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Doing Everything All At Once

05/18/2023 03:47:36 PM


What is the danger in discombobulation? Discombobulation is a modern word of fanciful mock Latin origin that roughly means  “confusion”. But it also implies to me a sense that all your parts are out of order, as if you woke up one morning assembled backwards or, as my grandfather used to joke, “Your feet smell and your nose runs.” If I am feeling discombobulated, I can’t make heads or tails of a situation, everything is haphazard or in disarray. And usually I feel it when I am trying to do too many things at once.

When many important things need to happen, and we want to get them all done ourselves, we lose track of our priorities. Different demands pull us in different directions — friends, family, work, health — but if you have six or seven things that are all equally important to do or to consider, it is near impossible to prioritize or then do any of them. So we start to fall behind or forget things, juggling less and less successfully with each new ball in the air. It might lead to forgetting what is really important to us and start us out on these tasks in the first place.

In our parsha this week, Bamidbar, we are given very precise instructions for our most important task: building, maintaining, and moving the mishkan, the tabernacle, God’s home on earth. And to each family clan there is given a very precise assignment. One family carries the oil, one the poles and sockets, one the linen cloth. There is no assumption that they will just figure it out or divvy up the load. This  task is broken into discrete parts that have each been delegated out and put in a fixed order.

But after one family group, the Kohathites, receives an assignment we get this surprising verse: “אַל־תַּכְרִ֕יתוּ אֶת־שֵׁ֖בֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹ֣ת הַקְּהָתִ֑י מִתּ֖וֹךְ הַלְוִיִּֽם׃” or “Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off  (takhreitu) from the Levites.” (Numbers 4:18)  What is happening here? The Kohathite assignment is to carry things from the Ohel Moed. They have to wait until Aaron and his sons have disassembled all the items there. So maybe their job is extra dangerous and God is warning against their doing it improperly less they be punished with karet, being cut off from the community. Some rabbis say it is a warning against this family in particular because they are the clan of Korach, who rebels against Moses and cuts himself off from the other Levites. Maybe God is aware of division looming in the ranks.

But Sforno, a 16th century rabbi, interprets it differently; he writes that what this verse means is, “Do not allow the procedure of carrying parts of the Tabernacle to be a free for all, the one first on the spot carrying the part he chooses to, for if you do this the resulting chaos will lead to destruction, to death. Such chaotic conditions will inevitably lead to desecration of holy things, holy objects, with tragic results.”

In trying to do too many things at once, with no proper delegation or prioritization, we forget the essence of what we were doing in the first place. And here in our parsha it is creating holy spaces. It doesn’t seem to matter that one temple object be carried by the wrong person, or that some other object be mislaid, per se, but that in the melee, this free-for-all, the Israelites forget the sacredness of their task. They forget that their real purpose is not to get the clean up done, but to sanctify this place for God. This is the cause of desecration, chaos, and maybe even death.

If you have been feeling discombobulated this week, may you find again the purpose at the heart of your assignments. May a deeper sense of purpose pull you through the chaos and may you find a way to delegate the some of those many tasks out again so that you are no juggling to many tasks alone, but pursuing whatever goal you are trying to do in the first place. Shabbat shalom!

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784