Parashah Ponderings

Sing like a cow!

Parashat Nasso 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת נָשׂא
Torah Portion: Numbers 4:21-7:89

I have a confession to make: I don’t perform every mitzvah and every ritual that I have it in my power to do. For example, I do not regularly recite the series of prayers after meals that we call Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing for Sustenance. It is certainly a good thing to give thanks for the food that sustains me, but I’ve yet to make it a habit. To begin to make Birkat Hamazon a regular part of my day, I need to stop seeing the ritual as a burden and, instead, see it as an opportunity to express my gratitude. 

Like many things that I don’t do, I need to stop moaning and whining and coming up with excuses and embrace the act with a song in my heart. I need to whistle while I work, like one of Snow White’s seven dwarves; raise up a song, like the clan of the Kohatites  that carried the sacred vessels of the Tabernacle on their shoulders rather than transport them on a cart (Num. 7:9); like a nursing cow.

Like the clan that carried the sacred vessels on their shoulder and like a nursing cow? Huh?

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the great hassidic rebbe of Ger, near Warsaw, wrote a five-volume commentary on the Torah called Sefat Emet, the Language of Truth. The Sefat Emet notes that all the other Levitical clans, were charged with transporting all the nuts and bolts, beams and bolts of fabric for the Tabernacle were given oxen and carts to do their jobs, but not the Kohatites. The sacred vessels that they were in charge of, such as the menorah and the laver for washing, were too precious to risk loading onto a wagon and, perhaps, falling off. They had to load the vessels into sacks and carry them on their shoulders with long, heavy poles. Not a fun or painless task. We could imagine them moaning and whining and coming up with excuses to not do their job, but that’s not what they did.

The Sefat Emet says they “raised up a song,” quoting a midrash that, in turn, quoted a verse from Psalms (81:3): “raise up a song and offer a drum; a sweet harp and a lyre.”

Abbi Yehudah Leib Alter asks, “What has song to do with raising things up on one’s shoulder?”

He answers:  “This can only be understood by recalling a Samuel 6:12,” where we read that the Philistines had just captured the Ark of the Covenant and God was punishing them with severe illness and death. Realizing what was happening, they loaded the Ark of the Covenant onto a wagon and strapped it to two nursing cows who had never before worn a yoke. If the cows went straight on its way to the Israelites’ camp, they knew God was the source of their suffering. If the cows went some other way, the Philistines would know it was just by chance that they were suffering, and they would have kept the Ark. It so happens that the cows headed toward the Israelites’ camp.

Rabbi Yehudah Leib looks at this verse, I Samuel 6:12, and  interprets it to mean that the cows sang as they carried the Ark to Jerusalem.” He gets to this reading by using a Hebrew word play, changing the word “va-yiSHARnah” – “they went straight on their way” – to “vayiSHARu” – “they sang on their way.” He quotes the Zohar, the seminal book of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah: “Because they were carrying the Ark, they were given the awareness to sing. It was the Ark on their backs that enabled them to sing.”

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Green, who translated and interpreted the Sefat Emet, explains:

The religious life is not meant to be a weight burden, but one that helps us to feel the lightness and joy of knowing God’s presence. The Levite who carries the ark on his shoulder is also – or is therefore – the one who sings! What a great message, and a typically hasidic one: life in God’s service is a life of happiness and fulfillment. Like those privileged cows who merited carrying the Ark of the Lord on their backs, the service of God should so fill us with joy that we cannot keep from breaking into song.

Green, Arthur. The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998, p. 227.

In other words, when we see the performance of mitzvot and rituals – in the case of the Kohatites, carrying a heavy load of sacred vessels on their shoulders – not as a burden to whine about but rather as an opportunity to serve God and know God’s presence, we are filled with light, joy, and song.

I will take this lesson to heart and work on developing the habit of reciting Birkat Hamazon. I invite you to take the lesson to heart, too, and identify a mitzvah or ritual that you’d like to take on. I’m happy to help you learn the right tune.

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