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The Things They Carried - a d'var Torah for parashat Naso

This is the d'var Torah I'll offer on Shabbat morning at my shul. 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.)

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