“Nu … So, what’s your favorite part of camp?” Everyone who has been involved with Ramah, as staff members or campers, as “lifers” or newcomers, has been asked that question. Each summer at Ramah Wisconsin is so jam-packed: peulot (activities), tefilot (prayer services), the eidah machazemer (age-group musical), making friends and so many other wonderful things, that choosing just one favorite part is impossible. Parashat Naso is just as action-packed as a summer at Ramah. Naso contains a census of the Levite tribes, details of the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a series of laws about Sotah (the adultery accusation), more details of the various uses of the Mishkan and the procedure through which Moses spoke to God. Often in these middle chapters of the Torah, we are tempted to simply skip over the lengthy sections of legalese and animal anatomy relating to the daily goings on in the Mishkan. We tend to skip the chapters about purity and sacrifices, in favor of more relatable narrative chapters.
The Torah is indeed packed to the gills with chapter after chapter of laws about the establishment and maintenance of individual and communal purity, and the somewhat extreme measures that must be taken if purity is violated. This week, we read about some of the purity concerns that seem most distant from the way we live our lives today, including the leper, a husband’s recourse when he suspects his wife of infidelity, and the Nazir, the closest thing we have to a monastic cult. All of these concerns require some kind of rite conducted under the auspices of the Levi’im (Levites) at the Mishkan.
Beginning in B’midbar (Numbers) 7:1, Naso describes detailed party planning instructions for the consecration of the Mishkan in the desert, the famed “Chanukat Ha’Bayit” (Dedication Ceremony). The Mishkan, the sacrifices, and other rites that will be performed within it by the Levi’im, create the possibility of purity for the entire community. What becomes clear through these chapters is the ideal status of taharah (“purity”; or, even better, a ritually inclusive state) is easy to lose, and very difficult to reestablish. This ideal state, the only state in which Moshe, the Levi’im and B’nai Israel (the Children of Israel) were allowed to approach God through the Mishkan is a very precarious one. Furthermore, those things which render us t’me’im (“impure;” ritually excluded) are part and parcel of everyday life, and sometimes unavoidable.
Ramah is like the Mishkan for many of us. Just as the Mishkan served as a communal gathering place, focal point, guiding light, and keeper of our communal ideals, so does camp. Just as the state of taharah that the Levi’im and the community of B’nai Israel worked so hard to create and maintain was often ephemeral, so too the magic and community we create at camp is often frustratingly ephemeral once we reencounter the realities of our daily life, which complicate our aspirations for an ideal Jewish life and community.
We know that giving up on the ideal, on a communal and individual state of tahara, is not an option, and we are all working to open those channels between the summer and the rest of our lives. What does Parashat Naso have to offer in the way of wisdom on this challenge? Notably, the parasha is bookended by two instances of counting, beginning with an accounting of the clans of Levi’im who will serve as priests in the Mishkan, and ends with the details of the korbanot (sacrifices) brought by representatives from each tribe within B’nai Israel for the dedication of the Mishkan. Why does the Torah, which doesn’t mince words, spend so much time and energy rendering these lists, especially the ending list, in which each tribe brings the identical offering, spelled out each time in full? What is this all about?
The community of tahara we create at camp, as a whole machaneh (camp), as eidot (age-group cohorts), and in the individual relationships we create, relies on the full participation of each individual, and the recognition of the unique needs and abilities of each chanich (camper), madrich (counselor), chaver tzevet (staff member), and everyone who contributes to the camp community. Without acknowledging and encouraging the participation and contribution of every member of the community, reaching a state of tahara is impossible. The diversity of a Ramah summer helps to ensure that every member of the community has a chance to bring their offering, to contribute to the building of the Mishkan and its ability to create tahara within the community. When we return to our hometowns across the country during the rest of the year, our ability to come together as a community, and all contribute to the strength and vitality of that community is diminished by distance, time and the many other important obligations that demand our time. Perhaps, if we find ways to stay conscious of our obligation to continue contributing to and helping to maintain and strengthen the community during the year, we can experience the ideal state of tahara all year round.
We are about to embark on a fresh, new opportunity to build a Mishkan together in Conover, and create a world of tahara together. Maybe, if we remember the lessons of Naso, we can keep a little more of that tahara with us during the year, and find new ways to feed and nourish our community of tahara no matter where we are.