But to the Kohathites he [Moses] did not give any [gifts]; since theirs was the service of the [most] sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder. (Numbers 7:9)
As Naso opens, Moses continues the census of Levites that begins in B'midbar, last week's parashah. However, in this parashah, God chooses an interesting word to command the census. God tells Moses, Naso et rosh (Numbers 4:22), meaning literally, "Lift up the heads of." Other instances of a census recorded in the Bible use a form of the word, pikeid, "enroll." This usage is especially notable because we learn in Naso that the Levites are in fact weighed down. The Levites' job is to carry all of the appurtenances of the Tabernacle through the desert. And yet here is this word naso, "raise them up." They are weighed down; they are raised up. What lesson is intended by connecting these opposites?
One response relates to the current time of year-the period of the counting of the Omer. At Passover, we celebrate our great liberation from Pharaoh, yet according to our tradition, our freedom is not complete at that time. To be fully free we must first go through the counting of the Omer: We must count off fifty days before we can climb up to Mount Sinai. Only when we stand at Sinai and receive the Torah will we be fully transformed from slaves of Pharaoh into servants of God. As the Rabbis saw it, the most profound freedom is actually another, more ennobled, form of servitude-service to God. We ascend to Sinai to be raised up in servitude: we climb up to become weighed down by 613 divine commandments.
The paradoxical relationship between servitude and freedom, between being weighed down and being raised up, became real for me when I had children. There is no doubt that my children are the greatest responsibility-one might even say the greatest burden-I have taken on in my entire life. And yet, being with them gives me a profound sense that I am doing exactly what I am meant to do in life: I can best describe it as a deep feeling of freedom. (Of course, there are also times when my children sulk or behave willfully or have tantrums, and I want nothing more than to drop them with a babysitter and retrieve them at bedtime, but that is for another week and another parashah.) The servitude of mothering two young girls raises me up in ways I did not expect.
So it is for the Levites. They are given a special burden. They must carry the pieces of the Tabernacle through the wilderness. They are raised up for a special privilege. They are entrusted with the Israelites' most precious possessions.
At the end of Parashat Naso, we learn that all the tribes bring gifts for the Levites, and Moses divides these gifts among the different clans of the Levite tribe. However there is one Levite clan, the Kohathites, which does not receive any gifts. The reason given is as follows: "But to the Kohathites he [Moses] did not give any [gifts]; since theirs was the service of the [most] sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder" (Numbers 7:9). Moses reasons that had they received gifts, they would be unable to carry them, given the nature of the service they perform.
The Kohathites do not receive gifts perhaps because they don't need them. Instead, they carry the most precious gift on their shoulders-their service to God. They are raised up above all the other Levites with this most sacred service, and they carry it with great difficulty, on their own aching backs.
Perhaps, in the end, it is the things that weigh us down that actually raise us up most profoundly. As we travel through the wilderness of our lives, God beckons us to discover our special burdens-intended for our shoulders only-which are also our most precious gifts. It is not that God seeks to burden us. God knows and waits patiently for us to learn that when we discover what is meant for our shoulders only, the act of carrying will become a way of being raised up. We may sweat as we hike along in the hot sun, but as we shield our eyes to look ahead, we are aware that we are ascending to Sinai, and at that moment the burden becomes as light and as pleasant as a kiss from a child.
By the Way
- "We All Stood Together"
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
Of what he saw
Of what he heard
Of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
Of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I'm always holding a baby
One of my own
Or one of a friend
Always holding a baby
So my hands are never free
To write things down
As time passes
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I'm left with is
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he's got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
(Merle Feld, A Spiritual Life [New York: State University of New York Press, 2000])
"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth." Rabbi Yochanan said: An angel carried utterances [at Mount Sinai] from before the Holy One, blessed be He, each one in turn, and brought it to each of the Israelites and said to him, "Do you take upon yourself this commandment? So-and-so many penalties are attached to it, so-and-so many precautionary measures are attached to it, so many precepts and so many lenient and strict applications are attached to it; such-and-such a reward is attached to it." The Israelite would answer him, "Yes." He then said, "Do you accept the divinity of the Holy One, blessed be He?" and he answered, "Yes, yes." Thereupon he kissed him on the mouth; hence it says, Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know (Deuteronomy 4:35), namely, by an [angelic] messenger.
The Rabbis, however, say: The commandment itself went in turn to each of the Israelites and said to him, "Do you undertake to keep me? So many rules are attached to me, so many penalties, so many precautionary measures, so many regulations are attached to me, so many relaxations and rigors; such-and-such a reward is attached to me." He would reply, "Yes, yes," and straightaway the commandment kissed him on the mouth… and taught him Torah. ( Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2, 2)
- Both of these texts are about standing at Sinai and our relationships with important loved ones. Ineach of them, a relationship is being described as having burdens and rewards. What aspects of your life have rewards that are worth the burdens?
- Do the most rewarding things in life carry burdens?
- What aspects of Jewish life are both burdens and rewards?