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Parashat Naso 5776 — 06/18/2016

Parashat Naso 5776 — 06/18/2016

Bamidbar 4:21-7:89
Man In the Middle

Take a census of the sons of Gershon, them too… (4:22)
With a great noise the ofanim and the holy creatures lift themselves up towards the seraphim. (liturgy)
Because one can do it, better is death in one’s own dharma than life in the dharma of another. Bhagavad-Gita

Levi had three sons: Kehat, Merari and Gershon. Since one of their job’s was the transportation of the Mishkan, as we discussed last week, they were counted separately from the rest of the Israelites. Each of the three Levitical lines had a different portion of the work of dismantling and then reconstructing the Mishkan. The family of Kehat, as we saw, was involved in the most significant parts of the work of the Mishkan. Both Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon were from the family of Kehat; their father Amram was the eldest son of Kehat. The Kehat family was responsible for covering the implements in the Mishkan (the Kohanim, that is, Aharon and his sons) did this, then the other members of the Kehat family bore them – the Ark, the Menorah, the Incense Altar and the Golden Table.

The Merari family was at the other end of the spectrum. They were the ones who took care of the boards and planks – they did the heavy lifting. Not a glamorous job, but good, honest work, and you can see the results of your labors when you’re done.

The family of Gershon was in the middle, and R. Steinsaltz opines that it was this “middle child” syndrome that Torah was trying to counteract by beginning an entire parashah with the counting of the Gershonites:

In this respect, the Gershonite families occupied a middle position. “This is the service of the Gershonite families – to minister and to carry” (Num. 4:24). ‘Ihe Kehatites dealt with spiritual matters. Though the service of the Merarites was not intellectual work, when they were finished a house stood. They took a hammer and nails and built something. If the Merarites performed the heavy lifting, and the Kehatites dealt with the important, exalted matters, what was left for the Gershonites? The answer is that the Gershonites carried everything in between. They collected and folded all sorts of things, including various materials and ropes.
Sometimes, it is much easier to be one of the simple porters than to be a member of the Gershonites. To be sure, a Merarite could not be an angel, nor could he perform the work of the angels, but his responsibility was clear and defined, and at the end of each day he knew that he accomplished something. But a Gershonite was neither an angel nor a porter – he was in between. The Gershonites certainly engaged in holy work, but not of the highest sort, like the Kehatites. For the Gershonites, it was easy to feel that they were not accomplishing anything.
Because of this, the Torah emphasizes, “Take a census (naso et rosh – literally, raise the heads) of Gershon’s sons also,” because these people must be remembered, they must be uplifted and told, in essence, that the Kehatites did not take all the plum jobs – “Raise the heads of Gershon’s sons also.”

R. Steinsaltz goes on:

When a person does not aspire to great things, he can make for himself a peaceful, simple life. Indeed, many people live this way. …
The problem is in the case of the Gershonites. A Gershonite is not on such a level that he can put on tefillin in a state of ecstatic reverie. On the other hand, he is not one of the simple people whose lives are without delusions and without pretensions. … He cannot live like the Merarites, because if he does so it will eat him up inside. However, he is not really on the level of the Kehatites either.

By this time we should all be having a bit of a déjà vu experience. This business of being in the middle between a highly evolved spiritual existence and a dull, plodding material existence, should be familiar to us all, for it is the common condition of all humanity! Human beings are created with a soul, which is infinite, unbounded, immortal – a piece of Divinity. Yet this soul is imprisoned, as it were, in a material body, which would like nothing better than to sit on the couch with a six-pack and watch TV. Or worse. Our life as a human being is a constant struggle between the inertia of our material nature and our drive to transcend our material nature. We are all Gershonites.

It is certainly true that some people seem to be more cut out for a spiritual calling than others. Whether through accident of birth into a culture that values spirituality more than another, or because of their particular DNA, some people seem to be able to ignore or sublimate their body’s urges more than others. And then there are some who seem to be content leading a very unexamined life. But for most of us, we feel a stirring to be more than what we are, a natural desire to rise higher in life, to expand our horizons, to get beyond the material. That is, the natural tendency of the soul to rise is greater than the natural tendency of the body to sink.

If this is the case, why do we feel so much spiritual inertia in the world. I’d like to present two possible answers from our tradition. First, there are those whose particular calling in life is to be spiritual leaders. There are those whose particular calling in life is to be a supporter of the spiritual leaders. Our Sages teach us that one who supports a Torah scholar actually receives more reward in the world to come than the Torah scholar (s)he is supporting, be it a woman supporting her sons and/or her husband or a businessman who takes the Torah scholar as his “partner,” or whatever. Why is this? First of all that supporting person is doing his assigned duty in this world. But more profoundly, the Torah scholar is getting all the enjoyment of studying Torah, while the supporting person is dealing with all the material “stuff” that makes the scholar’s enjoyment possible. Material enjoyment can never hold a candle to spiritual enjoyment.

A second, perhaps complementary possibility, is based on the idea that this body that our soul inhabits is not its only habitation. Just as we may move from house to house as our needs change, so our Sages tell us the soul may need to inhabit several bodies (sequentially) before we complete our task in the universe. Perhaps those who are our spiritual leaders had to “pay their dues” as supporting cast members in previous lifetimes, and those of us who are in supporting roles will have a “better” role next time.

A wise man once said, “We’re all on the same boat. Some may be at the front of the boat, and some may be at the back, but the important thing is that the boat is making progress.” If we each do our part to the best of our ability, we can be sure the boat will make the fastest progress, for everyone’s benefit!

Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25

Our haftarah tells of the birth of Shimshon (Samson). The angel instructs his mother to abstain from all impure foods, for Samson was to be a nazirite from birth. The laws of the nazirite are laid out in our parashah and this is the connection between the two.

A nazirite takes a special vow to abstain from wine and any other products of the grapevine, as well as to refrain from cutting the hair (hence the story of Samson and Delilah) and coming into contact with the dead. In many ways, the restraints on a nazirite are similar to those on the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). The nazirite, however, takes on such a vow, voluntarily, for (generally) a limited amount of time, for the purpose of ascending spiritually. That is, the nazirite is one who consciously denies the urgings of the body so that he can focus on his spiritual development, even if only for a short time. He may be a Merarite or a Gershonite, but for 30 days or 60 days, he elevates himself up to be a Kehatite, to use R. Steinsaltz’ analogy.

At the end of a nazirite’s period of abstention, he must bring three offerings, one of which is a sin offering. The commentators ask what his sin is that he should be required to bring an offering to gain atonement. The general consensus is that it is a sin to deprive the body of that which the Torah permits (e.g. wine). Pleasure is there for a purpose; the Torah does not require us to be depressed, and in fact does not want us to be depressed, because depression is actual a downward drag on our spirit. Ramban takes an opposite tack. He states that the nazirites’s sin is that he is ceasing to be a nazirite and going back to his mundane, earthy pursuits instead of continuing his spiritual climb!

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to debate the relative merits of these two approaches.