To Lift Up and be Lifted Up (Parashat Naso)

“Daddy, can I carry you?” These words echo still in my memory from twenty-two years or so ago when my then 3-year-old son got his pronouns confused in his appeal for me to carry him. I laughed about it at the time even as I lifted him up into my arms. I smile even more as I recall that moment – my son is now in his mid-20s and more than 6’6” tall, and the idea of him carrying me is now far more realistic than the reverse!

This verbal faux pas comes to mind as we approach Parashat Naso each year. The Hebrew word “Naso” means “to lift up” and with this word God commanded Moses and Aaron to “lift up” the Children of Israel by concluding the census. It is a curious idea at first glance, to “lift up” in order to take a census, but it makes sense. When we want to count a group of items, our first instinct is often to lift each item up, to examine it, to notice its qualities and to inventory what we have. The Torah seems to imply that Moses and Aaron, and the ancient Israelites, needed to do the same thing with one another. In order to take stock of their community, they needed to notice each person and assess each one for what was most significant at that time – namely, the ability to serve and fight in defense of the vulnerable people of Israel.

Despite his mistaken syntax, I think my son’s words represent a core lesson of this story. Although he wanted me to pick him up and carry him, I suspect even more that he wanted me to notice him, to be aware of his presence and his essence. After all, isn’t that what we all want? Being noticed, mattering, is one of the most compelling of human needs.

The realities of our world today cry out for such a counting more than ever. A census of heart and mind, as well as body, is necessary. For us as a Jewish people, this is particularly timely.

We Jews stand at a critical juncture in history. We have attained success, wealth and respect, and have integrated into the societies within which we live at an unparalleled level. With this accomplishment comes unprecedented responsibility. In a society and world that frequently compartmentalizes and even sets aside core Jewish values such as Tzedek (justice) and Chesed (lovingkindness), will we be complicit, as we safeguard our status and success, with those around us who are able to ignore such core values? Or will we speak out, as did the prophets of our ancient Jewish tradition, and demand that the world we live in be one founded on the very values we profess to cherish when we read the Torah?

The ancient Israelites were called upon to count every person in their society because, quite simply, every person counted. This is no less true today than it was then. But now we are challenged daily to act on the values we profess; when we fail to do so, we abandon the very foundation upon which our faith and our people were established.

For Moses and Aaron and the people they served, there was no question that every person’s needs were to be met, and every person’s freedom was to be cherished and protected. Our ancestors understood that a society that did not protect the most vulnerable in their midst was doomed to be destroyed, and a society that failed to act with justice and compassion and strive for equality and peace would not survive.

Today, across the globe, in every nation where Jews live as a minority, such conflicts of values play out daily. Self-interest and selfishness vie for airtime in our lives with a sense of selflessness and concern for every human being. Even in the Jewish State, where we live as the majority, we face daunting challenges that pit our own particularistic concerns against our Jewish universalistic responsibilities. When we Jews fail to aspire to the highest possible standards of justice and compassion, we fail to fulfill the very obligation set forth in Parashat Naso: to conclude the census demanded by God, making sure to count every single person, because every single person mattered. When we do make sure that every person is counted, and that every person counts, then we “carry one another”. We lift others who need our help up by aspiring to the highest level of our values.  And we, in turn, are lifted, and all of us are blessed by yet one more “lifting up”: “May Adonai bless you and keep you. May the countenance of Adonai shine upon you and send grace upon you. May the countenance of Adonai be lifted up before you, and give you shalom.” (Numbers 6:24-26)


About the Author:

Rabbi James Bennett is the senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

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