Parshat Naso

Torah Reading for Week of May 31 – June 6, 2009

“Raising our Spiritual Station in Uncertain Times”

by Rabbi Andrew Feig, ’07
School Rabbi, Sinai Akiba Academy

As the economic crisis continues and possibly deepens, our future is still uncertain. Job losses are increasing, gas prices continue to rise, and bankruptcies loom ever greater on the horizon. What can we do? How do we cope with the prospect of an uncertain future and the prospect of continued struggle and loss during this difficult period in our society? This week’s Torah portion may give us some insight as to how to deal with the uncertainty of the times.

Parshat Naso continues the census taking theme from the first parsha, yet instead of employing the Hebrew word pakad to describe the counting, the Torah uses the phrase naso et rosh, literally “raise or lift the head.” The first time we see this expression is in Numbers 4:2. Here we read, “Take a census (naso et rosh) of the sons of Kehat from among the sons of Levi, after their families, by the house of their fathers…” Rashi understands the use of the word naso as a play on words. He explains, “Count from among them those who are fit for the work of carrying (Hebrew masa from the root nasa).” Thus, the word naso, meaning “to lift or raise” is used to describe those Levites who are engaged in carrying parts of the Tabernacle through the wilderness.

The Or HaChaim, however, senses something different in the text. Recognizing the use of this phrase in other places in the Tanach (Judges, Zechariah, Psalms, and Job), the Or HaChaim understands naso et rosh to connote the behavior of those who are proud. When one shows or feels pride, one lifts up one’s head and stands tall. The Torah means to convey that the sons of Kehat are greatly honored and proud to bear the responsibility for carrying parts of the Mishkan. In fact, as the text says, the sons of Kehat carry the most holy objects of the Mishkan, including the Ark, the Table of the Show-Bread, and the Menorah.

The only other time we find the expression, naso et rosh, comes at the beginning of this week’s parsha and is, of course, its namesake. Here, we read, “Take a census (naso et rosh) of the sons of Gershon, them as well, according to their father’s house, according to their families” (Numbers 4:22). Rashi sees a connection to our previous verse in 4:2; that the census of the sons of Gershon should be conducted in the same manner as that of the sons of Kehat. Yet, the sons of Gershon, have a different responsibility for the Mishkan. They are charged with carrying the panels of the Tabernacle, its Cover and the screen to the entrance of the Tabernacle. So it is clear that both the sons of Gershon and the sons of Kehat are to carry parts of the Tabernacle. What makes their task different?

“So Moses took the wagons and the oxen and gave them to the Levites. Two of the wagons and four of the oxen he gave to the sons of Gershon, in accordance with their work…and to the sons of Kehat he did not give, because the service of the holy is upon them; they carry on the shoulder.” (Numbers 7: 6, 9) Although the sons of Kehat are given the noble work of carrying the most holy items of the Mishkan, they are not given wagons to help in their burden. They carry everything on their shoulders, a distinguishing feature of their work.

The Mei Hashiloach, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, also sees this difference as significant. He interprets the verb naso as a metaphor for the raising of one’s spiritual station, hitnasut. “The sons of Kehat achieved this state of spiritual elevation [hitnasut] (deliberately) entering themselves into situations of doubt and uncertainty, and by being tested…In other words, from the act of carrying on their shoulder we learn that they had reached the state of patience necessary to enter into and cope with places of uncertainty.” (The Living Waters – The Mei Hashiloach; Torah Commentary, p. 276). For this Hasidic master the use of naso does not simply account for the Levite clan, but describes their elevated state of spirituality.

The lesson is our challenge: With uncertain times ahead, we need to take pride in our path. When we maintain our dignity and lift our heads high, we can face a dubious future. With determination and strength in the toil of our everyday activities, the seemingly mundane tasks set before us, we train ourselves to be patient to weather difficult times. This Shabbat, may we see the situations of doubt and uncertainty as an opportunity for personal growth and spiritual strength.

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