If you swim off the beaches of Australia, you need to be on the lookout for “blue bottles,” an Aussie nickname for the Portuguese man of war. A blue bottle is not a jellyfish nor is it a single creature. It’s a siphonophore composed of four different animals: a transparent blue bladder that floats on the surface of the sea; stinging tentacles that hang from this bladder; feeding polyps; and separate male and female reproductive polyps. None of these organs are on the same creature; each is on a distinct creature. Not one of these animals could live apart from the others. The siphonophore is like a community, able to exist only through the coordinated and collective efforts of each member (see The Paradigm of the Beast, John N. Bleibtreu [New York: Macmillan Company, 1968], pp. 252–53).
In last week’s parashah, B’midbar, the Israelites are arranged tribally to guard against enemies and to protect the Mishkan . Parashat Naso resolves the same issue through the organization of the Levite clans to attend to the Mishkan . The priests were instructed to bless the entire people. And the tribal chieftans each brought identical gifts for the Mishkan.
The priestly blessing joined the entire community together. The gifts affirmed the centrality of the Mishkan and the worth of each tribe; no tribe had higher status than another. Like a siphonophore, the Israelite community existed because of the contributions of three separate organisms: every person, every tribe, and the Mishkan .
What was the contribution of the Mishkan? The Mishkan symbolized God’s Presence. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
The Mishkan became the portable Mount Sinai, forever symbolic of God’s Presence as it had been at Revelation. Our people were awakening as a people . They were awakening to realize that the Mishkan/God would sustain them and that they would sustain God/the Mishkan . Without one, the other would lack meaning and purpose. This was the first actualization of our Sinai covenant.
This explains why, in 1994, after prolonged study and debate, our national Reform leadership rejected the application of a congregation who observed Judaism “with a humanistic perspective,” as follows:
The congregation sees itself as a Jewish group, but its liturgy deletes any and all mention of G-d, either in the Hebrew or in English. . . . Their philosophy doesn't admit of either Covenant or commandments. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, chair of the Responsa committee at the time, wrote: “Persons of varying shadings of belief or unbelief, practice or non-practice, may belong to (URJ) congregations as individuals, and we respect their rights. But it is different when they come as a congregation whose declared principles are at fundamental variance with the historic G-d-orientation of Reform Judaism.” (See www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/10-Reform/section-16.html.)
Belief in God is core to Reform Judaism—even if individual Reform Jews are uncertain. Our watchword of faith, the Sh’ma, declares the unity of God—essentially, that through God all is united. In this sense, rejection of God is rejection of the possibility of oneness, even of wholeness or peace. Tribes who reject this move themselves away from the Mishkan andoutside the Jewish camp. Individuals are not rejected, because by choosing to be present, they choose the overall vision and journey of our people.
In contrast, Naso draws our attention to two situations where pure individualism is damaging: the adulteress (see Numbers 5:11–30) and the Nazirite (see Numbers 6:1–21). Each separates herself or himself from the people in self-centered ways: The adulteress destroys the family. The Nazirite sets herself or himself apart by neither celebrating nor mourning; perhaps this isolationism is why the Nazirite must bring a sin offering at the end of her or his vowed term. Both the adulteress and the Nazirite are self-centered, self-serving.
Our young people becoming b’nei mitzvah are often reminded that what we celebrate are not their talents and abilities; those are primarily genetic, and in that sense, a matter of good fortune. What matters is how they will apply those skills, and that will depend solely on the quality of their character. What spiritual attributes do they have that will steer them toward community service, or in the words of Torah, service of the Mishkan ?
The word naso means “raise up.” Parashat Naso emphasizes that what “raises one up” emerges through community service rather than self-service. The symbiotic relationship between individual, tribe, and Mishkan defined our people then and inspires us now.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the spiritual leader of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. She is the editor of Mishkan T'filah, A Reform Siddur.