This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers, which in Hebrew is called Bemidbar, “In a Wilderness”. Later in this book the Israelites and their fellow-travelers do leave Mt. Sinai and travel across the wilderness, all the way to the banks of the Jordan River. But first they need instructions on how to take down and set up their camp as they travel, including the portable sanctuary and all its sacred objects.
At this point there are only three priests, Aaron and his two surviving sons. They are responsible for wrapping and unwrapping the holy objects—the ark, the bread table, the lamp-stand and its utensils, the incense altar, and the utensils for the big altar. The priests must also supervise the Levites, who take down and set up the rest of the sanctuary, and carry everything while they journey.
Out of the three clans of Levites, the Kohatites get the job of carrying the holiest objects. This is both the highest honor for a Levite, and the most dangerous work.
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Don’t cut down the tribe of the families of the Kohatites from among the Levites. Do this for them, so they will live and they will not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come in and assign each man his service and his burden to carry. And they shall not come in to look as the holy is bala, or they will die. (Numbers/Bemidbar 40:17-20)
bala = swallowed up, completely enclosed, confused. (Bala is sometimes translated in this passage as “inserted”. The Talmud, Sanhedrin Tractate, says it’s a metaphor for “stolen”.)
A lot of commentary puzzles over the meaning of bala in the passage above. The root meaning of the verb (spelled bet-lamed-ayin) seems to be “swallow”, and its other uses are probably derived from that. How could holy things be swallowed? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) said it means the Kohatites must not see “the holy” until it is completely covered with its wrappings. Some 20th-century translators argue that the ancient Israelites had an idiom using the word “swallow” that was parallel to our “in the blink of an eye”; thus the Kohatites must not look at “the holy” even for as long as it takes to swallow.
Commentators also disagree about whether “the holy” in this sentence means all the holy objects wrapped up by the priests, or only the ark. Personally, I think it can’t mean all the objects the priests wrap up, since all the Israelites can see the utensils for the big altar every day, when the priests burn sacrificial animals there. “The holy” might include the objects in the inner sanctum where all the priests go to light the menorah, burn incense, and replace the bread on the table. But I think “the holy” in this context just refers to the ark in the innermost enclosure, the Holy of Holies, where only Moses and the high priest can go.
I’ve read a number of reasons why it might be deadly to look at the ark when it’s uncovered. One is that the privilege of seeing the Holy of Holies would inflate a Kohatite with too much pride. Another is that seeing the ark as a physical object would lead him to think of God as a physical object. Yet another is that someone who sees the ark would be irresistibly drawn to touch it. Levites could safely touch the carrying poles that were permanently attached to the ark, but touching the ark itself causes instant death. (In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills the men of Bet-Shemesh when they look at, or maybe into, the ark. In 2 Samuel 6:6, Uzzah touches the ark in order to keep it from falling off a cart, and the divine power kills him anyway. It doesn’t say whether the ark was covered that time.)
So looking at the ark leads to egotism, or to demeaning God, or to death by contact with this terrifyingly holy object. Of course the priests should keep the Kohatites from seeing the ark before it’s completely covered. And of course when the sanctuary is all set up, with the ark in its curtained enclosure, it should be seen only by the high priest, once a year. Yet the passage I translate above seems to imply that lesser priests are allowed to see the ark every time they dismantle and set up the sanctuary.
On the other hand, the priests could cover the ark with the specified layers of cloths without actually looking at it (or touching it). I think the Torah assumes they have the willpower to do this. But the Kohatites waiting to receive the covered-up ark would not be able to resist peeking—not unless the priests assigned them tasks that would keep them busy from the time the curtains came down until the ark was covered. After all, if you can take positive action when faced with a deadly temptation, it’s easier to redirect your mind and resist.
Maybe if Adam and Eve had been given the job of weeding around the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden, they could have resisted the temptation to taste its fruit.
What tempts you? Hot fudge? The body of a person who is off-limits for you? Personal power? How do you resist?
What is it like to be tempted by divine power? To feel the urge to go beyond feeling awe and accepting the mystery? To want to touch, to enter, something beyond reason, something so alien to normal human thinking that contact with it could destroy you?