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The (Levites from the family of Kehat) shall not come to see the holy (articles of the Tabernacle) being inserted (into their coverings, for travel), less they will die (4:20).
The final section of the Parasha looks at procedures for the Levites in dismantling and carrying the Tabernacle from place to place during the Israelite travels in the desert. Moses and Aaron are commanded to put every member of that tribe to their tasks, but only the Priests (i.e. Aaron and his sons) would be allowed to insert the holiest objects into their covers - which the rest, including the Levites, were forbidden to witness 'less they shall die'.
What may be learnt from this prohibition?
The only recorded case where a death took place on similar lines is recorded in the Book of Samuel. The text relates the events linked with the actual transfer of the Holy Ark from the house of Abinadab in Givah (likely to be Givat Jearim) to Jerusalem. What should have been a happy occasion was marred by tragedy. Uzzah and Ahio, his two younger sons, drove the cart on which the Ark was placed, whilst David and the people followed with music and dancing. But when the oxen leading the cart stumbled, Uzzah actually touched the Ark to steady it, and he died instantly, at the Hand of G-d (Sam. II 6:6-7).
Various reasons are given for this very harsh penalty. One is that it was transferred in the manner not prescribed by the Torah. The Ark was to be carried on the shoulders of the Levites (Num. 7:9), not on a wagon. It took only the further tiny acts of not preventing the oxen stumbling, and touching the Holy Ark to bring the tragedy.
However, another reason may be suggested, with bearing on the prohibition of 'not coming to see the holy articles being insertedů'
Earlier on, the Book of Samuel relates the events of the Ark being taken into battle during the days of Eli, and its being captured by the Philistines. After its return, it was 'brought to the house of Abinadab in Givah. They appointed his son Elazar to look after the Ark of G-d' (Sam. I 7:1). The Metzudat David comments that this 'looking after' meant 'to take care that no one would look at it'.
The Ark is described as being the place of the most intense form of the Divine Presence: 'I (G-d) will meet you there, and speak to you from above the cover of the Ark, between the two Cherubimů all that I will command you regarding the Israelites' (Ex. 25:22).
Aaron, the High Priest and his successors, knew the Ark within the Holy of Holies at first hand - entering there once a year on Yom Kippur. Thus the act of preparing it for transport would not degrade the Divine Presence in their eyes.
But the area of the Holy of Holies was non-accessible to all other people. All they knew was that the Divine Presence of G-d was at its most powerful in that place. To see the Ark in a less exalted position - being packed - would cheapen it, and its implied Presence of G-d, in their eyes. That is why that same Ark was zealously guarded by Elazar so that no-one would look at it. And why Uzzah, who got too close, died on the spot.
That is a message to people who are looked up to in society - especially those of Rabbinic calling. They stand for something, and they have to be larger than life - as long as they are seen by the public. That cannot 'be themselves' 'warts and all' as long as others see them. For that can be said to degrade what they stand forů
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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