The Danger of Holiness
As the Parsha and the new book "B'midbar" ("Numbers") open, Moshe is instructed to take a census of the males aged twenty and above, all those who are fit for military service.
1. And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out from the land of Egypt, saying, 2. Take a census of all the congregation of the People of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; 3. From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aharon shall count them by their armies. 4. And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one chief of the house of his fathers. B'midbar 1:1-4
A Different Counting
In the fourth chapter of B'midbar, another group is counted - a group that was excluded from the earlier census: the Levites. The range of the census is markedly different; the Levites are counted from the age of 30, and not 20 as were all other men.
1. And God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, 2. Take a census of the sons of Kehat from among the sons of Levi, after their families, by the house of their fathers, 3. From thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all who enter into the army, to do the work in the Tent of Meeting. B'midbar 4:1-3
The difference is more than simply ten years, more than a mere mathematical percentage of lifespan. In terms of experience, maturity, perspective, the gap between a 20- year-old and a 30-year-old is extreme. Apparently, the task reserved for the Levi'im was a solemn one, a weighty one, requiring insight, maturity and levelheaded thinking.
4. This shall be the service of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting, the most holy things; B'midbar 4:4
Indeed, the work of the Levi'im involved the holiest item in the Mishkan -- the Ark. The next verse contains instructions regarding the covering of the Ark:
5. And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering veil, and cover the Ark of Testimony with it.
The Burden of the Kehat family
The particular family entrusted to carry the Ark was the family of Kehat. This chore was fraught with danger:
15. And when Aharon and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary, and all the utensils of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to carry it; but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting.
These instructions sound ominous: "lest they die", "they shall not touch any holy thing", "the burden of the sons of Kehat". God adds an additional comment, designed to save the family of Kehat from this precarious situation:
17. And God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, 18. Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kehatites from among the Levites; 19. But thus do to them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach the most holy things; Aharon and his sons shall go in, and appoint them each to his service and to his burden; 20. But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die. B'midbar 4:17-20
This last line contains a word whose meaning is unclear: k'vala. The translation offered here is based upon Rashi's1 explanation of this word as "to cover". Literally rendered, the word k'vala means "as it is swallowed". The Ramban offers a mystical explanation: The holiness was so overwhelming that it was beyond the capacity of human perception: anyone who beheld it would be "swallowed up", consumed or subsumed by holiness.2
The mission of the sons of Kehat was such that their lives were in peril every time they performed their assigned task; such is the price for proximity to holiness.
The core of this holiness was encapsulated in the Ark which housed the Tablets of Testimony, the Word of God, inscribed and transcribed by God. As the Ramban describes it, the holiness of Sinai was transferred to the Mishkan.3 At Sinai, the epicenter of holiness was the Decalogue, the Ten Statements uttered by God. In the Mishkan, these same words were to be found on the Tablets in the Ark. The medium had shifted, but the holiness was the same.
At Sinai, the words were accompanied by sounds and lights, thunder and lightning. The entire mountain was holy, and no man or beast was permitted to touch the mountain -- any infringement on this holy space would result in death. That same holiness now resided in the Mishkan, and the consequences of violating that holiness remained unchanged. Moving the Ark posed a supreme challenge: it must be done with the utmost respect and care.
Man's Orientation to Holiness
Holiness fascinates and terrifies man. We are drawn toward it, despite the danger, yet we are frightened – frightened of knowledge which obligates, scared of truth which could be life-altering. We are terrified by the intensity. And we are scared of the possible consequences - death. Nonetheless, as if pulled by a magnet, we find holiness irresistible. This was true during the Revelation at Sinai, and it is true today. At Sinai, the text reflects both the attraction and the terror felt by the people: The mountain had to be fenced off, and the people severely warned and carefully prepared in order to keep them from breaking through the barriers and attempting to approach the unapproachable. On the other hand, the Israelites recoiled at the mountain, afraid to hear the Word of God directly -- afraid of death, of being consumed by the holiness.
15. And all the people saw the thunder and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood far away.16. And they said to Moshe, Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. 17. And Moshe said to the people, 'Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not.' 18. And the people stood far away, and Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was. Sh'mot 20:15-18
Yet we are told that there were individuals who felt comfortable. They ate and drank in the midst of this singular revelation of holiness; they looked on unabashedly, luxuriously, and saw what should have remained unseen.
9. Then Moshe, and Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up; 10. And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11. And upon the nobles of the People of Israel he laid not his hand; also they saw God, and ate and drank.
These mutually exclusive, contradictory feelings coexist within man. In fact, in comments on the verse that discusses the perils of the Kehatites' task, the Midrash identifies both sides.
R. Eleazar b. Pedat, in the name of R. Yose b. Zimra, said: When Israel were on their journeys, two sparks of fire would emerge from the two staves of the ark to strike their enemies. Whence do you know this? Because Moshe in effect asks Israel: 'Why should you be afraid of the sons of Anak? Are they harder to conquer than those who came against us and were burned by the Ark?' And so he says to them: 'Know therefore this day, that The Almighty, Your God is He who goes over before you as a devouring fire' (Devarim 9, 3). From this you may infer that two sparks advanced before them, and so he said to them: 'He will destroy them, and He will bring them down before you (ib.)'. B'midbar Rabbah 5:1
The Midrash describes a power emanating from the Holy Ark which is reminiscent of Sinai; the Midrash continues and tells how this power also burned those who carried the Ark.
Now when the sparks came out the fire grazed those that bore the ark and so they were burned and reduced in numbers. How do you know that the tribe of Kehat suffered depletion? You find that three families carried all the vessels of the Tabernacle. Gershon carried all the woven articles: the curtains, the veil of the screen, and the hangings. The family of Kehat carried the Ark, the Table, the Menora, the Altars, and the vessels of the Sanctuary. Merari carried the boards, the bars, the pillars, and the sockets. ... Why was it so? As R. Eleazar b. Pedath said in the name of R. Jose b. Zimra: Their numbers were depleted because the fire came out and grazed those that carried the Ark. In consequence everybody would run elsewhere; one would take the Table, another would take the Menora, and a third would take the Altars, and they would all flee from the Ark because it inflicted damage upon them, and so it seemed as though the Ark was being slighted, whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, was angry with them and they were again consumed. B'midbar Rabbah 5:1
They were frightened, they were burned, their numbers depleted. Their quandary was clear: How can they carry the Ark? The task is far too dangerous. How can they not carry the Ark? Rejecting an opportunity for holiness proved equally dangerous. And yet, the Midrash tells us of their desire, despite the danger, to embrace and carry the Ark:
R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: Heaven forfend! The sons of Kehat did not abandon the Ark and run to the Table and the Menora. On the contrary, even though their numbers dwindled they gave their lives for the Ark, and the only reason why He warned them, CUT YE NOT OFF THE TRIBE, etc., is because they knew that whoever carried the Ark would have great reward in store for him, and so they left the Table, the Menora, and the Altars and they all ran to the Ark in order to obtain reward. In consequence quarrelling would break out; one would insist and say, ' I am going to carry it here,' and another would insist and say, ' I am going to carry it here.' As a result they would behave irreverently, and the Shechina would strike them. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore said to Moshe: 'Make some provision to safeguard them so that they may not be exterminated from the world; CUT NOT OFF, etc., but let them be arranged properly in their service and in their burden so that they may not quarrel with each other. So Moshe instituted a measure for their protection. However, they still quarrelled with each other, one saying, 'I shall carry the Ark' and another saying, ' No, I shall carry it,' and no one knew what was definitely his duty or what was his burden. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore said: 'Then let Aharon and his sons go in and assign to each one his burden '; as it says: AHARON AND HIS SONS SHALL GO IN, AND APPOINT THEM, etc. B'midbar Rabbah 5:1
The Midrash records a disagreement among the Rabbis. Apparently, the point of debate goes beyond the precise historical accounting of what transpired in the Mishkan; the rabbis debated the meaning and necessity of this "additional" verse to protect the sons of Kehat, "Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kehatites from among the Levites." Both rabbinic opinions express authentic human feelings and reactions to holiness, even holiness fraught with danger: On the one hand, a desire to run away, and on the other hand a desire to embrace the task with disregard for personal safety.
Embracing holiness, while perhaps preferable to running away, holds its own dangers: Familiarity with the holy may erode the awe which should accompany every moment spent in the proximity of something holy. The Midrash laments the implications of such nonchalance:
"And God spoke unto Moshe and unto Aharon" (B'Midbar 4, 17). Why, asked R. Levi, should Aharon be mentioned here? Because He gives a hint to the sons of Kehat, saying to them in effect: 'Take good heed not to be irreverent when you enter the place where the Ark is; for if you would behave with irreverence towards it, take a lesson from the sons of Aharon. The sons of Aharon,' said He, 'entered without permission, and what does Scripture state concerning them? And there came forth fire from before God, and devoured them (Vayikra 10, 2). Take note, therefore, in your turn, lest what befell them befall you! 'B'midbar Rabbah 5:4
The sons of Kehat are warned not to suffer the same fate as the sons of Aharon: Every detail of their task must be performed with precise adherence to the rules set by God. Approximation of the rules, deviance from those rules, taking the rules lightly or failing to treat the task with the appropriate seriousness would result in death. Both the nature and the messenger of this warning offer a very painful reminder of how even the slightest infraction can end. The case of the sons of Aharon was all too familiar to the generation of Kehatites receiving this warning, but did not end there. There is an archetypical episode which occurred in the Beit Hamikdash, recorded in the Mishna and Talmud: Two kohanim, rushing to perform divine service, jostled for position and one fell and broke his foot:
Mishnah. Originally whosoever desired to remove [the ashes from] the Altar did so. If they were many, they would run and mount the ramp [of the Altar] and he that came first within four cubits obtained the privilege... It once happened that two were even as they ran to mount the ramp. One of them pushed his fellow who fell and broke his leg. When the court saw that they incurred danger, they ordained that the Altar be cleared only by casting lots. There were four lots; this is the first. Mishna, Talmud Bavli Yoma 22a
The kohanim in this episode seem to suffer from sort of tunnel vision. They lose sight of the larger picture, and in their zeal and their eagerness to perform the exalted, holy task, the kohanim push and shove so that they can merit this opportunity to serve God.4 And if that story isn't bad enough, the Talmud cites an even more disturbing episode - a tale so horrific that it leads inexorably to the destruction of the Temple:
IT ONCE HAPPENED THAT TWO WERE EVEN AS THEY RAN TO MOUNT THE RAMP. Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two kohanim were equal as they ran to mount the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the Altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. R. Zadok stood on the steps of the Hall and said: Our brethren of the House of Israel, hear ye! Behold it says: If one be found slain in the land... then thy elders and judges shall come forth. . On whose behalf shall we offer the heifer whose neck is to be broken, on behalf of the city or on behalf of the Temple Courts? All the people burst out weeping. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: 'May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.' [His remark] comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood. Thus is it also said: Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other. Talmud Bavli Yoma 23a
The knife plunged into the heart of the Kohen did not kill only one person; it killed the Beit Hamikdash, and caused holiness itself to be exiled. This is tunnel vision in the extreme – extreme attention to minutiae of the law and utter disregard of the larger purpose, the spirit of holiness and awe with which one must approach the Sanctuary. Familiarity, routine practice of ritual to the point where the sense of awe had disappeared, caused destruction and devastation. These men allowed themselves to be "swallowed up" by the holiness, and the holiness disappeared.
We find a in a later episode in the Torah a descendant of Kehat who speaks of holiness:
1. Korah, the son of Yizhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi took, ...3. And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of God?
Korah is not satisfied with being a Levi; he jockeys for position, angles for an opportunity to be a Kohen – to be Kohen Gadol. At first glance this seems strange: Surely Korah, a son of one of the Levitic families, was aware of the tremendous responsibility, the awesome task – and the potential for disaster – in the position he sought. Surely, he knew of the peril5 that a Kohen Gadol would endure if he were to blunder when entering the Holy of Holies.6 The test Moshe suggests is to bring incense. Surely Korah knew what fate befell Nadav and Avihu when they brought the unsanctioned k'toret. How could he imagine that he would survive? Why would Korach wish to endanger himself?
When we realize that Korach as a son of Kehat has already been endangering himself – every time the Ark was moved - we may gain insight into his personality, or more importantly his state of mind. Carrying the Ark -- both the proximity to such holiness and the danger involved - must have been exhilarating. At the same time, this task required tremendous focus: the older, more mature sons of Kehat were expected to remain constantly aware of their place, constantly focused on the task they must accomplish, constantly mindful of their limitations, vigilantly differentiating between the things that they were permitted to look at and the things that were beyond their capacity to comprehend. Only in this focused state of mind could they survive and continue to serve in their unique role.
Korach lost focus. He shifted his gaze, and began to view his task in terms of the perception of others, and he became dissatisfied with himself and his task. In that mindset, his life was in danger each time he ventured into the Mishkan. Carrying the Ark became a form of "Russian roulette", and the terror of this life-and-death situation may have led Korach to behave recklessly, in ways typical of sufferers of post-traumatic stress. Korach may have asked himself, 'If I am to endanger myself, to look death in the face time and time again, then why do it as a Levi, as a glorified moving man? If I am to take the risks, why not enjoy the glory of the spotlight?' Korach seeks out the one task that will hold even greater risks, but will entail commensurate respect and fame, a position that places him at the spearhead of the entire nation's hopes and prayers.
The erosive effect of constant exposure to holiness and to danger brought about his nonchalant attitude toward holiness and danger. Despite the precautions instituted to insure that the sons of Kehat not be "swallowed up" by their awesome task, Korach looked where he should not have looked. Driven by ego and tortured by stress, he made himself at home with the holiness, became too familiar with the danger, and he was swallowed up by the ground.
Here, then, is the challenge for all of us in our personal journey towards greater spirituality and holiness: We must continue to be cognizant of real holiness, to treat it with proper respect, to embrace it to the extent that we are allowed. But we must maintain the distance required of us, safeguarding the awe of things that are holy. While we seek God, we must avoid the nonchalant familiarity which is born of egotism and narcissism. We must look and listen when possible, and cover our eyes in modesty and respect when required. Only in this way can we appreciate holiness and avoid being swallowed by it.
1 It is likewise explained by Targum Unkelus and R' Avraham Ibn Ezra.
2 See Ramban 4:20
3 See Ramban Sh'mot 25:2
4 See comments of the Seforno, who certainly has this Gemara is mind in his commentary to the verses speaking about the family of Kehat, B'midbar 4:18,19
5 See Talmud Bavli Yoma 8b -9a,19b.
Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: What is the meaning of the passage, 'The fear of God prolongs days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened'? 'The fear of God prolongs days' refers to the first Sanctuary, which remained standing for four hundred and ten years and in which there served only eighteen high priests. But 'the years of the wicked shall be shortened' refers to the second Sanctuary, which abided for four hundred and twenty years and at which more than three hundred [high] priests served. Take off therefrom the forty years which Simeon the Righteous served, eighty years which Johanan the high priest served, ten, which Ishmael b. Fabi served, or, as some say, the eleven years of R. Eleazar b. Harsum. Count [the number of high priests] from then on and you will find that none of them completed his year [in office].
6 The teaching that a rope was tied to the Kohen Gadol in the event he dies while performing the service is found in the Zohar Vayikra 102a.
R. Isaac said: 'A cord was tied to the feet of the High Priest before he entered the Holy of Holies, so that if he died suddenly within they should be able to draw him out.