Sunday, June 9, 2019

Naso (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher)

The Holy One spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: Take the sum [literally, “lift the head”] of the Gershonites, by their families, by their clans.  . . . At the commandment of Aaron and his sons shall be all the service of the Gershonites, in all their lifting, and in all their service; you shall appoint them in charge of all their lifting.
                                    -Numbers 4:22 and 27

Your love keeps lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before
                                    -Jackie Wilson

The first significant word—and name—of this week’s Torah portion, Naso, means “to lift up.”  It opens with God commanding Moses and Aaron to take a census of the Gershonites, a clan of Levites tasked with carrying components of the portable sanctuary throughout the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  In the Torah’s language, counting individuals for a sacred task is described as “lifting up heads.”  As Rabbi Marc Margolious notes, the Gershonites, who are the subjects of these “liftings”/countings, are themselves charged with lifting/bearing the sacred components of the tabernacle. 

Indeed, the theme of “lifting” weaves through the entire portion.  Consider the most well-known section of Naso: the priestly blessing recited by Aaron and his sons.  The third and final section of that blessing returns to the language of uplift:

May God’s face be lifted towards you, and give you peace.

In this way, the Torah reminds us that it is our sacred calling to raise one another up; God is found in acts of uplift.  Each and every one of us will, at some point, be laid low by grief, fear, fatigue, illness and/or despair.  In those moments, we need someone to help us, literally and metaphorically, to get back on our feet. 

Kindness, compassion and love raise us up.

Consider the Talmud’s story of Rabbi Yochanan, who is renowned as a gifted healer.  When his student, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba gets sick, Rabbi Yochanan goes to visit him and asks: “Is your suffering welcome to you?”  Rabbi Hiyya replies, “I welcome neither the suffering nor its [alleged] reward.”  Rabbi Yochanan responds: “Take my hand!” and raises him up, restoring him to health.

Sometime later, Rabbi Yochanan himself falls ill.  His friend, Rabbi Hanina goes to see him, and when Yochanan, too, affirms, “I welcome neither the suffering nor its reward,” Hanina extends his hand and raises him up.

At this point, the Talmud asks: Why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan, who had the power to heal his student, raise himself?  Because, the text answers: “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison but depends on others to release him from his shackles.”

To be a mensch is to help bear the burdens of our fellow women and men.  Last Friday night, our guest speaker, Anselme Sadiki, recalled how, in his small native village in the Congo, students would carry their sick friends and neighbors on their shoulders for the six miles to and from the local school.  This is the embodiment of the ethos of portion Naso.  God asks us to raise one another up, whenever  and wherever we can.  Such is the nature of covenantal community.  Everyone carries.  And everyone is carried.

If you want to dance to this wisdom, listen to Jackie Wilson’s soulful “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher.”  He tells the simple, unadorned truth about love’s power to raise us up.   The song is almost all chorus, with passionate horns, drums,  and backing vocals framing the famously infectious melody.  The verse is straightforward—I was down and you picked me up:

Now once I was down-hearted
Disappointment was my closest friend
But then you came and it soon departed
And you know he never
Showed his face again

Then the chorus, which repeats with instrumental breaks, with ever-intensifying exuberance, until it dances us off into the sunset:

That's why your love
Keeps lifting me higher
Higher and higher
I said your love (your love keeps lifting me)
Keep on (love keeps lifting me)
Lifting me
Higher and higher


This week of portion Naso, make a special effort to lift someone’s spirits.  And be open to someone else raising yours.

For a great version of Jackie Wilson singing “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher” see: