinctively that we were reflected in the sum of such pieces, and carried them to us?
So, too, meaning in the present is carried by many hands. It is not the Orthodox only who will carry all the Tabernacle. It is not the Israelis only who will tell us where to carry it.
It is not the American synagogue only that will bear American Jewish identity. Every piece counts -- and we are moving them. But the whole point of the desert tabernacle was its portability, that it could be carried from its origins to where we need to go.
The midrash tells us the priests would assign all the Levites, ish ish 'al 'avodato ve'al masa'o-- each one with his task and what he must carry -- shelo yavo'u lydey-mahloqet-- so they wouldn't argue (Bamid.R., par.6, siman 4 p.118). It didn't say, so one task would be given precedence. It didn't say, so one clan could usurp all the privilege. Naso tells us that each piece is a precious part of a whole. Only human arrogance and intolerance suggest some peg or post or socket might be better left behind. And I do not mean, here, to argue that we are chained inextricably to tradition: we carry a tradition, in fact many traditions, because we have an obligation to history and so that we can better know who we are. But we carry past knowledge and history forward, rebalancing and rearranging -- re-Forming -- the pieces on the way. We Reform Jews carry pieces without which our Orthodox brothers and sisters would be severed from the world. They need those pieces as much as we need their literacy and love of sacred texts. Likewise, we carry pieces that offer our Israeli brothers and sisters a way to think about civil liberties, religious pluralism, human rights. They need those pieces, no matter what they say.
Ish ish 'al avodato ve'al masa'o. The Torah tells us what we carry, but it also tells us that the piece is not the whole. Even had they been permitted to see what they were carrying, individual Levites would have had a hard time grasping its significance by extrapolating from their share of the load. Unsurprisingly, meaning made in our own image spans a shaky kind of structure. It is limited intellectually and spiritually; it trembles over what it has had to repress. Whether called apathy, cynicism or spirituality, an excessive focus on the self has stripped us of the context and community that are the essential prerequisites of faith.
It is a commonplace by now to describe the journey from the 1960s to 90s as one in which the failure of social idealism led "naturally" to the inward-turning "spirituality" of the present age. In this reading, the boundless narcissism of the nineties is a direct result of the failure of social struggle -- a struggle that incidentally shaped and informed the lives of many of you here. Now -- despite the failure of the sixties -- we live in too much comfort. So life suddenly has no meaning, the young have no causes, that is why we are all depressed and deluged by psychosomatic dis-ease. From Prozac to Viagra, every pharmaceutical false messiah sends us rushing to the stores. Every new theory of dysfunction promises new absolutions. We have fled into the gyms and the self-help shelves, looking for personal trainers and designer drugs. "Spirituality" now has nothing to do with discipline but much to align it with unreason and the comfort of the self.
I run the risk of offending by pleading that we once more look around us and define what has meaning by more than our own lives. Jails are going up and welfare has gone down. Stadiums go up and schools and hospitals go down. The wealthy grow wealthier, the middle grows weaker and the poor plummet downwards to depths of poverty and illness, illiteracy, desperation and despair that should make us all ashamed. We have allowed government to abdicate responsibility for the social and cultural services it once, however inefficiently, acknowledged as part of its domain. Private and corporate philanthropies come slowly into the void, and a repressive politics of complicity comes with them. For when a giant corporation -- let's say Nike or Shell or Chiquita -- is bankrolling our schools and museums and essential public services, we will find it hard to complain when it creates distress abroad. When it terrorizes peasants and workers and governments elsewhere, or uses children to make its sneakers or pick its pesticide-laden fruit.
The Ramban commented, the Levites were assigned individually, so no one would try to cast his burden onto his neighbor (4:32). Once we saw those who walked beside us, we knew when they were suffering, and we knew we shared their path. The reading commands us: Naso. Lift up. Too many of the most vulnerable are already weakened and staggering: help to lift them to the road. They all carry pieces of the holiness we will need come time for building.
Ish ish 'al avodato ve'al masa'o. Let me conclude by pointing out that both words, avodah and masa', have something to do with language. Rashi comments, "avodat-avodah -- hu hashir" [the work of worship or service -- that is the song]. Isaiah calls, "masa' Bavel, masa Moab" -- the tale of Bavel, the tale of Moab. Music and story, poetry and prose, the language with which we teach and study and create meaning beyond ourselves.
This is indeed where your part in the work and what you must carry merge into one. Just like our ancestors in the wildnerness, our ranks sometimes straggle, we navigate poorly and too often we are heard complaining about the journey and the load. We are not spiritual giants and we sometimes try sidling, or slipping a plank or a socket onto the burden of someone else. But when we are gathered together, we may sense the dim outlines of holiness in the incomprehensible debris we individually drag along. For those who will be rabbis, for those who have taught them and for those they will teach, for those who are here to honor them and for those they have yet to meet, all of you and us who struggle for faith in a shaken age, Naso gives us a message of labor and meaning and hope: Carry that message, with all the intelligence and passion and integrity you can find. Carry that message with humility. Carry that message with the example of your own searching and struggling and seeking, and you will be carrying a message of faith. Indeed, if we look towards the end of today's scriptural portion, we see how carrying is transformed in the words of the priestly blessing. Yevarekhekha adonai veyishmerekha, may the Lord bless you and keep you. Ya'er adonai panav eleykha vykhuneka, may the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you and grace you, and then, finally, our carrying verb breaks through: yisa'-- Yisa adonai panav elekha veyasem lekha shalom may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and grant you peace. So carry your burden, and know that you do so in the image of God. Ken yehi retzon. Amen.
Copyright © 1998 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 18 Dec 1998