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Naso Es Rosh B’nei Gershon


THE TORAH portion Naso opens with G-d’s command to Moshe (Moses) (Numbers 4:22), “Count [literally, ‘raise’] the head[s] of the sons of Gershon as well.” The phrase “as well” refers back to the command in the previous Torah portion, Bamidbar, to count the sons of Kehos (Numbers 4:2). A later verse (Numbers 4:27) goes on to stipulate that the tasks for which the sons of Gershon were responsible were to be performed at the express direction of Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim (priests). By examining the reason the Gershuni (Gershonites) were singled out to be counted “as well,” together with the reason their task in particular had to be directed by the priests, we can come to understand important fundamentals about the protocol for approaching G-d.

The directives concerning the Gershuni are found in the context of the division of labor among the Levites generally for transporting the Mishkan, or Tabernacle – the traveling Sanctuary that accompanied the Jews during their travels in the desert. The “family tree” of the descendants of Levi consisted of the Kohanim – the priestly branch of the family, i.e., Aaron the High Priest and his sons – and the Levites, who were further divisible by their descent from Levi’s three sons, Gershon, Kehos and Merari.

Each of these three family groups of Levites had a specific function in the transport of the Mishkan.

The Tabernacle was constructed with an infrastructure of wooden posts; the Merari were responsible for carrying these. Over this infrastructure, the walls and roof consisted of specific types of animal hides; the Gershuni would carry these. Finally, the contents of the Tabernacle – the holy implements with which the Divine service was conducted – were carried by the Kehosi.

The above is by way of background. Now, let us begin our exploration of its symbolism by considering a known phenomenon: most things are easier the second time around. Whether one is reviewing a subject one has previously studied, or engaging upon a course of action which some trailblazing individual has already pioneered, it seems that the first time paves the way for whatever comes after. The later repetitions are easier because of the first; in fact, sometimes they are only possible because of what was accomplished initially.

The Jews’ sojourn in the desert played a similar role for the future course of Jewish history. On the way to the Promised Land, the Jews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, bearing with them the Tabernacle and all its implements, including the Holy Ark containing the Ten Commandments. This scenario was highly symbolic.

The desert represented a condition absolutely devoid of spirituality, completely barren of holiness. That is the mystical reason a desert is in fact barren: all productivity and beneficial growth flow from G-d’s goodness and the forces of holiness, while, by contrast, the forces of evil have nothing to give. Thus, a desert, which represents lack of G-dly influence (as it is written of the desert (Jeremiah 2:6), “where no man dwelt”; a verse that is mystically interpreted as a reference to the Heavenly “Man,” so to speak – G-d), is characterized by utter lack of growth and bounty. The Jews’ passage through this barren wasteland carrying with them the Ten Commandments and the rest of G-d’s Tabernacle symbolized their overall mission in the universe: to “light up” the world with G-dliness, and bring the spiritual into even the most desolate reaches of the “desert.”

The people who made this journey were not simple folk: the Jews who left Egypt were the progenitors, in a spiritual as well as physical sense, of the entire Jewish nation, and their souls actually included within themselves the souls of all the Jews to come. (See the synopsis of the discourse “V’Hinei Anachnu M’Almim Alumim” on the Torah portion Vayeishev.) What they accomplished in the desert was the subjugation of the unG-dly (in a non-literal sense, of course, since everything that exists ultimately derives from G-d) to the G-dly. This “blazed the trail,” “paved the way,” for all such activities later to be performed by us, their descendants. And this is true not only with respect to our bringing the outside world under the dominion of G-d, but also in terms of our own selves: our ability to subjugate our physical bodies and our base instincts to holy and spiritual concerns is made easier, in a sense even possible, due to the pioneering efforts of our predecessors. Their lighting up the way in the desert subjugated the spiritual source of the material and the profane; as a result, it is now – and, in the Messianic era, will be even more so – easier for us to bring out and reveal the G-dliness underlying all existence.

Technically, what we are really speaking of is revelation of an underlying truth.

As discussed extensively in Jewish philosophy, G-d’s existence is the only true existence; from His perspective, as it were, nothing else in the universe can be said to really exist at all. What we perceive as the world and all its contents only appears to us to have an existence independent of G-d because our own perspective is faulty. We mortals are incapable of seeing the true state of affairs (even though we may firmly believe in it) because our bodies and our natural, animalistic inclinations cloud our ability to perceive the spiritual. However, if we refine our material selves and bring them to the point at which they too, crave not the physical and the worldly, but the spiritual and the holy, they cease to block our view. It is perhaps comparable to a person looking through a dirty pane of glass. Although the most beautiful and refined light may shine on the other side, the grime makes the glass a barrier to seeing it. The more one polishes that glass, and the more one removes the dirt, the more transparent the glass is rendered; no longer does it prevent one from seeing through.

The desert symbolized that covering over of the spiritual by the material. Torah study and performance of mitzvos, however – by the Jews traveling through the desert and by us each and every day – serve to polish the glass, to refine the material substance of the universe and of our own personalities, so that these no longer block out the truth of G-d’s all-encompassing unity. In short, by making ourselves “transparent,” by nullifying our own perspective in deference to G-d, we are enabled to see things “from G-d’s perspective” and to realize that nothing truly exists but Him.

We of these latter generations are relatively small in spiritual stature, and would not necessarily have been able to “clean the entire glass” of the physical world by ourselves, but the spiritual activities of our ancestors in the desert – who were of far greater spiritual ability than we – removed so much of the grime, as it were, that today, we too are able to continue what they began. Every little bit counts, and makes the glass that much clearer. And, in the time of the Messiah, the glass will be fully transparent, so that, then, we will be able to see G-d openly revealed, with no impediment at all.

Jewish mysticism teaches that G-d uses many names, each of which contains potent spiritual powers. The spiritual task described above, which our forefathers performed over years of wandering in the wilderness, was accomplished in 42 distinct spiritual stages, corresponding to the Divine Name containing 42 letters. That is why (as enumerated in the Torah portion Masei) the Jews encamped 42 times at various places throughout the desert. This concept has a present day application as well, as we shall see below.

For today, too, we have a counterpart to the Tabernacle of the desert, and the challenge of making it supreme over the wasteland devoid of holiness. As the Torah states of the Mishkan (Exodus 25:8), “Make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.” Use of the plural (“within them”) instead of the singular (“within it”) is meant to convey that G-d dwells within the “mishkan” that is each and every Jewish soul. We each have the Holy Tabernacle, in microcosm, within us, complete with the spiritual counterparts to its infrastructure of posts; its outer covering of skins; and its holy implements. What is more, the particular service of the Gershuni, the Kehosi and the Merari are also reflected in our own worship.

The word mishkan literally means “dwelling place.” By purifying ourselves of the desire for worldly matters, we become proper dwellings for G-d. This is accomplished through prayer.

The posts of the mishkan are described (Exodus 26:15) as “standing [posts of] shittim wood.” This aspect of the posts, that they had to be standing, is similar to the aspect of the heavenly beings known as seraphim, as it is written (Isaiah 6:2), “Seraphim were standing above Him.” Likewise, we recite in our prayers (prior to the morning Shema prayer), “His ministering [angels] all stand at the summit of the universe and express with reverence, etc.” For “standing” symbolizes reverence, awe, fear of G-d (yirah in Hebrew).

The reason is that love of G-d is considered an active thing, an emotion which impels one to move toward one’s goal of coming close to Him. Therefore, love of G-d (ahavah) is called “walking” or “going,” as we find regarding our forefather Abraham, who exemplified the trait of love for G-d (Genesis 12:9), “and Abraham traveled, journeying on and on….” Unfortunately, one can love or crave other than G-dly things; this is also called “going,” but in the wrong direction. In order to change course and approach G-d, one must first stop, stand still. When one develops a healthy fear of G-d, a constant awareness of G-d’s omnipresence, one will naturally cease their pursuit of worldly things and be ready, instead, to turn their attention to holy concerns. This state of standing still, the turning point between pursuit of other things and pursuit of G-dliness, is thus associated with yirah, awe or reverence for G-d.

It is cultivated by honest self-appraisal, to the point where the person who has transgressed (G-d forbid) comes to grips with the enormity of their offense and feels bitter regret over it. The spiritual ability to achieve this state is associated with the Levite family of the Merari, a word that is etymologically related to the word for “bitterness” (merirus). This is the inner reason the sons of Merari had the task of carrying the standing posts that formed the skeleton of the Mishkan.

It is only after the skeleton is in place that one can put the walls and covering on a structure. This represents love of G-d, which, as explained above, follows fear. For this reason, the covering of the Mishkan included material of t’cheles. This word literally means “blue,” but is also an allusion to the similar word kilayon (literally “destruction”), in the sense of the pining, yearning type of love for G-d referred to in the passage (Psalms 73:25-26), “Whom do I have in Heaven but You; other than You I do not desire anything upon earth. My flesh and my heart fail (calah) [for You]…” The symbol of this love, i.e., the covering of the Mishkan, was borne by the Gershuni.

Now, at prayer, we first concentrate on the meaning of the preliminary prayers known as p’sukei d’zimra (“verses of praise” for G-d), and the initial blessing (yotzer or) of the two blessings that introduce the Shema prayer. The theme of these preliminary prayers is how all of creation and the mighty hosts of Heaven all stand in awe and reverence of G-d’s greatness. These prayers are designed to arouse within us as well the emotion of yirah, fear or awe, for G-d, as explained above. For reasons to be discussed shortly, this type of fear is known as yirah tatah, “lower-level fear” of G-d.

We then progress in our prayers to the second introductory blessing (ahavas olam) and the Shema itself. The theme here is love of G-d. It is aroused by contemplating that the entirety of creation, including everything that has ever come to pass or ever will come to pass for all time, is nothing but a fleeting thought of G-d, and is even more insignificant, by comparison with G-d’s very “Self,” than a person’s fleeting thought in comparison with that person’s actual soul.

The universe was created simply because G-d “wanted” to express His sovereignty over His creatures. A human king and his subjects each exist in their own right, and it is possible for the king’s desire to rule them to be an aspect of the king’s own personality. In the case of G-d, however, Whose subjects possess no existence at all outside of G-d, it cannot really be said that G-d actually “desired” to rule them – since they did not even exist. The entire concept of G-d’s “desire” (ratzon) to express His sovereignty over the universe is therefore not integral to G-d Himself, as it were, but is rather like an external garment that must first be “put on.” This is the inner meaning of the verse (Psalms 93:1), “G-d reigns; He is clothed with majesty.” For G-d, Who transcends all of creation, to reign over it, He must first “put on” the cloak of sovereignty, something that is external to His actual “Self,” so to speak.

That is also the meaning of the verse (Esther 6:8), “They should bring a garment of sovereignty, which the king has worn.” Note, though, that the garment of sovereignty – G-d’s “enclothing Himself” with the desire to rule and bring the universe into existence as His “subjects” – must be “brought”: for we are expected to “arouse” this desire on G-d’s part, through our study of Torah and performance of mitzvos.

All this is hinted at by the text of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4): “Hear, O Israel, G-d is our G-d, G-d is one.” The Hebrew word for “hear,” shema, connotes “understand,” as we say also in English, “I hear.” We must reflect at length to the point we truly understand and appreciate that “G-d is our G-d.” As explained elsewhere, the first Hebrew word for “G-d” in this phrase is the Divine name Havaye; the second is the Divine name Elokim. The name Havaye refers to the transcendent aspect of G-d – that He is utterly above time and place and the entirety of creation; for Him, “forever” is nothing but a fleeting thought. The name Elokim signifies G-d as He nevertheless manifests Himself within creation, He Who conducts the world in all its particulars. By saying that Havaye is our Elokim, we express the idea that G-d, in His inexpressible love for us Jews, has miraculously made his transcendent and unknowable Self accessible to us to the point we can actually say that Havaye is our own personal G-d, Who relates to us in our daily lives. We immediately go on to say “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” The Hebrew word for “blessed,” baruch, implies a drawing down upon us from G-d above, and the implication is that through our worship, we draw down and elicit G-d’s kingdom – His aspect of sovereignty – into all the worlds.

All this meditation leads to what is stated next in the Shema, namely (Deuteronomy 6:5), “And you shall love G-d, your G-d.” As explained, this is symbolized, in a general manner, by the coverings of the Mishkan; in a more specific sense, however, the love corresponds to the six emotional attributes that Jewish mysticism identifies in both the Jewish soul and the Heavenly realms (the sefiros). This is alluded to by the verse (Isaiah 6:2), “[each Seraph standing before G-d had six wings;] with two he would cover his face … and with two he would fly.” (This itself is a reference to the concept of “ebb and flow,” or “running and returning” mentioned in connection with the heavenly creatures in Ezekiel 1:14, as will be explained shortly.)

These six attributes are hinted at in the description of the Mishkan’s individual coverings. One covering was of linen (Exodus 26:1), the Hebrew word for which is shesh – which also means “six.” Likewise, another covering (Exodus 26:14) was the skins of t’chashim, a word rendered by the classic Aramaic translator Onkelos as sasgona. The Talmud (Shabbos 28a), in discussing what type of creature is meant by t’chashim, mentions a certain colorful animal and comments that the Aramaic translation of its name may be interpreted to mean that it rejoices (sas) in its many colors (gavnin). Again, this is an allusion to the six emotional attributes, as the word sas and the word shesh (six) are related.

The Divine name of 42 letters, mentioned earlier, is identified with the prayer Ana B’choach. Examining this prayer reveals that the seven verses of this Divine name each contain six words, corresponding to the six attributes we have been discussing.

Now, the principle of “running and returning” (ratzoh vashov) is that G-d wishes to see us initiate the process of relating to Him (this is the ratzoh, or “running forth [to G-d]”), and only then does He reciprocate by bestowing upon us from above (shov, or “coming back”) a measure of blessing greater than we could have achieved on our own. In the context of our topic, the initial ratzoh is our arousal of love for G-d in prayer. This degree of love, mentioned by name in the introductory blessing of the Shema, is known as ahavas olam (literally, “everlasting love” but also implying “love connected with this world” – for the Hebrew word olam means both “forever” and “world”). Once we have achieved this, G-d bestows upon us, through the vehicle of the mitzvos that we perform, a revelation of His infinite “light” (Or Ein Sof). This in turn brings us to an even greater degree of love for G-d, known as ahavah rabba (“great love”). This dynamic is hinted at in the verse (Song of Songs 1:4), “Draw me [to you first, then] we will run after you,” as well as the verse (Jeremiah 31:2), “I have loved you with an everlasting love [ahavas olam]; therefore I have [in response] drawn you with kindness [a reference to ahavah rabba].”

It develops, then, that not only is there a “return” (the revelation of G-d’s infinite light) after the “running forth” (arousal of “everlasting love”), but there is also a more intense level of “running forth” (arousal of “great love”) that follows that “return.” And the specific spiritual function of the sons of Gershon, who carried the coverings of the mishkan (which symbolized love for G-d), was to drawn down upon the Jews the higher level of love, ahavah rabba, which comes through mitzvah performance, and connect it with the lower level, ahavas olam.

So far, what we have is this: the Merari bestowed upon the Jews the ability, through honest self-appraisal and bitter remorse over sin, to come to a standstill with respect to pursuit of worldly distractions, and replace it with fear of G-d. Following that, the spiritual influence of the Gershuni enabled the Jews to achieve first “everlasting love,” then the higher level of “great love,” for G-d. What, then, was the spiritual function of the sons of Kehos, who carried the Mishkan’s contents – the Holy Ark, the altars, and the Menorah?

The Ark containing the Ten Commandments represents the Torah, which is the wisdom (chochmah) of G-d Himself. Needless to say, G-d’s own wisdom is utterly inscrutable; accordingly, the Tablets of the Ten Commandments were hidden within the Ark. In order for us to be able to relate to G-d’s unknowable wisdom at all, it must be revealed to us, as it is written (Job 12:22), “[G-d] reveals deep things out of darkness.” This illumination of the darkness concealing the depth of the Torah is symbolized by the Menorah, the candelabrum of light. And the spiritual function of the Torah is one of separation and extraction: to separate the good from the bad, the pure from the impure; to extract the sparks of holiness from within the material substance of the world. This function – hinted at by the Kabbalah’s teaching (Zohar II, 254b), “they are separated out with wisdom” – is represented by the altars, where, in offering up sacrifices, the various components of the sacrifice were separated and distinguished (one element reduced to ash, another to smoke, etc.). The spiritual benefit of immersing oneself in the Torah – G-d’s wisdom – is the attainment of a degree of fear of G-d that surpasses even the lofty level of ahavah rabba, “great love.”

Thus, the Merari bring the Jews to the attainment of “lower-level” yirah, fear of G-d; this leads to the achievement of the two levels of ahavah, love for G-d, and only then, through the Torah, can we reach the “higher level” fear of G-d (known as yirah ilah). This protocol is alluded to by the Mishnaic teaching (Avos 3:17) that, “If there is no fear [of G-d] there is no wisdom” – for without yirah tatah, lower level fear, one cannot reach the level of the wisdom of the Torah – but, conversely, “if there is no wisdom, there is no fear” – for one cannot come to yirah ilah, higher level fear, except by way of the Torah. This is the spiritual task of the Kehosi: to bring the Jews to the higher level fear of G-d that follows “great love.” The name Kehos hints at this, for it is related to the word yikhas in Genesis 49:10, which Onkelos translates as meaning “will assemble,” “will gather in”: the Kehosi gathered together and unified all the disparate elements, the sparks of holiness extracted through Torah, a service symbolized by the Ark, the Menorah and the altars, as explained above. The corresponding portion of our prayer service is the shemone esrei that follows the Shema, during which we stand, silent and immobile, showing fear of G-d.

The Levites generally, as we can now see, performed a spiritual function characterized by attaching, connecting, binding one thing to another: attaching the lower level of fear to the higher level; attaching the degrees of love for G-d to one another; and so on. The word “Levi” actually means this, as we find in the Biblical account of the naming of Levi (Genesis 29:34), “Now my husband will be attached (yilaveh) to me.” On the other hand, the Kohanim represent the transmission of spiritual influence from above down to us, and for this reason it is said of the Gershuni in particular that their task had to be performed at the direction of Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim. It was the Gershuni whose task involved the elicitation from above of ahavah rabba, and this required the spiritual power of Aaron and his sons, the kohanim.

Finally, it has been explained elsewhere (see the synopsis of the discourse Vay’daber Hashem El Moshe B’Midbar Sinai on the Torah portion Bamidbar) that the expression used to refer to the “head count” in the desert literally means “lift up the heads” of the Jews. This indicates that one’s capacity to desire things – a faculty which is dependent upon one’s own intellectual understanding of what is or is not desirable – should be lifted up, elevated, and merged with the superior, innate desire of one’s soul – i.e., the soul’s natural desire for G-d, which is higher than one’s intellectual understanding. This can only be accomplished through Torah. For this reason, the command to count the Kehosi, whose spiritual task involved Torah (as explained above), is expressed in terms of this “lifting up of the heads.”

The Gershuni’s task involved starting from ahavas olam, a love which comes from one’s intellectual appreciation of the greatness of G-d as manifest in this world, and bringing it up to the level of ahavah rabba, which transcends intellectual comprehension. Therefore, the directive to Moshe to count the Gershuni is also couched in terms of “lifting up the heads” – even though the Gershuni’s function was not as directly linked to this elevation, which comes through Torah, as that of the Kehosi. Nevertheless, since it did involve elevation from a level dependent on intellect to one surpassing intellect, the command was to count them “as well” – that is, similar to the count of the Kehosi.

The Merari, however, primarily served to bring the Jews to a fear of G-d based upon the realization of G-d’s omnipresence. This is an awareness that does depend upon intellectual comprehension, and thus, the expression “lift up the heads,” as we have interpreted it, is not appropriate – and is therefore not found – in connection with the Merari.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin