This week’s Torah portion is called Nasso, “to carry”. Interestingly, nasso is also the root of another word appearing in this week’s portion – nasi, which means a “prince”. The message here is that when we carry our responsibilities and embrace them, we have the greatest blessing. From nasso, carrying, comes nasi – being uplifted, becoming distinguished, attaining greatness. So, while we carry, we ourselves are lifted up at the same time; we carry the burdens, but also, our burdens carry us.
This week’s Torah portion is called Nasso. Nasso means “to carry”, and it outlines the mitzvah of transporting the various parts of the Mishkan – the holy “Sanctuary” in the desert in which G-d’s Presence dwelled. The Mishkan was a temporary, mobile structure that could be dismantled and then reassembled, accompanying the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the desert. The responsibilities of those who had to carry the different parts of the Mishkan are set out at the end of last week’s portion, and primarily at the beginning of this week’s portion.
There were three major families in the tribe of Levi who were given this responsibility. The family of Kahat (that Moshe and Aharon came from) were responsible for carrying all of the various utensils of the Mishkan, including the Aron Kodesh, the Menorah, the Altar, etc; the family of Gershon were responsible for carrying all of the fabrics and upholstery; and the family of Merari had the heaviest load to carry – the beams that were used in the reassembling of the Mishkan every time the Jewish People set up camp.
This is why the parsha is called Nasso, “to carry”. Interestingly, nasso is also the root of another word appearing in this week’s portion – nasi, which means a “prince” (and in modern Hebrew, a “president”). A nasi is a position of leadership; it is to be distinguished, to stand out. The message seems to be this: that a person stands out, becomes distinguished, achieves greatness – through carrying.
You would think a person with nothing to carry is one who is truly free. We talk about people carrying baggage, about being weighed down by burdens. The more responsibilities a person carries on his shoulders, the more that person is weighed down and held back in life. Surely, then, freedom is about releasing oneself from responsibility? And indeed, there is a popular stream of Western liberal philosophy that takes this very approach; that we should aspire to shake off our responsibilities and remain free agents. After all, responsibilities are draining, they make life difficult and burdensome. And life shouldn’t be a burden.
Judaism, on the other hand, is the philosophy of carrying. It’s the philosophy of responsibility. The sages in the Talmud talk about carrying “the yoke of the commandments”. Because, however wonderful and uplifting the commandments are (they are the right thing to do, they align us with the Will of G-d, they make life meaningful), they are also a burden to carry. There are responsibilities that need to be carried out. The Talmud also mentions inPirkei Avot the concept of “carrying the burden of your friend”. We carry the burden of the commandments, but we also help others carry their own burdens of life. That’s what chesed, loving-kindness, is about.
We see that we are put on this earth to carry. This is perhaps why there is such strong emphasis in this week’s portion on who carries the items of the Mishkan. And it is none other than the holy tribe of Levi tasked with this most sacred of responsibilities. Their carrying is symbolic of the idea of carrying in general, which we are all tasked with in this life. And it’s when we carry our responsibilities and embrace them that we have the greatest blessing. From nasso, carrying, comes nasi – being uplifted, becoming distinguished, attaining greatness. And so, while we carry, we ourselves are lifted up at the same time; we carry the burdens, but our burdens also carry us.
The Jewish worldview is that the more you carry, the more you are uplifted, because G-d created human beings to do just this. When we live in accordance with the purpose for which we were created then we become elevated. On the other hand, when a person tries to shirk responsibility and the duties of life – fulfilling the commandments, helping other people, building families, contributing to the community – then that person becomes diminished. Indeed, when a person shirks those responsibilities, it’s not freeing. Rather, it creates an emptiness within the person. It’s only when we carry that we enjoy the sense of upliftment and fulfilment, which is the root of all blessing in the world.
Selfishness is a curse. And, paradoxically, when we are here only for ourselves – when we try to run away from responsibility – we don’t even fulfil our most basic need, which is the need for meaning. When people are pursuing their self-interest, that is when they are least likely to achieve that self-interest. This irony must be there because G-d created the world to function in accordance with the principles of His morality that He revealed to us.
The root of all blessing is being able to look outwards towards others. This point is made in this week’s portion by one of our great commentators, the Kli Yakar. He notes the Torah’s juxtaposition of the laws of the nazir – a person who takes upon himself a vow not to drink wine and not to cut his hair, which the Talmud says he would take on as an antidote to alcoholic excess and its associated problems – with the famous formula for the Priestly Blessings, with which the Kohanim bless us in shul every Yom Tov to this very day.
The Kli Yakar explains the reason for this juxtaposition. He says that wine only brings blessing to the individual and not to others. Straight after the verses dealing with this phenomenon, it says: Ko Tevarchu – “Thus shall you bless”; meaning, if you want real blessing in the world, then don’t only take it for yourself – project it outwards, reach out to other people. The Priestly Blessings are about a connection to G-d, and a connection to other people; they are about moving beyond the self, transcending the narrow confines of our own natural selfishness to reach out to others and to The Other.
The Kli Yakar goes on to detail the various places in the Torah that demonstrate the destructive power of alcoholic excess – how, according to one opinion in the Talmud, the original tree that Adam and Eve illicitly ate from was the vine; how Noah, after he emerged from the ark, got drunk and the problems that caused. He also mentions all of the problems of alcoholic excess on a practical level.
And we all know that alcohol can be enormously damaging – even in a shul or a celebratory context. Alcohol should be drunk in moderation, it should never be given to children, and we should avoid its excesses at all costs because it is such a destructive substance. But the Kli Yakar is pointing out that it’s not just the practical substance abuse that is so destructive – it’s the philosophy. Alcohol represents the philosophy of selfishness, of self-gratification, which is entirely at odds with the philosophy of giving, of blessing.
Ko Tevarchu – you have to reach out, go beyond yourself, make sure that you are not living for yourself alone, but for G-d, for the greater good, to make a real difference in the world. Only then do we lead a life of blessing.
Let us all live a life of blessing, of joyfully carrying the responsibilities that G-d has given us, realising that this is the route to true fulfilment and tranquillity and inner peace.