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All Things Being Equal

  • All Things Being Equal

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

  • Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Take [further] a census of the Gershonites, by their ancestral house and by their clans. (Numbers 4:21-22)
  • May Adonai bless you and keep you! (Numbers 6:24)

D'var Torah

Washington, D.C., is a great place. You can't help but get caught up in the patriotism emanating from so many historic places and sites. Regardless of politics, Washington reminds us of the great potential of our country. We don't always get it right, but the possibility for greatness remains, nonetheless.

One of my favorite places in Washington is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson, a hero of mine, embodied much of the possibility and dream of the American experience. In helping to create a new country ex nihilo, "out of the nothingness" of the colonial life, Jefferson penned perhaps the most sought after, elusive, and important ideals in American life, namely, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...." All men are created equal-I believe Jefferson meant that each person has the right to be treated fairly and has the opportunity to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." But I believe, as did Jefferson, that all are not created to be the same—and that's not a bad thing.

There are some people who are more deserving of honor and respect than others, and we need to recognize this by acting appropriately. And there are some who need to be treated with more kindness and compassion. We need to respect those needs: We should give up our seats on buses to older people and the disabled and stand up for sages, elders, and even parents when they enter a room.

These concepts—fair treatment for all and respect for those who have special roles in the community—are evident in Parashat Naso. The Torah not only goes to great lengths to describe the number of people in each of the clans responsible for the creation and the carrying of the Mishkan vessels, but also restricts who may participate in those activities. While the patriarchal society prohibited women from most tasks, the Torah also restricts performance of some tasks to men from certain clans who are over the age of thirty and under the age of fifty. As we know, the kohanim (the priests), the Levites, the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites all had special, different tasks, necessary for the successful creation of the Mishkan and the possibility of God dwelling therein.

Imagine what would have happened if there were no such designation. Imagine if just anyone could have done the work of the kohanim. If "everyone is equal," then we run the risk of not recognizing and valuing differences. We might produce people who ridicule others or who disobey their teachers and principals because they feel equal to authority figures. If everyone were really considered equal, we could lose respect for our leaders and elders, believing that we are their equals. We might be concerned only with ourselves, which would inevitably make it impossible for us to attain holiness. Holiness entails acting ethically, part of which means refraining from indulging in self-centered behavior. I am not equal to my parents, nor are my children equal to me. When I was growing up, I was not permitted to address my parents by their first names, and never did I call teachers, rabbis, or other elders by their first names. They deserved the honor and privilege that their positions demanded. In the Torah, while not everyone had a direct role in making, carrying, or praying in the Mishkan, the entire community benefited from the work of those who did, and for that those sacred workers deserved praise. Such is the case in our own day as well. Those who are called to work in the service of others deserve our praise and thanks. Their jobs are not for everyone, but we are better because of their efforts.

Due to the Reform Movement's calendar and the observance of Shavuot, Parashat Naso is divided into two parts this year. Though we do not read the second part of this parashah until next week, the text from this week's reading forms a thematic whole with the next section. As the crescendo of the portion continues, we come to the end of Naso, where, as a result of the work of the clans regarding the Mishkan, the Torah tells us that the people are to be blessed by Aaron and his sons. That is, all of the people. Under God's presence and shelter, everyone has the chance not only to hear God's words, but also to feel God's blessing. In God's eyes we all are created equally special. May we feel this way each and every day.

By the Way

  • Naso is usually translated as "take a census," when a close translation should read "lift up." When Moses lifts up those who are eligible for participation in the Mishkan process, he elevates them to a higher plane of holiness. Why does the text say, "Take a census of Gerson, as well…."? In order to dispel any notion that other families, like the Gershonites, would have been omitted. (B'chol Shor)
  • The phrase [gam heim] as well, implies that the Gershonite census is related to the Kohathite census described earlier. The Kohathites carried the most sacred parts of the Tabernacle, while the Gershonites carried the less sacred. By saying as well, the Torah makes the point that both tasks are necessary for the Tabernacle and both should be done with equal joy. (R' Moshe Feinstein, quoted in The Chumash, edited by Nosson Scherman [Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, ArtScroll Series, 1994], p. 749)
  • May Adonai bless you . May God give you the many blessings that are specified in the Torah such as those mentioned in Deuteronomy (28:1-14), that Israel be triumphant over its enemies and superior to other nations, that its crops and business ventures succeed, its offspring and flocks be abundant and healthy, and so on. (Sifre quoted in The Chumash, edited by Nosson Scherman [Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, ArtScroll Series, 1994], p. 762)
  • By their very nature physical blessings are fragile, because neither health, business conditions, nor tangible assets are permanent and unchanging. Nor are the character and ambitions of a human being. Therefore, we seek the blessing of God's protection, so that once given, his blessing will not fade away. (Malbim, quoted in The Chumash, edited by Nosson Scherman [Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, ArtScroll Series, 1994], p. 763)

Your Guide

  1. In what ways do we show honor and respect, not only to parents, but to others?
  2. How does one understand the need to honor those who came before us?
  3. How might you describe all people as equal?
  4. According to R' Feinstein, although the Gershonites carried items that were less sacred than those carried by the Kohathites, was their work any less sacred or less important? Was their work equal to that of the Kohathites?
  5. If God is the true Judge, as our prayers lead us to believe, does God see all of us as equal?
  6. Is there equal access to God's blessing?

Rabbi Andrew M. Paley is the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas.

6/07/2003
Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842