The Burden of Holiness

In nearly every aspect of life, a widely accepted adage is that anything worth having or any accomplishment worth achieving requires an investment of time and effort to be attained. When it comes to acquiring knowledge and learning, we must invest ourselves to reap the benefits. When it comes to success in professional work, long hours are often required to make the difference. When it comes to personal fitness and health, the saying “no pain, no gain” rings true. And while you might not think so, living a religious life also requires that we assume responsibilities, obligations and, yes, even burdens.

We can see this idea within Parashat Naso, the Torah portion we’ll read this week. In Numbers chapter 7, we read:

“Moses took the carts and the oxen and gave them to the Levites. But to the Kohatites he did not give any; since theirs was the service of the most sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder.” (Numbers 7:6, 9)

The family clans of the Levites—the Gershonites, the Merarites and the Kohatites—were assigned the responsibility of carrying around the parts of the Tabernacle, a portable sanctuary used by the Israelites during the time they journeyed in the Sinai Desert after the Exodus from Egypt. The Gershonites and Merarites were given carts and oxen to carry around the pieces assigned to them. But, as the text tells us, Moses gave no carts or oxen to the Kohatites, as they were expected to carry the pieces of the Tabernacle assigned to them on their shoulders. Those pieces were the most sacred ones, including the Ark of the Covenant.

Why were the Kohatites required to carry their assigned pieces on their shoulders? We can imagine that doing so may have eliminated the risk that they might fall off a cart and either be damaged or disgraced. Perhaps they were told to carry these pieces on their shoulders to show that they were more sacred than, for example, the animal skins that covered the structure. Or, perhaps, they were asked to carry the most sacred pieces of the Tabernacle on their shoulders because when it comes to doing something truly important, something of supreme value and meaning, we shouldn’t take shortcuts. Rather, we should invest ourselves fully in the things that mean the most to us. We ought to invest ourselves, our time and our resources, in relationships, in causes and organizations that we believe in, and in a way of living life that has the potential to give our lives meaning and lead us to make the world a better place. When it comes to living a meaningful Jewish life, we shouldn’t take shortcuts. Sometimes, in order to reap the most meaningful insights and spiritual fulfillment, we need to give of ourselves.

In this era of advanced technology, we still read the weekly Torah portion from a handwritten scroll that is painstakingly prepared by a trained sofer (scribe). Why not put the reading up on a teleprompter or, better yet, play an mp3 recording of the weekly Torah portion that is perfectly sung? That way, we would not have to ask anyone to study or prepare the Torah portion in order to read it from a scroll that contains no vowels or cantillation signs. The answer is that in some things, we shouldn’t take shortcuts or do that which is easier or more efficient.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the great Chasidic luminary who lived in Poland from 1787-1859, put it this way:

The work of the sanctuary—indeed, all work for any holy cause—requires extra effort. “Their porterage was by shoulder”—one must harness all one’s powers to this work. One does not acquire the least spark of holiness without effort.

Even a small spark of holiness may not effortlessly enter our lives. We have to look for it, work for it, earn it, with every fiber of our being. And when it does enter our lives, after we have given ourselves to the quest for holiness, we can be sure it will grow and illumine our lives brightly.

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