Every morning in our household starts the same way. Our little one wakes and starts crying his vague morning whimpers, which my wife and I can hear through the baby monitor. I’m a heavy sleeper, and I sleep with earplugs in (a habit I’ve developed during my time living in Brooklyn), so it’s usually my wife who wakes up first. She rolls over and shakes me awake. “Honey,” she mumbles, “He’s up.” “Okay, yeah,” I mumble back and get up to bring our kiddo into our bed to nurse.
I’ve never experienced a closeness quite like the one between our cub and me when he’s nursing. Breastfeeding hasn’t been an easy journey. Kiddo was a pro at latching from the get-go, but I had a lot of milk-flow problems, issues that weren’t helped by my postpartum anxiety and insomnia. Good sleep is crucial for healthy milk flow (or so I’ve been told), and I wasn’t getting any sleep, let alone restful slumber. Still, the feeling of holding a warm, sweet little person close as I nourish him from my body is one of my favorite parts of the day. It’s the closest we can get to being one body again, just like when he was curled inside my womb.
During this half-hour or so of our morning ritual, little one and I are enmeshed in a closeness that calls for full vulnerability. It’s precarious and delicious (especially for him, I imagine), and I know that once he’s weaned I will likely crave them. At least every once in a while.
As I was reading this week’s portion, which continues to convey the special relationship between God and the Levites, I misread a verse and it threw me for a loop. In Numbers 8:9 God tells Moses to bring the Levites close to Him as a part of their induction into the select community of people closest to the Lord. This makes sense — we’ve already been told in previous portions that the Levites will be the ones working in the holiest areas, the ones making sacrifices and burning incense. What threw me was the verb used in the verse: וְהִקְרַבְתָּ֥ (v’hikravta) it says. In English, “and thou shall bring forward.” Or, translated another way, using the same linguistic root, “and thou shall sacrifice.”
I may never have realized that, in Hebrew, the verb for ‘to grow near’ has the same root as the verb ‘to sacrifice.’ With the assumption that nothing in the Bible is by chance (and this is the assumption with which I choose to read the text), I can only assume that whoever chose this word was aware of the double meaning. Why is it here? What extra meaning are we, the readers, meant to glean from this usage?
Rashi, the renowned scholar, noticed it as well. He notes in his commentary of the verse that “Because the Levites were made, so to speak, an expiatory offering [to God], let them come and stand at their offering […] as is prescribed in the case of an offering.”
In other words, the Levites are being set aside for God’s service, a sacrifice both on the part of the nation and, of course, on their own part. This setting aside comes with the ability to peer into the divine and see the world in ways that a layperson (someone from any other of the twelve Israelite tribes) wouldn’t be privy to. It also, however, comes with a price. Being apart is hard, both on the soul and the body.
This brings me back to our morning ritual. Our kiddo will be two in July, and I’ve been waffling about weaning him for at least a year now. My wife, bless her, has been supportive as I flip and flop between decisions. I want my body back, but I also want my baby to stay snuggled up with me in bed for as long as possible. I want him to stay my baby, not to grow up so quickly. At times it seems like he’s growing up overnight. When did he learn so many words? How does he know how things around the house work? Often we’re rendered speechless as he grows in leaps and bounds.
As he grows, he gets nearer to himself but farther from us. Or, rather, closer to us in new and different ways. We can’t have it both ways. As he moves in one direction, he moves away from where he was. Each step is a gain and a sacrifice.
If I can learn something from this portion, maybe it’s that there is a sacrifice involved in being close, but there’s also a sweet and wondrous holiness to be gained. That there is more than one way to be close — to ourselves and to one another. That to love another person (even a tiny person) with my whole being is to understand that the sweet will always be bittersweet. The point is to see what’s lost, as well as what’s received, like two halves of a divine whole. To draw near is to sacrifice, and vice versa. Parenthood, like life, is about the braiding of the two together, the holding of that braid in our hands, and not shying away from what that connection means.
This was beautiful. Nursing isn’t something I had a chance to do, but I’ve witnessed it many times, and it’s always striking how intimate and bonding it is. And how much of a sacrifice. That’s a wonderful reading of this parsha.