BUILDING COVENANTAL COMMUNITY: THE COHANIM, THE KOHATITES, AND US — BY STUDENT RABBI MIRIAM FARBER
EDITOR’S NOTE: Student Rabbi Miriam Farber’s sermon last Friday evening was very moving, and several of us asked if it could be reprinted in the Ram’s Horn. Also, Mazal tov to Miriam on her upcoming marriage to a fellow student rabbi from Brazil on June ninth. We wish her farewell as she embarks on her journey toward a bright and promising future.
Building Covenantal Community: The Cohanim, the Kohatites, and Us
Earlier in our service, we sang the words Mi Chamocha ba’eilim Adonai? Who is like You, Adonai? With this prayer, we acknowledge God as the Redeemer, and we sing our joyful praises, like the Israelites, for freedom. Yet this prayer doesn’t tell the whole story. We know that Moses plays a key role in bringing the Israelites to this moment, even though his name is not found in the traditional haggadah. There are two midrashim that offer different understandings of exactly what happened to make the sea part.
In the first, as the tribes of Israel are standing on the shores, watching the Egyptians draw nearer and arguing amongst themselves over who will be the first into the sea, Nachshon ben Amminadav, a single person from the tribe of Judah, goes into the Sea. The sea does not part immediately, so Nachshon keeps walking, as the sea comes up to his knees, his shoulders, and finally his chin. As the water reaches his nose, and Nachshon prepares to take his final breath, the sea parts. The Yiddish saying, “To be a Nachshon,” means to be an initiator, in honor of the man who was brave enough to walk into the Sea of Reeds. In this version of that tense moment on the shores of the sea, the power for redemption rests with one man, with Nachshon ben Amminadav.
In the second midrash, God says to Moses, “All that Israel has to do is go forward. Therefore, “Let them go forward! Let their feet step forward from the dry land into the sea, and you will see the miracles I will perform for them.” The midrash quotes a verse from Exodus, which says, “And the Israelites went into the midst of the sea upon the DRY ground.” The midrash asks, if they went into the sea, then why does the Torah say, “upon the dry ground”? This is to teach that the sea did not split for them until they stepped into it and the water had reached their noses, only then did it become dry land.
In this version of the story, not God alone, and not even an individual person – a Nachshon, a Moses, or a Miriam – had the power to part the sea. The power for redemption rested with the entire people of Israel, acting together, in partnership with God.
By our Torah portion this week, B’midbar, the very first parasha in the book of Numbers, Egypt and the crossing of the sea are long behind us. The Israelites have already been wandering in the desert, in the midbar, for two years. The end of the portion describes, in painstaking detail, the process for dismantling the Tent of Meeting when the time comes to break camp. This responsibility falls upon Aaron and his sons, the cohanim. Another group, the Kohatite family within the tribe of Levi, has the responsibility of carrying each element of the Tent of Meeting as the Israelites wander through the desert. Each person, each family, each tribe, has its role in the upkeep of the Tent of Meeting.
In some ways, this biblical division of labor is not so different from the division of labor here, or in any other modern Jewish community around the world. One person or one family cannot do all the work of building and supporting a community; each person has to find the right role for themselves.
“At the breaking of camp, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain…”
At the end of services, someone has to take down the tapestry hanging behind the ark.
“Over the table of display they shall spread a blue cloth; they shall place upon it the bowls, the ladles, the jars, and the libation jugs; and the regular bread shall rest upon it.”
Someone has to clean up from oneg, and put all of the reusable supplies back in the closet for tomorrow.
“Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand for lighting, with its lamps, its tongs, and its fire pans, as well all the oil vessels that are used in its service.”
Someone takes responsibility for returning the candlesticks to their proper place, ensuring that they will be ready for the next Shabbat service here.
“When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sacred objects and all the furnishings of the sacred objects at the breaking of the camp, only then shall the Kohatites come and lift them…These things in the Tent of Meeting shall be the porterage of the Kohatites.”
And someone carries the ark off of the bima and places it in the closet for safekeeping.
Just as each of our ritual objects and other supplies have their own place in the closet, each person in this community has a role to play.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that society is bound together not by contract, but by covenant. While an individual can leave a contract when it is no longer in their interest to pursue the contractual relationship, a covenant binds people together even in difficult times. Covenants are not rooted in self-interest, but in loyalty and love. Contracts lead to the growth of political and economic institutions – governments, political parties, businesses. Covenants, on the other hand, create very different institutions – families, communities, and traditions.
Jewish communities all over the country are struggling with how to remain covenantal communities. Families treat religious school as another extracurricular to be scheduled and paid for, no different than ballet classes or learning a musical instrument. Some synagogues have become fee-for-service institutions, rather than places of true, deep community. Members, and even lay leaders, expect the paid professional staff to do the real, hard work of ensuring the survival of the institution.
But here, in Great Falls, there is no paid staff. And while this community may not have a jam-packed program calendar like a large synagogue in another city, it certainly is a covenantal community, one in which each person does his or her part – not only taking on the responsibilities of setting up the Bethel for services or for potluck, but also the responsibility of ensuring that this community survives, taking the very real challenge of the future to heart. This community has a great deal of Torah to teach the large synagogues of Los Angeles and New York.
Tonight, our voices have risen together in song, led by our very talented musicians, Steve, Sarah, and Hillary. Each of our voices, each of our unique instruments, is needed to help our songs and our prayers ascend to heaven. No voice is too young or too old, too out of tune, to be excluded.
In next week’s Torah portion, we find the familiar words of the Priestly Blessing. God, partner with this holy community and its members in bringing redemption.
Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha.
May God bless and keep this community for generations to come.
Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha v’yichuneka.
May God’s light shine out from this community, teaching Torah and bringing Judaism to this corner of the world.
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom.
May God give this community a sense of shleimut, wholeness, recognizing all the gifts it holds within it.
Posted on May 12, 2013, in 2013, May, May 2013, Ram's Horn and tagged Israel, Jews, Judaism, Religion and Spirituality, student rabbi, Synagogue, Torah. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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