At a leadership training day, the facilitator asked the assembled group of synagogue lay leaders what their favourite Jewish festival was. “That’s obvious”, said one participant, a synagogue warden, “it’s Selichot”. “Why do you love it?” asked the facilitator. “Because unlike the rest of the chaggim when I’m running around and organising, on selichot I actually get to sit in the service”, came the response, and with it mutterings of agreement, laughter, and acknowledgement from around the room.
Those who smiled in acknowledgement of their fellow lay leader who felt unable to sit down during a service may find further characters to identify with in this week’s parashah. Naso is the longest portion of the Torah, and like the book of Leviticus as a whole, is mainly concerned with activities relating to the priesthood. Naso details the consecration of the tabernacle as a sanctuary, ending with Moses hearing God’s voice from within the tent of meeting.
As the consecration of the tabernacle begins, representatives of the tribes bring forth their offerings and gifts which God instructs Moses to give to the Levite priests for their service. These offerings- oxen and carts- were to be presented to the Gershonites and Merarites, two of the Levite groups, but not to the third group, the Kohatites. The carts and oxen served to aid in their roles transporting the tabernacle from location to location. The Gershonites role was to carry the fabric; its curtains, ropes, and hangings and the Merarites carried the framework objects like tent pegs and posts. The Kohatites received no such aids, because the Torah tells us that their work was ‘by shoulder’.
The Kohatites bore on their shoulders those things that were deemed to be most sacred, and therefore they were to be carried by people and not rested on a wagon. Their honour and responsibility was greater than the other Levites, but so too the physical burden of carrying it out. Whilst the Gershonites and Merarites could use the aids they had been gifted, the Kohatites had nothing but their own backs and shoulders to rely on.
There is something paradoxical about the situation of the Kohatites and that is the equation of honour with burden. Whilst it is indeed a great and privileged responsibility to carry the most sacred parts of the tabernacle, the Kohatites are simultaneously the most trusted and the least supported members of the Levite community.
In the introduction to his work on community organising, Mark Miller describes the experience of leaders who shoulder responsibility without adequate support in sharing the burdens. He depicts a picture of an organisation where a few leaders hold most of the responsibility, and the burden of that responsibility is all-consuming and causes them to be overstretched and on the verge of burnout. It’s a picture that is observed in many institutions, where a few people who are highly motivated by their sense of purpose and the honour of responsibility become disillusioned and frustrated as they find themselves spread thinly and feeling unappreciated.
It is no coincidence that the Hebrew root עבד can mean both worship and work. Rabbi Anne Ebbersman suggests that “The Kohathites do not receive gifts perhaps because they don’t need them. Instead, they carry the most precious gift on their shoulders-their service to God.” Those involved in synagogue life know that carrying out the essential work of a Jewish community can have as much meaning, and perhaps sometimes more, than participation in ritual moments as a congregant.
Despite this, the situation the Kohatites find themselves in should alarm us, because though their work is a sacred responsibility it also leaves them vulnerable. Whilst it is true that sacred work is enriching and a privilege, it is also true that it is hard. The Ark of the Covenant was carried through the desert on the backs of individuals. It was big. It was heavy. The desert is not easy terrain. The precious duty of service may have been enough of a gift in the moment, but even precious gifts grow tired as the weight of the carrying poles, and another late evening meeting, bear down upon those who shoulder the community.
Moses’ decision to not distribute a cart to all the Levite groups was misplaced. The Kohatites needed the oxen and the cart just as much as the others.
In Pirke Avot 2:2 we read the words “And all who work for the community, let them work for the sake of the name of Heaven; for the merit of their ancestors sustains them”. Alongside this honour that sustains them is a further detail, for God says, “I credit you with a great reward, as if you yourselves had done it on your own”. The merit of the work has a partner in the shape of a celebration of the contribution that each individual has made.
We must not assume that the honour and value of the work is enough to sustain those who carry out the sacred task of sustaining our communities. In their evenings, lunch-breaks, weekends, and often year after year, their actions and work hold congregations together week by week just as the priests bore the tabernacle through the desert, enabling it to be reassembled whenever the Israelites settled. The journey we travel together is long, and those in our midst who step up to help carry the things at the very heart of our community need us, their fellow wanderers, to see that even though the honour is great, so is the load, and a cart and oxen would be gratefully received.
Student rabbi Deborah Blausten