Adulthood is a lot like being in the wilderness. If we read the Torah as mirroring the stages of our own lives, then the book of Numbers corresponds to being an adult. Genesis is the beginning, our coming into the world, the stories of our childhood, our origins, and our family. Exodus is our adolescence; we gain our freedom and discover who we are. Leviticus is entering adulthood, as we learn the many rules and rituals for living in society. The last book, Deuteronomy, deals with reviewing and reflecting on the first four books and preparing the next generation to go forward, like our elder years.
But before Deuteronomy comes the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, Numbers is called Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness.” It is a time of journeying that lasts for 40 years and is filled with the many challenges of adulthood: complaints and crises, deaths and battles, rebellions and wanderings.
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, which opens with a census of the Levites and the duties of the various Levite clans, might seem like a section of the Torah that one would skim over in search of more relevant topics — how could the details of the labor and porterage duties of the Levite clans possibly hold any meaning for our lives today? However, it seems that the Levites’ work in the midbar (wilderness or desert) was not so different from our work in the midbar of our adulthoods.
In the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, we camped around the mishkan, or tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that housed the holy of holies, the sacrificial altar, the ark of the Ten Commandments, and the presence of God.
Each time we moved from place to place, all the Levites from the ages of 30 to 50 were responsible for dismantling, carrying and reassembling the mishkan. One family was responsible for the cloths, coverings and screens; another carried the planks, posts and pegs; while the third carried the most sacred objects — the ark, the altar and the menorah.
The Levites are not depicted as great leaders or guides, but rather, they are physical laborers and security guards; they break down and set up the camp, they pack and unpack, and they load and unload oxcarts. Our Torah portion speaks repeatedly of the “avodah,” labor, and “massa,” porterage, of the Levite clans. Just like us in our journey through adulthood, the Levites spent their years in the wilderness working and shlepping, working and shlepping.
On one level, the labor and porterage of the Levites in the wilderness is the daily grind of adulthood: We go to work, sit in traffic, drop off the kids, pick up the groceries, pay the bills and do our chores.
But the Levites carried the mishkan, God’s dwelling place! So on another level, the Torah is saying that in the middle of our struggles in the wilderness is a holy place, a place where the Divine resides, and we carry that Divine Presence through our work in the world. Like us, the Levites had to go to work each day, but they knew that the purpose of their labor was to create holiness in the desert and to bring the Presence of God with us wherever we journeyed.
This Torah portion invites us to look at our lives and at the daily labor and porterage that we do. We work hard like the Levites, but what is the Divine dimension in the work we do? Are we just toiling away in the desolate wilderness? Or does our work ultimately help to carry and create a place of sacredness, goodness, compassion, justice and peace in the world around us? Whether our work is as professionals, volunteers, citizens or parents, Parashat Naso invites us to pause and reflect: Is our work holy work?
Our lives are so busy with both the challenges of our journey through the wilderness and with the many responsibilities of adulthood that we might come to see our work as drudgery. Parashat Naso reminds us, however, that holy service and creating a Godly world is what lies at the heart of our labor, no matter what kind of work we do.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.