Yom Shabbat, 17 Tammuz 5779
Saturday, 20 July 2019
Parashat Naso 2012

Parashat Naso by Rabbi Richard Jacobi
1 June 2012

On Ritual, Repetition and Meaning

·Cutting and pasting are tasks that all of us remember from our childhood. It might have been making collages in primary school, with glue pots and those plastic glue spreaders. It might have been more sophisticated art in secondary school or later. It might have been assembling montages of photos or, as I often remember, preparing creative services in the 1970s and 1980s, combining liturgy with songs and poems from cultures outside Judaism.

Nowadays, all of us who use computers are familiar with cutting and pasting in the context of the amazing array of software packages with all their different capabilities, of which I know so little. Cutting and pasting, duplicating material and replicating information are all so easily done nowadays that we produce more information in one weekend newspaper than a seventeenth century person would have encountered in their entire life.

The facility for cutting, pasting and producing information with ease might lead us to forget what it was like centuries ago to reproduce written texts. If you’ve visited ancient sites, and I’m thinking of monasteries as one example, you might have visited the library and scriptorium where the monks would study and meticulously copy texts. Not for them the touch of a button or the click of a mouse or even the photocopier or printer.

In parshat Naso, Numbers chapter 7 details the offerings that were brought by the heads of the twelve tribes. Each day of twelve, the chieftain of one tribe brought exactly the same offering to the newly consecrated Tabernacle. Nachshon ben Amminadav came first, representing the tribe of Judah, and Aaron’s brother-in-law. Incidentally, this is the same Nachshon who, according to the Mechilta on Exodus 14:22, plunged into the waves of the Sea of Reedsand thereby caused it to divide for the fleeing slaves. His reward for trusting in God was to bring the first offering, detailed in verse 12 to 16. It was: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels, a silver ladle weighing 70 shekels, both filled with meal offerings; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull, one ram, and one lamb for burnt offerings; one goat for a sin offering; two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, five yearling lambs for the offering of well-being.

In verses 17 to 23, we read that Netanel ben Tzooar of the tribe of Issachar brought exactly the same offering. In verses 24 to 29, Eliab the son of Chelon from the tribe of Zebulun brought exactly the same offering. In verses 30 to 35, Elitzur ben Shedayur from the tribe of Reuben brought exactly the same offering. Verses 36 to 41, the Simeonite chief; verses 42 to 46 the Gadite chief and so on, and so on. Every one of the twelve brought the same offering on the twelve consecutive days. For those of you who read the nikud, the musical notation, you will see that this too is repeated exactly.

In all, 72 verses are expended on relating this story. The story of the Creation only needed 31 verses! Now, in these days of instant cut and paste, reproducing this text would not be too difficult. We would just need to ensure that we got the correct names at the beginning and end of each section. So why would the God-written or, as we would have it, hand-written scroll replicate the same text twelve times?

One Midrash on this chapter suggests that although each set of gifts was superficially the same, its individuality and significance came from the different symbolic value of the gifts for each tribe. So, for example, the gifts when given by the tribe of Reuben symbolised different events in the life of the eldest of Jacob’s sons. The silver dish recalled Reuben’s words when he saved Joseph’s life, while the golden spoon or ladle and the goat represented his penance for his sinful acts against Bilhah and also his father.

So, what might we take from this extended narrative and the repetition so painstakingly preserved over the generations? I would like to suggest the following:

While we are involved in doing the same things as other people around us, whether praying, working, learning, or playing, what we are doing might be superficially no different to what they are doing. However, there can be a difference created by the attitude and manner with which we do this thing. Ourkavannah – our intention – can elevate even the most mundane thing. Sometimes I experience this in the checkout assistant who seems to genuinely be interested in me, and cares what happens to my shopping. Sometimes this can be the extra connection I make, through being genuinely present in the moment, rather than distracted and busy inside my head or on my smart phone dealing with other things, the next task, another person.

Maybe this is also about the power of a ceremony to etch an important event in our lives and memories. We British have always been good at these, from organising Live Aid to formal ceremonials, such as investitures, Remembrance events, and so on. This long weekend will see the latest ceremonials, focussed upon the Diamond Jubilee of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. It is indeed an occasion worthy of celebration, and some aspects of it will seem like repetitions of previous ceremonies. However, this Jubilee could be unique and life-enhancing… if we add a sprinkling of kavannah.