“Carrying the Ark”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we learn that the completed Tabernacle was sanctified and inaugurated for its first use.

In order to underscore the unity of the people of Israel on this momentous occasion, the princes of the twelve tribes each brought identical individual gifts as well as a collective gift to the Tabernacle. Collectively the princes donated six covered wagons and twelve oxen for use in the Tabernacle. Moses gave the wagons and the oxen to the Levites, allocating two wagons and four oxen to the sons of Gershon who were charged with transporting the curtains of the Tabernacle and the courtyard. Four wagons and eight oxen were given to the sons of Merari, who were responsible for the heavier Tabernacle furnishings, including the pillars and the sockets. The sons of Kehat, however, were not given any wagons or oxen.

The Torah, in Numbers 7:9, explains that, “V’liv’nay Kehat loh na’tahn, kee a’voh’daht ha’koh’desh a’lay’hem, ba’kah’tayf yee’sah’oo,” And to the sons of Kehat he [Moses] did not give [wagons], since the sacred service was upon them; they carried on their shoulders. The family of Kehat was responsible for transporting the holiest furnishings of the Tabernacle (i.e. the “sacred service”), including the Ark, the Table of the Showbread, the Menorah, and the golden and earthen Altars. These items, because of their exalted sanctity, were not permitted to be transported by wagon, and were to be carried on the Levites shoulders.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) notes that the mitzvah of carrying the holy furnishings was actually incumbent upon the kohanim (priests), not the Levites. However, since there were only four official priests at the time of the Exodus, the Levites were temporarily charged with this responsibility. Years later, in Temple days, the Ark was moved only by the priests themselves.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) disagrees with Maimonides. Citing passages from the books of Joshua, Samuel and Kings, Nachmanides contends that the Levites did in fact carry the Ark even after the journey in the wilderness. The author of the Sefer Hachinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) reasons that since the most glorious facet of the Jew is the Torah, it can be expected that the most honored element of Jewry, the priests and the Levites, carry the greatest treasure of the Jews–the Ark that contains the Torah.

It is perhaps due to this ancient priestly role that, in contemporary times, kohanim are honored with carrying the Torah on the festival of Simchat Torah for the first hakafot (festive circuits).

Unfortunately, as King David learned to his chagrin, the mitzvah of carrying the Ark on the Levites’ shoulders was not merely a recommendation, it is actually one of the fundamental 613 Biblical commandments.

The holy Ark, which contained the Ten Commandments and the five Books of Moses, marched among the people of Israel and was carried throughout the wilderness during their forty years of wandering. However, there seems to be no mention of the Ark during the lifetime of Samuel and the reign of King Saul. Some scholars suggest that the Ark was inaccessible to the Israelites because it had been captured by the Philistines. The Philistines eventually sent the Ark back to the Israelites, ending up in Kiryat Yearim.

In chapter 6 of Samuel II, we read of King David’s efforts to move the Ark from Kiryat Yearim so that it could serve as the centerpiece for the city that he had designated to serve as the capital of Israel–Jerusalem. Scripture relates that King David gathered 30,000 chosen men of Israel and went to Ba’alay Judah (which seems to be another name for Kiryat Yearim) to retrieve the Ark.

In Samuel II 6:3, we are told that the Israelites set the Ark of G-d upon a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab. With the sons of Abinadab, Uzzah and Ahio, leading the new cart, King David and all the House of Israel danced before the musical instruments that accompanied the return of the Ark. When the Ark arrived at the threshing floor of Nachon, the oxen apparently stumbled. Uzzah, the son of Aminadab, put forth his hand to take hold of the Ark lest it fall. The anger of G-d was kindled against Uzzah, and he died there by the Ark. David was so distressed by Uzzah’s death that he named the place of this tragedy Peretz-Uzzah, the Breach of Uzzah.

The Midrash says that Achitofel, one of the wise advisors during David’s time, explained the death of Uzzah by citing the verse in Numbers 7 that states that the children of Kehat were not allocated wagons because the sacred service was upon them, and were mandated to carry the holy furnishings on their shoulders. Achitofel subsequently mocked David and the Elders of Israel for not knowing this fundamental principle that even little children in school know very well. Furthermore, not only did David not transport the Ark properly, his ignorance was also responsible for the death of Uzzah, the son of Aminadab.

Some of the rabbis suggest that the tragedy of Uzzah is attributable to David’s lack of seriousness when it came to the Torah, since in Psalms 119 King David refers to the Torah as “zemirot,” songs. They see this as an indication that David did not take the Law seriously enough and therefore erred in something that even the little children would know.

Other commentators give David the benefit of the doubt. They argue that King David did not forget the verse in Numbers 7, but rather interpreted it otherwise. David assumed that the reason that the Levites carried the holy furnishings of the Tabernacle on their shoulders was because they wished to accord special honor to the holy furnishings. Therefore, he did not think that transporting the Ark by wagon was forbidden. The verse, however, specifically states, “And therefore they carried it on their shoulders,” indicating that it is not optional for the Levites to place the sacred furnishings on their shoulders, it is mandatory, thus resulting in the death of Uzzah.

Others say that King David erred because he was misled by the broken tablets. King David thought that since the broken tablets were kept together in the Ark with the new second set of tablets, it was an indication that the sanctity of both tablets had been diminished. Moses, however, intended otherwise. By placing the broken tablets into the Ark together with the replacement tablets, he showed that the original tablets indeed maintained their full sanctity.

Perhaps there is another lesson to be learned from all this. Technology has played a key role in easing the lives of those who are fortunate to live in contemporary times. Modern technology makes possible long distance travel by plane, train, or auto, enables instant communication across the world, and even washing many loads of laundry with minimal effort. Society’s increasing reliance upon the benefits of technology underscores its passionate commitment to making life easier. Unfortunately, along with the many benefits, reliance on technology leads increasingly to the loss of the human touch which is so critical.

I recently learned of the practice in Israeli hospitals and elsewhere that requires parents of premature babies to spend several hours with their baby each day, hugging and holding their “premi,” rather than leaving the child in the sterile incubators with no human contact. “Ba’kah’tayf yee’sah’oo,” they shall be transported by the shoulder, may imply homiletically that people can actually be transported by a hug, a pat on the shoulder, a kind word of encouragement–that G-d’s message can often be more effectively communicated when a teacher of Torah shares in the burden with others, setting up the classroom or cleaning up after a meal. “Ba’kah’tayf yee’sah’oo,” means that we should be there for our elderly parents just as they were there for us when we were young, rather than farm them out to a nursing home or pawn them off to around-the-clock aides.

The human touch must never be lost. After all, it is the human touch that reflects the Divine spark that has been placed in each of us.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Shavuot is celebrated this year on Sunday evening, June 8th and continues through Tuesday night, June 10th, 2008. This is one of the very rare occasions (about three times a century), when parashat Naso is read before the Festival of Shavuot.

Chag Shavuot Samayach.