The Book of Numbers opens with lots of names and numbers – the census of the Israelite nation. This is followed by a detailed count of the Levite tribe, which is divided into the three main families of Gershon, Kehat and Merari. In this context the branches of the Levite tribe are assigned their respective tasks for the transport of the Tabernacle during their travels in the wilderness.
The Levite branch of Kehat was charged with the most sensitive parts of the transport. They would carry the special furnishings of the Tabernacle on their shoulders, including the table of the showbread, the menorah, the two altars and the holy ark. The Levites would not directly handle these items, however. The priests would first cover the furnishings with specially designated cloths and only then would the Levites enter and hoist the covered furniture onto their shoulders.
The Torah goes into significant detail, explaining exactly how the priests would cover each item. Only after the covers were all in place were the Levites to enter and take over.“Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the holy and all the holy utensils when the camp journeys, and then the sons of Kehat shall come to carry, so that they not touch the Sanctuary and die.” (Numbers 4:15)
It is curious that the Levites are excluded from the process of wrapping the furniture. No Levite may touch the bare furnishing until it is covered, but even more interesting, the Levites may not see the furnishings until they have been completely covered. They must wait outside so they do not even see the wrapping process. “But they shall not come and look as the holy is covered, lest they die.” (ibid vs. 20)
This restriction is a little odd. After all, these same Levites were able to see most of the uncovered furniture any time they liked. The large copper coated altar was located in the courtyard of the Tabernacle, in a place accessible to every Jew. If these Levites could see it in full operation, why are they restricted from seeing it as it is covered?
A colleague suggested a reason for this. The Tabernacle was an awe inspiring place. Especially when it was operating the Tabernacle reflected majesty. Anyone visiting the Tabernacle was moved by this, and indeed this inspiration was part of the Tabernacle’s purpose. When the Tabernacle was not operational, however, when it was being packed up and prepared for transport, it would have lost that special sense in the eyes of the beholder. No matter how great a reverence one feels for an object, a diminution of that reverence is likely to occur when the moving company comes in and wraps it up along with all the other stuff, the firewood, the cleaning supplies etc. That these sacred objects could simply be picked up and moved, transplanted to their new location in the next camp, could not escape the viewers.
Similar to the truism that familiarity breeds contempt, the Levites were in danger of losing some of their high regard for the furnishings of the Tabernacle had they participated in, or even were privy to, the wrapping of the pieces. Therefore, only after each item was completely wrapped were they allowed to enter carefully hoist the poles onto their shoulders, carrying out their sacred task of transporting the most holy elements of the Mishkan. The Torah’s restriction ultimately guards the sanctity of the Tabernacle by protecting the Levites from the danger of losing some of their regard for it.
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