The spiritual journey can be taken on one of several pathways

Numbers 4:21-7:89
Judges 13:2-25

For those who take the spiritual journey seriously, choosing a path or practice to lead you into the presence of the Divine is a complex matter. My friend and teacher Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man often speaks of different “spiritual types” who are drawn to varied types of practices. There are, for example, contemplatives and ecstatics. Some people are drawn to deep devotion and expressions of love for God; others seek to melt away the self into the One. There are those who seek God in prayer or meditation, while others are elevated by Torah study or a practice of acts of loving kindness and social justice.

For each spiritual personality there is an appropriate spiritual practice. Finding it comes with self-knowledge and experience.

Parshat Naso offers a glimpse of this insight in the description of the three different Levite clans and their duties. When the Sanctuary was in transit, the Gershonites were responsible for carrying all the outer coverings of the Sanctuary. The Merarites were responsible for carrying the frame of the Sanctuary: the planks, bar, posts and sockets. Both clans were given carts and oxen for transport. The third clan, the Kohatites, was in charge of transporting the ark, the altar and all the sacred furniture of the Sanctuary, yet they were not allowed carts and oxen “since theirs was the service of the sacred objects, their portage was by shoulder.”(7:9) Those who had the heaviest burden, and the holiest, were required to carry it manually.

The Isbitzer Rebbe interprets this division of labor as recognition that each of us is obliged to carry and put together our heart-sanctuary utilizing our own spiritual personality. The Kohatites were masters of Torah, since they bore the Ark of the Covenant. The Gershonites were masters of the fear of God, since they carried the curtains that hid the holy from plain sight. And the Merarites were masters of mitzvot, since they carried the planks that hold the tabernacle together. Finally, Moses and Aaron modeled devotion and love of God.

A contemporary sociological understanding suggests that some people are attracted to the “coverings,” the externals of spiritual practice. They do some mitzvot as an expression of Jewish identity and gain pleasure from doing them. Others connect to the inner structure of their practice by engaging in a regular schedule of rituals. Neither of these pathways is particularly onerous.

Others, however, feel that if you want to experience the depth of spirituality, you must shoulder the burden. Holiness doesn’t come easily. As the Kotzker Rebbe taught, “Spiritual work requires exceptional strenuousness and rigor.”

There is a paradox, naturally, in the experience of “carrying the holy,” as anyone who has engaged in serious spiritual practice knows. The Chofetz Chayim articulated the paradoxical nature of spiritual practice this way: “For what reason did Moses not give oxen [and wagons] to the Kohatites with which to carry the ark? Because the ark carried its carriers!”

There is an incredible lightness to holiness. With faith and commitment, the spiritual path ceases being difficult. Instead, the more you exert yourself, the more the path carries you!

One thing all these spiritual types have in common is that they are all characterized in the Torah as avodah — service of God. With a playful spin of imagination, the rabbis of the Talmud (Arachin 11a) associate the avodah of carrying the structure of the Sanctuary with the avodah of the Levites prayerful singing.

Perhaps they mean to teach us that when we approach our spiritual and religious work as song, flowing easily with the breath, with harmony that weaves different melodies and groups together, our path is blessed, no matter what our spiritual type or level.

Perhaps that is why our parasha precedes the teaching of spiritual types with the words “When they connect my Name to the Children of Israel I will bless them.”

Senior Rabbi Lavey Derby sings and teaches at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.