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 gods.
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” or load-out. 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 back 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, Bamdibar, 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 Bamdibar 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 years of my life in the technical theater trade before starting to work 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, in fact I’m certain there was.
There is humor one can find that serves to illustrate the divisions that come up between carpenters, deckhands, electricians, sound engineers, riggers, et al and so as well between those among the Levites assigned different tasks regarding the tabernacle . I’ll take some typical jokes and rephrase them, substituting Israelite clans 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 G”d? A: G”d doesn’t think s/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 an 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?
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.
כָּֽל־הַפְּקֻדִ֡ים אֲשֶׁר֩ פָּקַ֨ד מֹשֶׁ֧ה וְאַהֲרֹ֛ן וּנְשִׂיאֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַלְוִיִּ֑ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם וּלְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָֽם׃
(4:46) All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses,
מִבֶּ֨ן שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה וְעַ֖ד בֶּן־חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה כָּל־הַבָּ֗א לַעֲבֹ֨ד עֲבֹדַ֧ת עֲבֹדָ֛ה וַעֲבֹדַ֥ת מַשָּׂ֖א בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃
(4:47) from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting—
וַיִּהְי֖וּ פְּקֻדֵיהֶ֑ם שְׁמֹנַ֣ת אֲלָפִ֔ים וַחֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת וּשְׁמֹנִֽים׃(4:48) those recorded came to 8,580.
עַל־פִּ֨י יְהוָ֜ה פָּקַ֤ד אוֹתָם֙ בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ עַל־עֲבֹדָת֖וֹ וְעַל־מַשָּׂא֑וֹ וּפְקֻדָ֕יו אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ (פ
(4:49) Each one was given responsibility for his service and porterage at the command of the LORD through Moses, and each was recorded as the LORD had commanded Moses.
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 v’avodat Moshe (v 47.) Gotta love biblical Hebrew. לַעֲבֹ֨ד עֲבֹדַ֧ת עֲבֹדָ֛ה וַעֲבֹדַ֥ת מַשָּׂ֖א Just what is it “to serve the service of the service and the service of Moses,” which is the most literal of the translations (which could also be “for the work of the work of the work, and the work (of?for?to?) Moses? Or some combination of work and service. Crazy biblical Hebrew, using the same root for work, service, and worship.
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. (It’s certainly not clearly rendered that way in the Hebrew.) 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.” Notice the English does not include Moses while the Hebrew clearly does. what gives with that?
A problem arises with the idea of “porterage,” 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.)
Rashi to the rescue. Rashi 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. Sometimes I’m a big fan of Rashi, and sometimes not. This is an interpretation I can get behind. 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.
I imagine, too, that music could have made the work of the Gershonites, Merarites, and Kohatites just a little more pleasant. Surely they had some kinds of work songs that helped them both keep a steady pace and lighten the mood. There’s evidence that work songs go back as far as recorded history. Egyptian workers are depicted using work songs during agricultural and construction activities. So it is certainly likely that the Israelites had their own little work ditties. Maybe the very reason that the Torah contains such specific descriptions of duties is tied to the fact that the songs tied to those activities preserved the memory. Just as likely there were songs that recorded Israel’s 40 year journey through the wilderness. Probably there were songs that told the stories of the book of Genesis/B’reishit. Music helps preserve knowledge and tradition. Music also helps foster exploration and advancement.
To believe that the “avodat Moshe” porterage/carrying duties of the Gershonites and Merarites morphed into being the musical component of fixed worship at the Temple has a nice feel to it – even if I’m not exactly sure I buy it. Who knows, maybe some of the work songs they used became Temple standards? That I could believe. We Jews are great at re-using, re-working, and re-purposing songs. We sing Sh’ma to what was probably a drinking song, and sing bayom hahu to “Farmer in the Dell” just to name a few.
Today’s roadies are more likely to be listening to loud, blaring rock music as they work, as opposed to singing work ditties, but the concept that it makes the work more pleasant (that is, if you like loud, blaring rock music) is solid. (If you’re lucky, you might get a sound engineer who prefers to play mellower music during a load-in or strike. Me, I’m an outlier. I’d play Broadway musicals, classical, or folk/pop.)
How sad that because of the loss of the Temple, and the laws of Shabbat, traditional practice usually bars the use of accompanied music. I’m am glad that my Jewish practice believes that music and musical instruments are an important part of and enhancement to worship. My l’avod avodat avodah, my service for the service of the service (whatever that is) proceeds from my brain and heart out through my fingers and my mouth. I thank G”d each and every day for the gift of music that I can use in service to the service.
How appropriate that I’ll be heading off to the annual Hava Nashira Songleaders Workshop next week to be reminded once again that the musical work I do truly is Torah, truly, “avodat avodah.”
Now, if I could only have my own roadies.
Of course, let’s close with another Buffy reference, As we head into another Shabbat, let’s try to do it “Once More, With Feeling.”
©2018 (portions ©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester)
Other Musings on this parasha:
Nasso 5775 – West-Tzorah-Side Story
Naso 5773 – Guilt. Self. It.
Naso 5772 – Keeping Me On My Toes II
Naso 5771 – The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 – Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 – G”d’s Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) – The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763–Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)