As for the Merarites, you shall record them by the clans of their ancestral house; you shall record them from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who are subject to service in the performance of the duties for the Tent of Meeting. These are their porterage tasks in connection with their various duties for the Tent of Meeting: the planks, the bars, the posts, and the sockets of the Tabernacle; the posts around the enclosure and their sockets, pegs, and cords?all these furnishings and their service: you shall list by name the objects that are their porterage tasks. (Numbers 4:29-32)
Naso begins with God commanding Moses to take a census of two of the three major groups within the Levite tribe and assign to each one a role in the porterage of the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting. (The tasks of the first group, the Kohathites, are mentioned in last week's portion, B'midbar.) As our focal point states, the Merarites have the third-level task of porting the nuts and bolts. While maybe not as glamorous as porting the Holy of Holies, nuts and bolts are very important in making its foundation solid.
While there appears to be a hierarchy of tasks, the root word used in connection with each group is the same,ayin-vet-dalet, which means "work," "service," or "responsibility." In the Bible, this word is most often used to refer to the holy work of sacrifices. InCHAI: Learning for Jewish Life, avodah is defined as "the work we do to find sacred connections to God, community, and self" ( CHAI: Level 2 Curriculum Core [New York: URJ Press, 2003, p. 109). Using this definition, God commanded the Merarites to find sacred connections through shlepping.
If the Merarites found sacred connections to God, community, and self by shlepping the nuts and bolts of the Tent of Meeting through the desert, can we too find similar connections in the same way? Is there such a thing as "holy shlepping" in the modern world? Can the act be holy only if we shlep holy things? If so, what makes an object holy? If not, what makes the shlepping holy?
Recently, as I was leaving the parking lot of our local JCC, I saw that the license plate in front of me read "SHLPR." I started to laugh because I, too, was in my car, shlepping my children from the Jewish day school to appointments all over town. Whether we are single or married, with children or without, once we earn our first driver's license, we in America begin the routine of shlepping. Each year this routine takes longer as traffic increases and the number of appointments in our electronic organizers increase. So, if we are spending so much time in our cars or on public transportation shlepping things and people around, can this time be holy?
I think it can. As we are all created in the divine image, each time we see the holy in those we are shlepping, the shlepping is holy. Each time we see the results of our shlepping as repairing the world better, the shlepping is holy. Each time we respectfully acknowledge other drivers on the road while we are shlepping, we make the road a little more peaceful and the shlepping is holy. Shlepping can be holy when we are fully present in the moment. In her book Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness, Estelle Frankel states how we can embody not only these verses of Torah but all of Torah:
To experience our lives as living embodiments of Torah is to know that our lives have meaning and purpose. It is also a call to live life with greater awareness and mindfulness of the awesome holiness of each moment. Imagine, for instance, if we were to regard every encounter we had in the course of a day as a parasha, or chapter of Torah. How might that awareness deepen our ability to be fully present to the moment? ( Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness[Boston: Shambhala, 2005])
But having the kavanah, the "intent," to make shlepping holy regularly is a challenge. Stephen R. Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, writes about "beginning with the end in mind." He states, "To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you're going so that you better understand where you are now and so the steps you take are always in the right direction" (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People [New York: Fireside Book, 1990], p. 98).
The steps may be different for each of us (you might want to create a personal mission statement, as Covey suggests), but whatever steps you take, odds are each of us will have steps of shlepping along the way. What we do when we are shlepping, and on all the other steps as well, is the key. Will we live up to the challenge of holy shlepping, or will we focus on the traffic, the time, and whatever else is stressing us? When we live up to the challenge, we are living up to our role of being God's partners on the earth, as Midrash T'hillim 136:10 states, "A person does with one's hands. The Holy One blesses the work of one's hands."
By the Way
Act while you can, while you have the chance, the means, and the strength. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151a)
Only as a soul comes to know itself can it come to know its Creator. (Abraham ibn Ezra, quoted in Kerry M. Olitzky, 100 Blessings Every Day [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993], p. 281)
The most important discipline of Judaism involves the blessing. When a blessing is recited before eating, the act itself becomes a spiritual undertaking. Through the blessing, the act of eating becomes a contemplative exercise. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation [New York: Schocken Books, 1985] p. 285)
What action can you take today to make shlepping a holy experience for you or others?
When the Merarites began shlepping both the nuts and bolts of the Tent of Meeting and their own supplies, most likely they had to determine which of their own belongings to take and which to leave behind-physically, emotionally, and spiritually. What would you take and what would you leave behind in order to make shlepping holy?
Is there a blessing you can create or find, perhaps the T'filat HaDerech, that would guide you on the daily path of holy shlepping?
Susan Cosden, R.J.E., is director of lifelong learning for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington, and a faculty member of Portland Jewish Academy in Portland, Oregon.