Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions

May 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Naso | 2 Comments

Out of all the twelve tribes of Israel, only men from the tribe of Levi take care of the portable sanctuary (the inner Tent of Meeting, and the outer courtyard) and conduct the religious cult there.  The original Levi is the third son of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, in the book of Genesis/ Bereishit.  He has three sons of his own:  Geirshon, Kohat (or Kehat), and Merari.  The descendants of these three sons are the three clans of Levites in the book of Numbers (called Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness”, in Hebrew).

Whenever the Israelites break camp and make another journey through the wilderness, someone has to dismantle the sanctuary, carry the pieces, and reassemble it at the next camp.   Last week’s Torah portion assigns the priests (Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar, who happen to be descendants of Kohat) the job of wrapping up the most holy objects.  These objects are they carried by the non-priests in the Kohat clan of Levites.

This week’s portion, Naso (“Lift”), begins with a description of what the other two clans of Levites carry.

Geirshonites:  They shall carry the curtains of the santuary and of the Tent of Meeting; its roof-covering and the covering of the leather that is on top of it, and the covering of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  This is the duty of the families of the sons of Geirshon in the Tent of Meeting; and their custody is in the hand of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest.  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 4:25, 4:28)

Merarites:  And this is their custody and their burden for all their duty in the Tent of Meeting:  the planks of the sanctuary, and its cross-pieces and its uprights and its sockets.  And the uprights of the courtyard all around, and their sockets and their pegs and their tent-ropes, including all of their tools for all of their duty; and you shall assign, by name, the tools for their custody and their burden.  This is the duty of the families of the sons of Merari; all their duty in the Tent of Meeting is in the hand of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest. (Numbers 4:31-33)

avodah: = duty, labor, service; work done not for oneself, but for another person or for God

In the Torah, the priests rank the highest in the hierarchy, and get the “holiest” duties.  When the sanctuary is dismantled, carried to the next camping-place, and reassembled, the priests’ duties include wrapping up the most sacred objects in various coverings, and supervising the other Levite men and assigning them their individual jobs.

The Kohatites carry the most sacred objects after they are wrapped:  the ark itself, the lampstand, the table for the twelve loaves of bread, and the incense altar.

The Geirshonites carry the walls of the sanctuary, which are all woven fabric, and the two layers of roofing over the inner Tent of Meeting, a large panel of woven goat-hair and another of waterproof leather.

The Merarites carry all the pieces of framework that hold up the inner Tent of Meeting and the outer courtyard wall.

Thus the four groups (the priests and the three Levite clans) have four different duties when the people journey.  And when the camp is set up again, these four groups pitch their personal family tents close to four different sides of the sanctuary.

Moses and the priests camp to the east, in front of the entrance to the sanctuary’s outer courtyard.  (The entrances to the Tent of Meeting and the innermost Holy of Holies also face east.)  The Kohatites camp on the south side of the sanctuary, the Gershonites on the west side, and the Merarites on the north side.

The words used in this part of the book of Numbers for east, south, west, and north all have another meaning:

keidmah = toward the east;  toward the front, the origin, the ancient time

teymanah = toward the south; from the root word yamin = right hand (the hand of favor and power)

yamah = toward the west; toward the sea

tzafonah = toward the north;  toward the hidden

The priests have the most perilous duty; they must touch the most holy objects in order to wrap them for transport.  They are also responsible for what the Levites do.  Their place is in the east, toward the ancient time, the origin of the human race.  (In Genesis, as soon as God has created a human being, God puts the adam  in the garden of Eden, which is in the “east”.)

Today, if we take on religious leadership, we need to remember that some people look up to us, and look to us for guidance.  Whatever we model, as well as teach, will have a deep effect on other human beings.  This is indeed a perilous duty.

The Kohatites get the next most dangerous job, carrying the holy objects on their shoulders without touching or seeing them directly.  Their place is in the south, at the favored right hand of the priests.

Today, when we choose to follow a religious leader, to serve at their right hand, we receive the gift of everything we learn from them.  But we are also responsible for carrying and passing on their teachings in a way that continues their good work—and does not degenerate into the idol-worship of mere objects and appearances.

The Geirshonites are responsible for walls and roofs.  Their place is to the west, toward the sea.

We often assume that if we put up psychological walls, we can actually keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out.  If we put up a mental roof, we can operate in the mundane world without worrying about any inscrutable mysteries, anything that might be called God.  But we need to remember that walls and roofs are not as permanent as they might seem. Something that looks solid may turn out to be flimsy fabric, as fluid as the sea.  Like the wall of water when the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea, a psychological wall might protect us, or might crash down and drown us.

The Merarites are responsible for the supporting framework of the sanctuary.  Their place is to the north, the place where things are hidden.

Many treasures are hidden from us, including knowledge and insight.  We don’t even know ourselves.  The only way we can find any hidden insights is by periodically dismantling the structure of our beliefs, carrying the pieces to a new place we have not been before, and erecting a new framework of supporting beliefs and theories.

Sometimes we can linger in one place in our lives, enjoying its blessings.  Then something changes; the presence of God rises and moves on, so to speak, and our blessings disappear.  That’s when we have to dismantle our lives, our own sanctuaries, and journey to a new place.

When we sense that we’ve arrived at the next place where God wants us, we have to rebuild our lives.  First we do the work of the Merarites, erecting a new framework, a new set of theories about life to support us and allow us to continue uncovering hidden insights.  Next we do the work of the Gershonites, hanging walls and draping roofs, separating our interior space from the exterior world while recognizing that the barriers are fluid.  Then we do the work of the Kohatites, setting down the holy objects, our most sacred convictions, in their proper places so that they are no longer burdens.  And finally we do the work of the priests, unwrapping the holy objects, revealing the golden treasures of our souls just enough so we can do the holy work  of  influencing the world for the good.



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  1. Very insightful. Thank you Melissa.

  2. […] on the south, the clan of Geirshon on the west, and the clan of Merari on the north.  (See my post Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions for […]

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