No menial task

Why is all of the information here important, especially in light of the fact that the various assignments in the parsha were particular to the sojourn of the Jews in the wilderness?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The various assignments regarding the transport of the pieces of the Tabernacle are found in the Torah portion of Bamidbar. Each of the families of the tribe of Levi were assigned a specific task. The family of Kehat was detailed to carry the vessels related to the actual worship done in the Tabernacle, including the Menorah, Aron, and Shulchan, among others. The Torah also details how these vessels were covered prior to these Levites moving them. Why is all of this information important, especially in light of the fact that these various assignments were particular to the sojourn of the Jews in the wilderness?

At the end of this Torah portion, we come across a strange warning (Bamidbar 4:17-20):
“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: Do not cause the tribe of the families of Kehat to be cut off from among the Levites. Do this for them, so they should live and not die, when they approach the Holy of Holies. Aaron and his sons shall first come and appoint each man individually to his task and his load. They shall not come in to see when the holy [vessels] are being wrapped up, lest they die”

What was the harm that could come to the family of Kehat?

Many of the commentaries point to a potential but avoidable calamity. The vessels of the Tabernacle were covered by the Kohanim before the Leviim transported them. If one of the Leviim viewed the Aron prior to its covering, “exposed” so to speak, he would die. God is thus stressing the importance of those responsible for moving these vessels to be careful and methodical when approaching them. Arriving early or being exuberant could lead to a fatal result. 

While of course a resulting death would be catastrophic, does God really need to emphasize this point? There is a general prohibition of not viewing the Aron uncovered, which would appear to be a sufficient reminder for the Leviim of the seriousness of the offense. What does this warning add?

The Midrash takes a more general look at the role of the Leviim and their contrast with the rest of the Jewish people when offering an analysis of these verses. The tribe of Levi is distinguished from the rest of the Jewish people. For the nation as a whole, they have no “care” at all when it comes to the vessels. The Leviim are saddled with the task of transporting them. Within the Leviim, the family of Kehat was tasked with the transportation of the Aron. The Midrash continues with another contrast, where the Leviim are once again distinguished from the rest of the Jewish people. The nation walks with shoes on their feet, while the Leviim walk barefoot. Within the tribe, the family of Kehat stands out.

Why? Whereas the other Leviim used carriages to help transport what they were responsible for, those from Kehat had the Aron “resting” on their shoulders. 

This Midrash showcases the unique role of the Leviim, and helps us understand why the Torah records a warning. The Leviim occupy a peculiar position in the hierarchy of Judaism. On the one hand, it is clear they are distinct from the Jewish people, evidenced in their association with the Tabernacle (and future Temple) and its workings. On the other hand, they are not involved in any of the religious service done in the Tabernacle. While this analysis of their role seems simple, there are some important considerations that emerge. From the perspective of the nation, their role seems quite incidental. In their mindset, when the Tabernacle is up and running, religious worship takes place.

Once the walls come down, it ceases to function, and one might assume all of the components lose their importance. The pieces have no value when not functioning as an entity. However, the necessity of the vessels being covered, and the concept of not being allowed to look at the Aron, negate this assumption. There is an intrinsic importance in the vessels, as they are not just about being used in religious worship. There are deep and important concepts that can be accessed in these vessels, and this is a constant. Therefore, there is never a moment in time when the vessel lacks in function. They always serve as repositories of God’s infinite wisdom. One might view the transportation of these vessels as a rudimentary task of maintenance. In truth, the responsibility of the Leviim then was to actualize the existing potential of the vessels. 

A practical example might assist in understanding this idea. When one attends synagogue, there are certain figures who stand out. There is the rabbi, the spiritual leader. There is the chazzan. There are those who read the Torah and Haftorah. All of these people are engaged in some type of religious service. Naturally, people focus their attention on them. Yet there are many others who, without their participation, the synagogue could not function. There even is a special blessing added into the Shabbat prayers which identifies these people for praise: “…those who give lamps for illumination and wine for Kiddush and Havdala” Their role may not be a discrete action of religious service; but religious service cannot happen without them.

The warning to the Leviim then becomes prescient. The role of the Leviim does not naturally produce any satisfaction of religious performance. Schlepping the pieces of the Tabernacle around the desert would not appear lend itself to such a feeling. This is the very danger the Levi faces in his job. He is tied to the service of the Tabernacle in a critical manner, but not one that caters to the appeal the average person seeks. He could see himself as an equal to the Kohen, desiring to create the same intimate bond of religious service found within the Tabernacle. The temptation to create that same bond is a strong one, and thus God reinforces the importance of maintaining that separation. Seeing the Aron is an expression of identification, and this is something beyond the allowance of the Levi. It is a challenging proposition, but nonetheless essential for them to understand and control. 

This explains the idea of the Midrash. In the eyes of the average Jew, the role of transporting components is an “unimportant” one, engaged in a menial task; the glory lies with the Kohanim. In truth, their responsibilities were critical to the functioning of the Tabernacle. As well, the fact they walked without shoes, like the Kohanim did during their service, meant the Leviim were engaged in a type of religious service, albeit lacking the grandeur of the Tabernacle service.  Overall, then, we see the Leviim in a unique light. Their position required a self-awareness throughout their work. It was a challenge, as they balanced their role in facilitating the Tabernacle’s functioning alongside the natural ambition for a more significant part in the process.  

More Arutz Sheva videos: