Holy work, in harmonious key

D’var Torah
May 25, 2018 // 12 Sivan 5778
Parashat Naso

Every individual and family in our congregation sings its own song.
The goal of each one of us is
to sing in harmony with the rest of the congregation.

This week’s Torah portion Naso is all about
the songs our ancient families sung at their Jewish community centre,
the tabernacle in the wilderness.
The Gershon family, the Merari family, the Kehati family, and so on,
each of the Levite families played its own role
in the holy work of packing and carrying the tabernacle
throughout the 40 years in the desert.
Each one of them had the goal
to sing in harmony with those who worked with them.

In a census of the Levites,
our Torah portion counts by family the 8,580 Levites,
and details their service of packing and carrying the Tabernacle.
Contemporary commentator Robert Alter notes that the Levites had
“two complimentary labors: ‘avodah, “work”,
(which) would be taking apart the sanctuary
and perhaps also reassembling it;
(and) masa’, “carriage”,
is the task of carrying (the tabernacle) from place to place.
(The Five Books of Moses, p.700, comment on 4:19)

As the census of the Levites comes to a close,
there is an unprecedented repetition of the first labor la’avod.
לַעֲבֹ֨ד עֲבֹדַ֧ת עֲבֹדָ֛ה וַעֲבֹדַ֥ת מַשָּ֖א בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד
You may be familiar with this common root word.
Here, no less than 4 times (!) the root
for “work” or “service” — ‘avodah — is repeated, back to back.
In its most uninspiring translation
the Levites were told “to work the work of work / ‘avodah,
and the work of masa’ / carrying.”

The Talmud takes note of this bizarre repetition
when Rabbi Yochanan asks the question:
?לעבוד עבודת עבודה – איזהו עבודה שצריכה עבודה
“To work the work of work – what is work that needs work?”
הוי אומר: זו שירה
“Let us say: this is song.” (Arakhin 11a)

Though we certainly understand the role of the Levites
as packing and carrying the tabernacle,
we also know that the Levites were well-known
as the musicians of the congregation of Israel.

The 17th century commentator, Siftei Chachamim,
commenting on our 4 root-repetition, writes:
“Avodat Avodah / Service for [another] service.
Meaning that at the time when the Priests were making offerings
and dealing with the service,
the Levites were singing and playing on their cymbals and harps.
Thus they performed a service for the service of the Priests.”

Each of the Levite families provided the inspiration
for the sacrificial, priestly work by offering accompanying music
— with voice, cymbals and harps.

And as 13th century commentator Chizkuni says,
they shared in the work equally:
לעבוד עבודת עבודה, (he translates as) ‘to perform the work of bearing burdens.’
This task of dismantling and re-erecting the Tabernacle
was shared בשוה על כל הלויים in equal measure by all the Levites.”

What mattered most was that each gave in equal measure,
in the holy work and song of the tabernacle,
according to their ability.

I think of our own tabernacle, our Jewish Community of Greater Stowe,
and how people work so generously to make our community what it is.
Each one of us can be counted in the census of our community,
like the Levites of a different era,
each family offerings its own song.

As our JCOGS President Ron Feinstein likes to say,
we each give in different ways and in different measures,
giving our time,
giving our talents,
and giving of our treasury, the three T’s.
Each of these parts of the greater JCOGS song
gives our holy place its life and vitality.

When we sing in harmony,
and when we give equally in the burden,
however we are able to most fully give,
our community is whole.
What matters most is that each song is in harmony with the next,
each one offering an equal contribution
to the greater whole, as we are able, as is needed,
sharing in the burden and in the blessing.

There are times, I observe, where the song can be more harmonious.
I imagine this was the same for the Levites at times.
Here, I see at times a few carrying the burden of the many.
I think of Friday nights and hope that moving forward,
we as a congregation do more to offer Patti Rubin more support
(even when she so humbly says no to help!).

And then there are times when we are in complete harmony,
as when a member falls ill, G-d forbid,
and we rally to bring meals, send cards, make visits,
offer lifts to doctor’s appointments across the state, and more.
There are times we cannot give in the way we may wish to.
Sometimes a young parent cannot make it to JCOGS early to help setup,
too busy running from work to get their kids to making it here on time,
yet they may be willing to sit on a committee and offer their talents.

Or others who don’t have the time,
but can make financial contributions to support the institution.

However we do the work of building our community,
we are each hosts in this place as much as we are guests.
We are as much the choir as we are the ones who hear the music.
We must show our responsibilities one to the other,
lovingly weaving each person into the fabric of our beloved community,
for what we can accomplish together is greater than the individual.

The gifts each of us gives are part of a song in harmony,
each piece offering its own resolution to the whole.

Yet, the ultimate blessing is each person’s joyful presence.
As the Psalmist says (100:5): עבדו את ה’ בשמחה
“Work/Serve G-d with joy!”
With that same root word la’avod to serve,
which we saw repeated in our parashah,
as the Levites laboured with love in the tabernacle,
our work too must be one of joy,
as joyful as a song in perfect harmony.

הנה השמחה היא שלמות העבודה
As HaKtav VeHaKabbalah writes:
For the joy (of the mitzvah) is the completion and wholeness of the avodah / the work.

Like our Levite ancestors,
every individual and family in our congregation sings its own song.
The goal of each one of us
is to sing in harmony with the rest of the congregation.
And every congregation sings it’s own song.
The goal of our congregation is to sing a song in harmony
with all of the other congregations of people,
all of the families of the world,
an enduring and beloved song for all.