Table for Five: Bamidbar

Guarding the Mishkan
June 6, 2024

One verse, five voices. Edited by Nina Litvak and Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

When the Tabernacle is set to travel, the Levites shall dismantle it; and when the Tabernacle camps, the Levites shall erect it; any outsider
[non Levite] who approaches shall be put to death.

– Num. 1:51

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter
Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

For a few years, I was not allowed to push elevator buttons. That was the sole and sacred province of my children. As 鈥渂ig kids,鈥 it was their job. Happily, they grew out of that stage. Are the Levites like my kids? Is their monopoly over disassembling and assembling the mishkan designed simply to zealously protect professional privilege and status?

Levites were also subject to age restrictions. Only those aged 30-50 could serve the mishkan. This too seems intended to limit access to more prestigious roles. Shouldn鈥檛 service of God be based on merit, talent, enthusiasm, and not genealogical status or age?

Perhaps we are taking the wrong view of things. Maybe the job of constructing and deconstructing the mishkan was not particularly enviable. The Levitical age restriction was operative only when the mishkan was mobile and needed heavy lifting. It may have been a rather difficult and tedious job. Restrictions on who can do this may seem exclusive, but perhaps they grant status to what otherwise might be less-preferred tasks. Even the Kohanim couldn鈥檛 do it!

What modesty and majesty adheres to those who can view their tasks in life as one of absolute privilege. We all must find our best way to serve Hashem, but that includes embracing our unique role, even when it seems less than glorious. Doing the dishes, collecting a paycheck, or finishing your homework can all be holy work. How much more so if we treat them like getting to push the elevator buttons.

Rabbi Chanan Gordon
Internationally Renowned Inspirational Speaker

Hashem chose the Tribe of Levi to serve in the Mishkan which, during the sojourn in the desert, included carrying the Mishkan. Regarding Bamidbar Chapter 1, Verse 51, the Baal Shem Tov comments that when the Torah describes the role of the Leviim, it says, 鈥渨hen you travel, they shall dismantle it.鈥 On a simple level, the primary role of the Tribe of Levi was to show the people how to take down and deconstruct.

On a deeper level, the lesson is more profound. Throughout life, we spend time and energy building a life edifice. Then one day we look at it and realize that it is not as it should be. I am not living the way I need to be living.

We are faced with fear knowing that we have invested time and resources into 鈥渂uilding” this life and are overwhelmed by the thought of knocking it down and starting again. At such times we need to remember the eternal words of this verse 鈥 鈥渨hen the Tabernacle is set to travel,鈥 when I know I need to make changes and start living the life I should be living, 鈥渢he Levites shall dismantle it,” you must find the courage to knock down what you have built. The life lesson is clear 鈥 there are times in life when we must uproot what we have planted because it is no longer the right fit. It is then, after we dismantle, like the tribe of Levi, we must rebuild.

Denise Berger
Freelance writer, 鈥淢iracles in the Minutia鈥 columnist

This week鈥檚 parsha opens with a fairly detailed outline of how the tribes will arrange themselves when going into battle. The tribe of Levi however doesn鈥檛 go to war; they are in charge of the Mishkan. The instructions to the Levites on its assembly, disassembly, and transport come right after the guidelines for how to enter the battlefield. This juxtaposition tells us how to view military action.

There鈥檚 a recognition that fighting wars is not separate from spiritual life. Maintaining space for worship doesn鈥檛 suddenly take a back seat with the prospect of battle. The Torah is letting us know that however scary and totalizing the fighting may seem, it鈥檚 temporary; we keep that awareness by tending to holiness, which is constant.

The conclusion of our parsha fuses the military and the spiritual with the admonition that any non-Levite who approaches the Mishkan during the maintenance process above is condemned to death. People might read this and wince at the harshness, especially in 2024. After all, what鈥檚 so terrible about wanting to be near a holy space? Shouldn鈥檛 this be lauded?

Anyone in the army knows that disobeying orders is a cardinal sin; coming close to the Mishkan at the wrong time is a direct violation. Doing so under the pretense of religion is the utmost duplicity, and I think this is what raises the offense to the level of death penalty. Hashem articulates throughout the Torah, the value He places on sincerity 鈥 this is our ultimate battle.

Niva Taylor
Freelance Writer

While delineating the boundaries of each tribe among K鈥檒al Yisrael for its journeys and encampments through the desert, Hashem singles out one tribe for an elevated role. The Leviim would serve as guardians of the Mishkan, encamping in circle formation around it, safeguarding and carrying all its vessels. Any non-Levite attempting to encroach upon this holy service would perish. 鈥淭he Levites shall be Mine,鈥 Hashem declares, promoting them to firstborn status, complete with sacred duties and privileges.

While Hashem clearly designates Levi for higher standing, He also goes to lengths to emphasize the preciousness of every Jew, and in turn, every tribe. Bamidbar begins with a census of the entire nation鈥 the third time Hashem issues a command to count us. Why so much counting? Because of His deep love for Israel, says Rashi. Hashem cherishes every single Jew, adds the Ramban. Similarly, each tribe has a unique station in the nation鈥檚 encampment and formation, and a flag representing the singular strengths it contributes to K鈥檒al Yisrael鈥檚 mission as G-d’s emissaries on earth.

Each of us has a unique soul 鈥 a singular spark of G-dliness within, and therefore possesses unparalleled potential to improve the world. Each of us is beloved by G-d. There will always be someone out there who outranks me 鈥 whether in popularity, prestige, attractiveness, wealth, talent, the list goes on. But if I spend my life pining for someone else鈥檚 role instead of fulfilling the unique potential G-d gave me 鈥 well, that鈥檚 no life at all.

Miriam Mill-Kreisman
President / Tzaddik Foundation

Rashi explains that the phrase “any outsider who approaches (the Tabernacle) shall be put to death” means the death penalty will be imposed by divine intervention, not by a human court. Rabbi Akiva referenced this when he laughed upon seeing a fox emerge from the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount, a sign of the Temple’s destruction and a confirmation of prophecies about the Jews’ eventual return. Rabbi Akiva’s students mourned the loss of the highest level of holiness, evidenced by the fox and the Romans’ revelry in their power. However, Rabbi Akiva found comfort in Zechariah’s prophecy that these “outsiders” would eventually be evicted, and holiness would return to Jerusalem with its people.

A common theme in the Torah is that God does not want the holiness of the Tabernacle, the Temple, or the Jewish people to be defiled. Jews are called to protect this holiness, but God assures them that He will punish any unauthorized person who enters these sacred spaces.

It’s been over 2000 years since Rabbi Akiva laughed. Throughout history, Jews have hoped for the coming of the Messiah, yet it has not happened. Today, Jews cannot access the Temple Mount because “outsiders” control it. The outside world continually tries to dictate the ownership of the holy Land of Israel. Now would be an opportune time for God to protect the land’s holiness and its people, demonstrating divine retribution. We sure could use His help. And we sure could use a good laugh.

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