By Rabbi Gershon Silins
When you have a biblical name, as I do, you become aware of the biblical figure you are named after, in a different way to your awareness of other biblical personalities. It’s even more complicated when the biblical figure you are named after is – well, not very important, in the grander scheme of things. My first name is Gershon, and when I tell people what it is, they ask, where does that come from? They’re surprised that it’s biblical. And the biblical Gershon, one of the sons of Aaron, doesn’t have a particularly prominent role in the story of our people. While Aaron and his family were given the responsibility of overseeing the actual service of God in the Tabernacle, Gershon and his brothers Kohath and Merari were the schleppers whose job was to take care of the structure of the Tabernacle, its equipment, its posts and their sockets, its planks, pegs, and furnishings. Was there something about the families of Gershon, Kohath and Merari that relegated them to service jobs? And how did those families feel about the work they did and its status in the community?
There are many jobs that we take for granted; they are more or less invisible in society until something goes wrong. Certainly, the pandemic revealed a lot of surprises about whose formerly overlooked work was necessary for the rest of us to survive. And we have only just begun to fully value the work that stay-at-home partners do, perhaps because historically so many stay-at-home partners have been women, the value of whose work is often invisible and underrated.
So, what about the schleppers and the families to which the Torah assigns the schlepping? As modern people, we might on the one hand be happy to honour and respect those who maintain the physical structure that enables the spiritual and ritual activities to occur, while also being disturbed that the responsibilities for this work fall on the members of three families, irrespective of their desire or suitability to do those things. Lots of the children of doctors become doctors, but not all. Very few hereditary professions still exist in our world. Even in that most hereditary of jobs, being a royal or a monarch, not everyone born to it is well-suited to it, and the history of this country has occasionally reflected that fact.
Nonetheless, someone has to do the schlepping, or we can’t have nice things. Our synagogues can’t survive without the performance of day-to-day tasks that are often done by volunteers who do what they do because they value Jewish life.
The families of Gershon, Kohath and Merari may have felt honoured by the responsibilities that the Torah placed on them, and the following generations of those families may have gratefully taken on their historical, divinely granted roles in the life of the Israelites of their time. But times change, and the work and its meaning change with time as well. These three families were given oxcarts to help with the transportation of their items; the Gershonites received two carts and four oxen. Continuing that tradition today would be – difficult, as very few synagogues today have sufficient oxcarts.
The descendants of Gershon, Kohath and Merari went to great lengths to create and re-create the Tabernacle in the desert before any type of worship could take place. Their work contained within it a process and an outcome, both greater than the obvious managing of equipment, and that is no less true today. When a bar or bat mitzvah stands before the community and expresses their commitment to the continuation of Jewish life, they are standing on the work of volunteers, whose roles can be traced back to the families of Gershon, Kohath and Merari. The sense of Jewish identity that continues (we hope) into future generations relies on the commitment to building the context in which ritual can occur. And upon reflection, it makes me proud to carry the name Gershon, and, I must admit, just as happy that I was not named Kohath or Merari.
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