lift up your head

part of parshah naso in the sefer torah; photo by kera bartlett

On Saturday, I read the following reflection at the ceremony for my adult b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue (more on the ceremony in a later post). The speech is called a d’var Torah (literally, “word of Torah”), a close study on one aspect of the weekly portion of the Torah that is read that week in synagogue. It’s traditional for a bar or bat mitzvah to write and give such a speech at his/her ceremony. The parshah last week was Naso, Numbers 4:21–7:89.

Naso et rosh.

Thus begins our parshah, with a directive generally translated as “Take a census.” But it literally means, “Lift up the head.” It’s G-d’s command to Moses to number the groups of Levites entrusted with the care of the Tabernacle. And at its essence, a census is a just a list.

In his book The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing, my friend Bob Belknap grapples with the ancient literary tradition of lists in the authors of the American Renaissance: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau. He’s puzzled by his graduate school roommate’s dismissive attitude towards such sections of text, “I just skip over all that stuff.” Indeed, Bob’s love of lists may be unique: Most of us, when confronted with a lengthy enumeration – say, of the descendents of a patriarch in the Torah – at best skim. Almost all of us desperately search for the beginning of the next paragraph: Why on earth should we care about the names of each man who get us from Seth to Noah?

What has been described as our parshah’s overall theme, order and structure, is evidenced in its abundance of lists: G-d tells Moses to take a census; G-d spells out who is to be counted; G-d enumerates the specific parts of the Tabernacle that the Levites are responsible for; G-d lays out procedures for the physically impure, for betrayal, for a wife accused of adultery; G-d explains the laws of the nazarite. And via one of the more challenging examples of a list, repetition, G-d tells us about the dedication offerings from the twelve chieftains of Israel, each of whom brings the exact same gifts. And those gifts take a paragraph each time to describe. So the parshah ends with a list of 12 identical lists.

I wonder how these sections struck Moses at the revelation at Mount Sinai (if it’s the case that, as some postulate, Moses received then the entire Torah and not just the Decalogue). I assume he took a moment to read what G-d had given him before he went down to the Israelites and proclaimed it a sacred text. I like to imagine Moses as editor, sitting atop the mountain with a red pen, trying to reason with G-d. “There may be an opportunity here to cut this part down a bit. No one’s going to read all this 12 times in a row.”

But as my friend argues in his book, “The value of lists is that they ask us to make them meaningful.” If we are engaged in the text – and as Jews we are asked to engage with Torah – we have to consider these challenging sections.

Lists catalogue and lists omit; they highlight differences and they emphasize similarities; they create patterns of possibility and they make assessments of importance. They honor the fallen, the lost, the loved.

Naso et rosh.

Through the years, commentators have expounded on the various meanings of this verb. Rashi sees naso as a play on words: He connects its meaning of “to lift or raise” with the function of the Levites who are engaged in carrying parts of the Tabernacle.

Another rabbi understands its connotation of pride: When one shows or feels pride, one lifts up one’s head and stands tall; the Torah wants to tell us that the Levites were proud of their responsibility.

Yet another rabbi interprets the verb as a metaphor for lifting up one’s spiritual station: The Levites were given an incredibly important task that helped them reach an elevated ability of patience and coping with adversity.

I can think of another meaning. As any student knows, engaging with a text often finds us hunched over, staring into the pages of a book. But as any teacher knows, in a classroom deeper meaning takes root when students are actively listening instead of reading the bullet points of a lecture on a handout. With naso et rosh, G-d is reminding to consider that deeper meaning, to ponder that larger picture. “I’m giving you these lists, instead of narrative, to make you stop. Lift up your head and behold me.” The stories in the Torah – of creation, of the flood, of Abraham and Isaac, of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Jacob and his sons, of the Exodus out of Egypt – don’t make us stop. These are great stories, and we want to keep our heads down and find out what happens.

But we’re also called to be like Moses at the end of the parshah, which concludes with him standing by himself (and I imagine, with his head raised), listening to G-d speaking to him from above the cover of the ark.

In these moments, we can reflect, dwell, exult in detail, even rejoice in minutiae. As my friend so beautifully puts it in his book, lists challenge us to stop: “The rhythm of the repetition interrupts the forward drive of the text, and for a moment we are invited to dance.”

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