Last year, as I was thinking about parashat Naso, I imagined the Gershonite and Merarite clans in the role of "roadies" to the priests and the tabernacle. I wrote:
With apologies to all you "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fans out there:
Aaron: Man, we need a roadie. Other religions have roadies.
Moses: Well, other religions know more than one G"d. Your professional religions can worship up to six, sometimes seven completely different G"ds.
Aaron: That’s just, like, fruity, jazzy religions.
In this weeks parasha, Naso, we learn of the specific duties assigned to the Gershonite and Merarite clans, two specific sub-groups within the Levites. They are responsible only for the disassembly and re-assembly of the tabernacle. In theatrical lingo, they do the "load-in" and afterwards "strike the set." Just like real "techies" or "roadies" they just put it up and take it down – others among the Levites are responsible for the transportation of the parts of the tabernacle from place to place. Even then, they had Teamsters!
While others are transporting the tabernacle’s parts, the Gershonites and Merarites simply serve to watch or guard over things. (In last week’s parasha, Bamidbar, we learn that the other clan of the Levites besides the descendants of Aaron, the Kohathites, were responsible for the stuff inside the tabernacle – the altars, utensils, menorah, etc. We actually first learn of the duties of the Merarites and Gershonites in parashat Bamidbar as well, but in a more abbreviated form.)
It gets even more strictly defined than that. The Gershonites handle only the various fabric components of the tabernacle, along with the altar and its appurtenances. The Merarites are responsible for the various structural components – planks, bars, posts, sockets, pegs.
Having spent a good 25 of my life in the technical theater trade before starting to as a full-time Jewish professional, some of it even as a "roadie," I recognize and understand the division of labor. I also know how it can lead to strife, and though the Torah reports none, I can imagine there was.
The hierarchy is somewhat apparent. The headliner, is, of course, the Shekhina, who dwells within the Mishkan when it is set up. The supporting act is "The Priests." Then there’s the rest of the crew-the roadies. God’s electricians, sound techs, grips, carpenters (not to be confused with a certain specific carpenter, or the vocal duo.)
The humor one finds can serve to illustrate the division that come up between carpenters, deckhands, electricians, sound engineers, et al and so between those among the Levites assigned different tasks regarding the tabernacle . I’ll take some typical jokes and rephrase them, substituting for terms like electricians, stagehands, musicians, production managers, etc.
- What do you call 20 Gershonites at the bottom of a lake? A good start.
- How many Priests does it take to change a candle? Change?
- Why do some Merarites carry 11 foot poles? Because none of the women will touch them with a 10 foot pole!
- How many Merarites and Gershonites does it take to make a sacrifice to El? "Hey, we just set it up! You wanna sacrifice, get a Priest!"
There’s also a joke well known among stagehands, roadies, and other backstage types:
Q: What’s the difference between a rigger and God?
A: God doesn’t think he’s a rigger.
Rewritten, it could be:
Q: What’s the difference between a Priest and G"d?
A: G"d doesn’t think he’s a Priest!
Another thought: if we are to be a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation" then who is gonna do the hard labor? Why’d the Gershonites and Merarites get stuck being the roadies? when we become and entire nation of priests, will the Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites become the same? If so, then who do we get to be the roadies? Some goyim?
In any case, one wonders why, once again, G"d is being such a micro-manager, instructing (at least, according to how Moses tells it) Moses to tell the various Levitical clans their specific duties regarding the assembly, disassembly and transportation of the tabernacle. It certainly seems that G"d has been very specific about a lot of things related to the tabernacle, the mishkan, the clothing of Aaron and his sons (I.e. the priests.) I can understand some specificity regarding how things are made, but what’s the difference who does what?
There’s also something else missing in this analogy. There’s no equivalent of a "local crew." They weren’t exactly playing the big towns, so I guess the whole thing had to be self-contained. Or was it? Did they pick up local help along the way? Somehow, I can’t imagine some Amalekites signing on as local setup crews. Then again, a gig is a gig. Clearly, there was fraternization going on with the locals as the Israelites made their circuitous way through the wilderness. Also, here’s a question to ponder. where there are acts and roadies, there are groupies. Where are the groupies? If there were groupies, you can be sure the roadies were taking full advantage of their fascination to lure them into extra-curricular activities. Maybe that’s how the whole Cozbi and Zimri thing that Pinchas caught happened.
I’m not sure of the answer, but while searching for one, I came upon something else interesting in a piece of Hebrew found in the endcap of these verses, at the end of chapter four. We learn that the total of all the Levite clans were 8,580 (males between 30 and 50.) We read that they come to do the work of the work of the work, or more idiomatically, the work of the service of the service – l’avod avodat avodah. Just what is a "service of the service" ?
Following the interpretation of some of the rabbinical sages, the JPS renders the text "duties of service and porterage," dividing between the labors required to transport the tabernacle, and the labors required when the tabernacle was up and functioning. This is based on Ibn Ezra’s interpretation which refers to an earlier description in the parasha of the Gershonite labors as being "carrying" and "serving."
A problem arises, however, for the medieval philosophers. The "carrying" part ceases to be necessary once the people have come into the land and the Temple is set up. (We modern liberal Jews might smirk and observe that maybe the whole point was that we were never intended to have a central place of worship anyway. It’s a valid point just as well.)
Rashi, however, takes us off in a different direction. Rashi believes that the "service of a service" refers to something that later became a responsibility of the Levitical clans during the times of the Temple – the shirah, or music. The music truly does "service the service." It is the accompaniment to the sacrifices. In our own time, it is the accompaniment to the sacrifices of our lips.
This next paragraph is still timely, even a year later:
How appropriate, having attended the annual Hava Nashira Songleaders Workshop last week to this week discover that the musical work I do truly is Torah, truly, "avodat avodah."
Now, if I could only have my own roadies.
I’ve actually done a little bit of theatre again this year. I recently did lighting for a local production of "Falsettos." Though a community theatre production, it was presented in a union house, so if you harken back to the section above that talks about specific division of responsibilities, you’ll get a feel for what that can be like.
Just these past few days I’ve been arranging some lighting at Abigail’s elementary school auditorium so the kids in the 3rd grade musical next week, "Stone Soup" will be nice and visible to all who attend. I’ve definitely noticed the effects of age, and now, more than ever, I could use those roadies. Any Gershonites or Merarites around anywhere?
©2009, portions ©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester
The original "Buffy" quote reads:
Devon: Man, we need a roadie. Other bands have roadies.
Oz: Well, other bands know more than three chords. Your professional bands can play up to six, sometimes seven completely different chords.
Devon: That’s just, like, fruity jazz bands.
Adrian A. Durlester
Jewish Educator, Jewish Musician, Jewish Blogger, and more
Theatrical Production Generalist-Management, Design
Pianist/Musical Director/Arranger/Parodist/Piano Instructor
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