At Mount Sinai the Israelites experience God, lose hope and make the Golden Calf, reform and make the portable sanctuary for God, and learn how to practice their religion. After a year and a month, they are ready when the book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins, to dismantle the sanctuary and journey north to Canaan.
On the way, how will they safely carry the sacred items in the sanctuary’s Tent of Meeting from one campsite to the next?
This week’s Torah portion, also called Bemidbar (“In the wilderness of”), is not concerned about the safety of the safety of the ark, the table, the menorah, or the incense altar on the road. It is concerned about the safety of the Levites who will carry the holy items.
Aaron shall enter, and his sons, when the camp is going to pull out, and they shall take down the dividing curtain and kisu the ark of testimony. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5)
kisu (כִּסּוּ) = they shall cover. (A form of the verb kasah, כָּסָה = covered, covered over, clothed, concealed.)
The Torah describes how many layers of what materials the priests will use to cover the gold ark, bread table, menorah, and incense altar that normally stand inside the Tent of Meeting, which only priests may enter. (See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.) The word for “cover” in this passage is always the verb kasah.
And Aaron and his sons shall finish lekhasot the Holy and all the implements of the Holy when the camp is going to pull out, and after that the Kohatites shall come in to carry [them], but they shall not touch the Holy or they will die. (Numbers 4:15)
lekhasot (לְכַסֺּת) = to cover, covering. (Another form of the verb kasah.)
One reason to wrap up the holy items is so that the Levites cannot touch them; unauthorized contact results in death.1 The Levites from the Kohat tribe are only authorized to touch the carrying poles for each furnishing.
They are also endangered if they see any part of the Holy as it is being wrapped. The Torah uses a different term for wrapping or covering to describe this unauthorized view.
And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Do not cause the tribe of the families of the Kohatites to be cut down from among the Levites! Do this for them, and they will live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come in and assign each individual man his service and his burden. And they shall not come in to look as the Holy [are] bala, or they will die.” (Numbers 4:17-20)
bala (בָּלַע) = swallowed down, devoured, engulfed.
Where did that menacing image come from? Do the holy items suddenly look as if they are being devoured by their own wrappings?
Usually when the verb bala appears in the Torah it means either “destroyed” in general, or specifically “swallowed”. One exception is when Job complains that God is persecuting him.
“Will you not look away from me, leave me alone, until I bala my own spit?” (Job 7:19)
Here Job uses a form of bala to mean “swallow” in an idiom for a moment or instant—the brief time it takes to swallow spit.
Taking off from this idiom, some translators conclude that bala in our Torah portion at the beginning of the book of Numbers does not mean “swallowed”, but rather “the time it takes to swallow”. Here is a version by Everett Fox2:
But they are not to enter and see (even) for-a-moment (the dismantling of) the Holy-Shrine, lest they die. (Numbers 4:20)
Perhaps the Levites must not see the holy items for even as long as it takes to swallow. Or perhaps the Levites must not see the holy items as small objects being swallowed or engulfed by their coverings.
Pride. A tantalizing glimpse of something normally out-of-bounds could lead a Levite porter to steal another chance to look at part of holy item. He might feel powerful, familiar with the most holy, almost like a priest. Yet peeking under the wrapping, for example, would result automatically in the Levite’s death.
Disenchantment. On the other hand, seeing one of the holy items being wrapped as if it were any other physical object might lead a Levite to treat it with less reverence, which is also a bad idea. The Levite might even start thinking of God as a mere physical object.
These same arguments might apply to the priests wrapping the holy items. When the Tent of Meeting is set up and in operation, all of the priests get to see the bread table, menorah, and incense altar. But the ark stands behind a dividing curtain in the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest may go, once a year.
Yet this week’s Torah portion implies that lesser priests are allowed to see the ark every time they dismantle and reassemble the sanctuary. Perhaps the priests cover the ark with the specified layers of cloths without actually looking at it (or touching it directly). I think the Torah assumes they have the willpower to do this.
But the Kohatites waiting to receive the covered-up ark might not be able to resist peeking—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, when you are faced with a deadly temptation, it is easier to redirect your mind if you stay busy.
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?
What is it like to be tempted by divine power? To crave something beyond awe in the face of the mystery? To want to touch something beyond reason, something so alien to normal human thinking that contact with it could destroy you?
- See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Segregating the Holy.
- Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 673.
(Based on an essay I published in 2011. When I had a good day this week, I rewrote it.)