Naso: Carry On!

Mark gave this D’var Torah on May 30.



The word NASO , the name of this week’s Torah portion,  means “to carry.”

In English there are lots of phrases that carry the word carry:

You might Carry the torch, carry coals to new castle,  be a card carrying member, pack your Carry on luggage, or shop at a Cash n carry.  Carrying a tune is a good thing, but carrying in basketball is not.  I could carry on …. But I don’t want to get carried away.

The root of Naso – sin alef – appears in many places in this week’s Torah portion.

It begins

כא  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 21 And the LORD spoke unto Moses saying:
כב  נָשֹׂא, אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן–גַּם-הֵם:  לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם. 22 ‘Make a count of the sons of Gershon also, by their fathers’ houses, by their families;
כג  מִבֶּן שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, עַד בֶּן-חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה–תִּפְקֹד אוֹתָם:  כָּל-הַבָּא לִצְבֹא צָבָא, לַעֲבֹד עֲבֹדָה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. 23 from thirty years old and upward until fifty years old shalt thou number them: all that enter in to wait upon the service, to do service in the tent of meeting.

The word used for “count” is the word “naso,” which is the name of this week’s parsha.

The word Naso also to  carry, or to raise up; the idea behind this is that Moses was not only supposed to count the people, but  also to encourage them, to raise their spirits.


On the phrase “Make a count:” Rashi says  Count those among them who are fit for the service of carrying, and are from the age of thirty until the age of fifty. One under thirty has not reached the peak of his strength; from this our Sages said, “At thirty for [full] strength” (Avoth 5:21). Over the age of fifty, one’s strength begins to wane.

As someone who recently turned 50, this is not encouraging.

The root of the word nasso- -sin-alef shows up in many familiar places:

We see it in the verse from Psalms that we recite at havdalah (kos y’shuot esa uv’sheim adonai ekra – the cup of salvation i will raise, and call upon god’s name)

And the word for a prince (nasi), because a prince has an elevated status as we see in this week’s portion, where the princes bring offerings,  and the word for marriage (nesuin) suggests  that marriage raises up the couple as they begin their life together.

In the Torah portion we learn that Three groups carry the Mishkan throughout the desert.

After the mishkan (the portable tabernacle; the dwelling-place for God) was built, Moses consecrated it and its furnishings. Then the heads of the tribes brought carts and oxen as a gift to God. On God’s instruction, Moses gave the carts and oxen to the children of Gershon and children of Mearari, 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 children of Kahat — a third group of Levites — did not receive oxen or carts. They were assigned to carry the most sacred objects of the mishkan, including the whole tablets and the shattered set; the golden menorah; the table and vessels. Numbers 7:9 says “to the children of kehat he didn’t give any wagons; theirs is a holy burden, they carry it on their shoulders.

An article by Elihu Schatz in Jewish Bible Quarterly  estimates that the weight for the Ark comes out to only 183 pounds (83 kilograms), which four men could carry on their shoulders. But with the need to make a good story, our sages came up with a midrash says suggests the weight of the holy ark was  10,000 pounds, and the moment the men of Kehat tried to pick it up, the greatest miracle took place. They didn’t carry it – it carried them.

Our sages say Ha-aron Noseh Et Nos’av, the ark carries the carriers.

Those who work to spread holiness in the world, and are prepared to do the heavy lifting of carrying the weight of the community on their shoulders, are granted heavenly assistance to get the job done.

In his book Speaking Torah, Rabbi Art Green shares a teaching that the children of Kehat are tzadikim – righteous ones, and holy work they do brings blessing to the world. Art Green teaches Just as the tszddik cannot be too high above the people bestow upon them a blessing, the recipients can’t be too low that they cannot reach out to receive it.

He comments that this teaching is a great warning to would-be leaders not to stand too far above the people. But at the same time we want leaders who firmly stand for something. Too much willingness to give in is also wrong.

I think the same is true with synagogue leadership.  As in the biblical times, and today too… Religious, spiritual, and community leaders have a responsibility for the people who we serve.  We are the ones who carry the burden of the community upon our shoulders, and we are responsible for building it and making sure it is stable, day after day.

For synagogue leaders carrying the burden of the community upon our shoulders means charting a course toward spiritual and financial stability, respecting differences, honoring traditions, and creating new ones.

For a synagogue to thrive, members must also carry the burden of the community on their shoulders.  For some, this means paying dues or attending services or special events. For others, carrying the weight of the synagogue on your shoulders means more than showing up.  It also means stepping up.

Here’s an example of some new members stepping up. Some of you were here to share in this wonderful event, but many of you weren’t, so I want to tell you what you missed. Last Saturday afternoon, two of our new members, Rachel and Shaun, helped to plan a special event for children and their families on the evening of Shavuot. Along with their parents, Leora and Isaac, Adar, Lila, Rafi, and several other young children observed Shavuot by making edible Ten Commandments, sitting under blanket tents in the social hall, listening to stories and singing songs about the Torah, and climbing Mount Sinai in our sanctuary to look at the two tablets of the ten commandments above the ark, and kiss the Torahs inside. Two people stepped up, and  many of us worked together to make it happen.

Like the tribe of Kahat, many of us carry the burden of the community on our shoulders.  We give our time time schlepping groceries, arranging rides, leading services, reading Torah, planning social events, making tuna fish, planting flowers, writing press releases, selecting paper plates to match the colors of the plastic table cloths beneath them, waking up early to attend a minyan on Monday or Thursday morning, visiting those who are sick, calling each other to see if we are okay, inviting friends to join us at the Temple, and cleaning up after lunch (thank you in advance)  …  and I could go on.

We bear the weight of the community on our shoulders, but such service is not a burden because it carries us – giving us purpose, friendships, and fulfillment. We do this work because nosei et nosav – it carries the carriers.  We are the carriers and we are raised up.

There is another example of the root word sin – alef, of NASO –  this week’s Torah portion that I didn’t yet mention.  We read the blessing of the high priest –  recited during birkat kohanim, or duchening – as the kohanim in the congregation do here at TBI on the high holy days. This ritual  is also called “nesiat kapayim,” the “lifting of the hands,” since the kohanim raised their hands to pass God’s blessing to the people.  When the people receive the blessing, they too are uplifted.   In Numbers 6 verse 22 we read

22 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
23 ‘Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying:  This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel; you shall say unto them
כד  יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. 24  May God bless you and keep you
כה  יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. 25  May God make God’s face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you

And the root of the word naso- to lift, to carry, to raise up – also appears as the first word in this last line of the priestly blessing.

כו  יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, 26  May God raise up God’s face toward you,
וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם. and give you peace.
27  This is how they shall put My name upon the children of Israel, that I will bless them.’

Ken Y’hi ratzon, may it be so.