The work of schlepping

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is coordinator of community chaplaincy at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

Last week, I took on an intimidating task. I assembled a bookcase. 

I pulled out the pieces, got out the screwdrivers and hammer, cleared a space and opened the booklet of instructions. I squinted at the incomprehensible diagrams and tried to connect them to the words on the page and, harder still, the pieces that came out of the box. 

Eventually, after far longer than it should have taken, the bookcase was complete, the shelves were in and, finally, the wrappings and instruction booklet went into the recycling bin.

Parashat Naso, the longest of the weekly Torah portions, wraps up a lengthy list of Priestly and Levitical duties in the mobile tabernacle. In great detail, this and the previous portion describe every piece, curtain, board and hook of the portable tabernacle and describe who is responsible for disassembling and carrying each one as Israel journeys from place to place in the wilderness.

Because there are no diagrams, I find it hard to picture exactly what is happening during these chapters. The Tabernacle — in Hebrew the Mishkan or dwelling — was an immense structure that outlined several layers of holiness moving inward toward the Holy of Holies, the place where God’s presence could enter the world. It had been built out of an overwhelming flood of donations on the part of the community and formed the heart of the Israelite encampment. Most important of all, it was temporary and portable, ready to be disassembled and moved at a moment’s notice.

One of Judaism’s most radical and central ideas is that holiness can and does travel from place to place in the world. When we flee Egypt, God flees with us. When we camp in the desert, God camps with us. To be Jewish is to be constantly on the move and to try to bring holiness with us.

For our Levites, the process of bringing holiness with us was a technical and complex one. Each piece of the Mishkan had to be properly detached, packaged, loaded, transported and put back together correctly for God to have a home in our camp. It took many pairs of hands, attention to detail and careful organization. 

The Torah states that 8,580 individuals were part of the “work of service and the work of carrying” and that each of them was personally appointed to their job. The Torah describes an orderly process and imagines that each task, even the schlepping and even the smallest, is imbued with meaning and honor.

I don’t know exactly what our ancestors’ experience of this holiness was like. I can only imagine how it felt for them to witness God’s presence coming down to dwell in the building that they had assembled with their own hands. But I do know that the idea that holiness travels with us remains at the center of Judaism. 

For most of our history, we have been without a permanent dwelling place and have drawn strength from the teaching that in our time of exile, God is exiled with us. They say that in the absence of a central altar, the table in each of our homes becomes an altar. They say that when we gather together to study or pray, God’s presence quite literally joins in with us.

When I think about the deepest and most inspiring experiences of my life, this rings true. For me, those moments tend to be moments of community and of connection with others. When God’s presence is in the room, it feels effortless, like something I just stumble into. But, of course, none of them is. It takes all of us to create those moments, hundreds of small tasks, people being willing to pitch in and help, plan, teach, sing, smile and be truly present. We notice some of those tasks happening, but others tend to go unnoticed when they are done well.

It is, I think, exactly for this reason that we describe the process of transporting and assembling the holy place in such lengthy detail. Those instructions could have been shared only with the Levitical families tasked with carrying them out, to be discarded when the task was no longer performed. In fact, the whole process could have been bypassed altogether; God simply could have moved the tabernacle when needed or designed a dwelling place that could move more easily. 

Instead, we treasure these instructions for assembling a structure that we have never seen because those instructions are a core part of our heritage. Holiness is not supposed to be too easy; it is not supposed to be something that just happens to us. Holiness is supposed to take a little input from a lot of people. 

We are supposed to take part in “the work of service and the work of schlepping,” the inspiring and mundane tasks that bring God into the world.