The Things They Carried: a d’var Torah for Naso

This is the d’var Torah I’ll offer on Shabbat morning. If you’re going to be davening with us, you might want to skip this post so you can hear the d’var with fresh ears!

May God bless you and keep you
May God deal kindly and graciously with you
May God bestow favor upon you, and grant you peace.

Those three verses from Numbers 6 are known as the “priestly blessing.” Once these verses were recited by the priests. Today in some communities which preserve the distinctions between kohanim, levi’im, and Yisrael (priests, Levites, and everyone else), the descendants of kohanim recite these words at the end of the amidah with their hands upraised. In other communities these words are a benediction offered by the rabbi. I myself love chanting this blessing, every opportunity I get.

After this blessing, in this week’s Torah portion, we read, “Thus shall they link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” When we recite this blessing, we link God’s name with our community; we create and strengthen the bonds between ourselves and the part of God’s essence which is described by each of our many different names for God. “And I will bless them,” Torah says — the “I,” of course, being God. When we recite these words, we are turning a cosmic spigot for divine blessing.

Immediately after this blessing, we read about how once the mishkan (the portable tabernacle; the dwelling-place for God) was built, Moshe consecrated it and its furnishings. Then the heads of the tribes brought carts and oxen as a gift to Adonai. On God’s instruction, Moshe gave the carts and oxen to to the Gershonites and Merarites, two groups within the broader group of Levites. The Gershonites were responsible for the curtains and hangings and ropes; the Merarites were responsible for the posts, crossbars, tent pegs and so on.

But the Kohathites — a third group of Levites — did not receive oxen or carts, because they carried the most sacred objects, and they carried them on their shoulders. The ark of the covenant, which our tradition says contained both the whole tablets and the shattered set; the golden menorah; the table and vessels; all of these were carried directly by the men of the tribe of Kahat.

The Sfat Emet — Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (d. 1905) — offers a beautiful teaching about this by way of a verse from I Samuel as interpreted by the Zohar. (Bear with me! It’s worth it.)

The verse from Samuel is: “The cows went straight (וַיִּשַּׁרְנָה / vayiSHARnah) along the way.” The cows in question were carrying the ark of the covenant on their backs. The Sfat Emet follows the Zohar in engaging in a bit of aural wordplay, reading vayiSHARnah — “they went straight” — as “שרו / SHARu,” “they sang.” In other words: what really happened in Samuel was that the cows sang as they went. That’s the Zohar’s claim: “It was the Ark on their backs that enabled them to sing.”

The Sfat Emet writes:

The same is true of the Levites! It is the fact that they carry the Ark on their shoulders that gives them the power to lift their voices in song. This is true also of every person who serves God. True service fills a person with light and joy. …True worship consists of Torah and mitzvot; these of their own accord fill a person’s mouth with song and exultation.

Rabbi Art Green adds:

The religious life is not meant to be a weighty burden, but one that helps us to feel the lightness and joy of knowing God’s presence. The Levite who carries the ark on his shoulders is also — or is therefore — the one who sings! What a great message, and a typically hasidic one: life in God’s service is a life of happiness and fulfillment. Like those privileged cows who merited carrying the Ark of the Lord on their backs, the service of God should so fill us with joy that we cannot keep from breaking into song.

I love this reading of the task of the Kohathites. It’s not that they were extra-burdened by having to carry the holy implements on their own shoulders instead of having some oxen and a wagon; rather, their service was a blessing. It was their very service which allowed them to sing. We should all be so lucky as to be able to throw our whole selves, not only mind and heart and spirit but also even our bodies, into serving our Creator.

How do these details of who carried what and how they carried them relate back to the priestly blessing with which our Torah reading today began? In the Biblical paradigm, Aaron and his sons — the Levites — were uniquely privileged to do the work of serving God (carrying the various components of the dwelling-place for God), and as a result of their physical service, they were given the opportunity to serve as conduits for blessing. In our paradigm, this work is open to all of us.

When we put our whole selves, in all four worlds — body, heart, mind, and spirit — into service of the One, that’s when we can bless others. That’s when we can link God’s own Name with our names. That’s how we open that spigot for cosmic abundance: not merely through saying the words of the priestly blessing, but through committing our whole selves to serving others, and in so doing, serving God.

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