“The Danger of Seeing the Holy Furnishings”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, concludes with G-d’s stern warning to Moses and Aaron forbidding the Levites to enter the Tabernacle to assemble and disassemble the sanctuary structure before the holy furnishings are properly covered.

In Numbers 4:20, the Torah instructs Moses to warn the Levites, specifically the family of Kehat, וְלֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵת , They [the Kehatites] shall not come and look as the holy [furnishings] are covered, lest they die.

The meaning of the above verse is the subject of dispute. The literal meaning of the word, כְּבַלַּעK’vah’lah, means “to swallow,” asserting that the Levites not come and look as the holy things are being swallowed, lest they die.

The Rashbam explains that K’vah’lah, implies that when the Levites dismantle (“swallow”) the Tabernacle, G-d Himself is revealed, and if they saw the Holy Divine Presence, they would die.

Rashi maintains otherwise. He explains that K’vah’lah here means that Levites may not be present as the holy vessels are covered (“swallowed”) and carefully placed in their containers.

The great contemporary commentator Nehama Leibowitz asked the question, “What was the grave sin that warranted such a dire penalty, which the Levites had to fear when engaged in transporting the holy appurtenances?”

Professor Leibowitz cites the Midrash Rabbah (Numbers 5) quoting Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, who says in the name of Rabbi Yosse ben Zimra, that because of the extraordinary sanctity of the Ark, the Levites would be afraid to handle it, lest they be struck down and die. Therefore, they would prefer to handle the other vessels–the table, candlesticks, and the altars, neglecting and slighting the Holy Ark.

Rabbi Samuel bar Rabbi Nachman disagreed and said that, to the contrary, because of its great sanctity, the people would vie to carry the Ark, even at the risk of their lives, and leave the other furnishings without anyone to transport them. This would leave the sanctuary in turmoil. That is why G-d said that Aaron and his sons must assign each Levite to a specific appointed task.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that if the holy vessels were not covered, the Levites would come to regard them as ordinary utensils. They would fail to see the utensils’ deep mystical meaning and would be much less likely to respect their profound value. As a result, the Levites might become so consumed by the privilege of transporting the holy vessels, and not show the proper respect for the vessels’ special sanctity.

The Abarbanel maintains that the Torah mandates that the vessels be covered before the Levites come in, so that the Levites not attempt to grasp beyond their capacity and try to comprehend what is the Holy of Holies.

Professor Leibowitz cites the 16th century Italian commentator R. Moshe Hefez , who suggests that the holy vessels must be covered because otherwise the Levites would become victims of pride and vanity, due to the fact that they had been specifically selected for this important task. However, when the vessels are covered, and their beauty cannot be viewed, the vessels are likely to be considered a burden, and the Levites would have no reason to be prideful.

The Sforno suggests that the penalty for seeing the holy vessels was purposely made severe in order to instill in the Levites a sense of utmost respect and order. The Sforno cites the tragic case recorded in the Talmud in Yoma 23a, of two young priests who ran up to the altar in order to be the first to remove the ashes. The priest who reached the altar first was stabbed by the other.

The focus on the sanctity of the Tabernacle, and particularly the sanctity of the Ark and the Torah, at this time of year, is certainly no coincidence, since parashat Bamidbar usually precedes the festival of Shavuot and the celebration of the giving of the Torah. It is particularly telling that many of the commentators focus on the eagerness of the Levites to see the holiness of the Torah.

As the Torah is carried around in many congregations with song and joy, we pay tribute to the singular document that serves as the undeniable lifeline of the Jewish people. The Torah is, after all, as the verse in Proverbs 3:18 declares עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ–It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed Tuesday evening, May 23rd through Wednesday night, May 24th. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city.