“Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.” (Numbers 4:22)
When Hollywood puts out a movie and wants to show a Jewish wedding, there is one scene that is inevitable. There is a scene of wedding guests dancing while lifting the bride and groom up on chairs. To make it even more clear that the wedding is Jewish, the band plays Hava Nagila as they are dancing. A good example is a scene in the 2005 movie Wedding Crashers. In a Jewish wedding, we lift up the bride and groom.
Based on the Hebrew, the scene of lifting the bride and groom makes sense. In a Jewish marriage, the bride and groom raise each other up. The Hebrew word for a marriage ceremony is nisuin, the plural of the word “raising up.” The word echoes the title of this week’s portion naso. Naso is often translated as “take a census.” But the word literally means “lift up.” Moses is to lift up each of the tribes according to their ancestral homes, giving each special consideration. To the Biblical mind, a census was more than counting numbers. It was a symbol of raising up each tribe, showing how each is special. This is particularly true in this portion when Moses counted the tribe of Levi; each family had a role in carrying and setting up the tabernacle.
In a healthy marriage, the bride and groom lift each other up. I often think of the powerful song made famous by the popular singer Josh Groban. “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains. You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas. I am strong when I am on your shoulders. You raise me up to more than I can be.” When you need a lift, I recommend playing the song, which has become Groban’s signature number.
I recently spoke with a couple who had been married 65 years. That is amazing to me; Evelyn and I have been married a mere 43 years. I asked them how to get to 65. I suppose it starts with both partners staying healthy well into their senior years. But the other part is for each partner to be aware of the needs of their partner and lift them up. Sometimes one partner is more in need of a lift and sometimes the other. Often it flips back and forth. But we learn from the Hebrew the centrality of raising one’s partner up.
On the flip side, on a sadder note, I see too many failed marriages. Too often these were bad marriages to begin with and could not succeed. But when I talk to couples going through a separation or divorce, too often I see people putting their partner down. It is the opposite of raising up. It is knocking down. I am not speaking here of physical abuse, although I sometimes see that. I am talking about people who feel no pride or joy in the person they once promised to love and cherish forever. It is the sad shadow of the joy of lifting up one’s partner.
As a rabbi, I have attended countless weddings. I used to rush in to help lift the bride or groom up on chairs. Then, some time after I turned sixty, I decided that I would leave that job for younger people. I do not need to risk hurting my back. Besides, as the rabbi, I have my opportunity to lift the couple up. I get to speak to the couple during the ceremony. I tell each one to look into the other’s eyes. Then I ask them, what can each of you do to make this person happier, more successful, more fulfilled? What can each of you do to raise one another up? It is my role as the officiant.
I know that couples cannot always focus on what I say at that important moment. That is the joy of video taping a wedding. The couple can watch it later, and eventually show it to their children. I hope they can hear my message. A successful marriage begins when a couple learns to raise one another up.