Parashat Bamidbar describes the various responsibilities incumbent upon each of the three branches of the Levite clan, who transported the Tabernacle every time the Israelites broke camp and traveled. The sons of Gershon carried the curtains, the sons of Merari carried the frame, and the sons of Kehat – who are the subject of the fourth chapter of the book of Numbers – carried the sacred objects inside the Tabernacle, including the bowls, ladles, jars, and libation jugs. The parashah ends on an ominous note – in the very last verse, we are told that if any of the sons of Kehat were to witness the dismantling of the Sanctuary or look upon the sacred objects, they would die (4:20). Why may the sons of Kehat carry these objects but not view them? What is the problem with looking at these objects, and why does the Torah warn so sternly against it? The various metaphors used throughout the Talmud to describe the Mishkan offer insight into a possible reason behind this injunction – one that has much to teach us about the way we bear the weight of the sacred in our lives.
Our parashah teaches that while the sons of Kehat transported the sacred objects, they could only do so once those objects were properly covered by Aaron and his sons, the priests. Each time the Israelites prepared to travel, the priests would enter the Tabernacle and spread a blue cloth over the Menorah, fire pans, oil vessels, altar, and service vessels, before placing them in a covering of dolphin skins. “Only then shall the Kehatites come in and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred objects and die” (4:15). There was no problem with looking at these vessels while the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was operational. But once the vessels were no longer used for their sacred function and became objects to be transported, they had to be covered and concealed.
The talmudic discussion of the transport of the Mishkan appears in tractate Shabbat, since the laws governing the labors prohibited on Shabbat are derived from labors related to the Mishkan. It is in this context that Rabbi Yishmael comments that the Mishkan, which was covered in curtains that overhung its frame, resembled “a woman walking in the marketplace with her skirts trailing after her” (Shabbat 98b). The Mishkan was like a modest woman draped in layers of clothing. To transport the Mishkan or its vessels without their coverings, then, would be a violation akin to exposing a woman’s body in public.
And indeed, as the Talmud in tractate Yoma (54b) relates, this is exactly what the Romans did when they desecrated the Temple. The Talmud teaches that when the gentiles entered the sanctuary to destroy the Temple, they saw the golden cherubs—the Keruvim—which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant and hauled them out to the marketplace. The Talmud describes that “they immediately debased them, as it is stated, ‘All who honored her debased her because they have seen her nakedness’” (Lamentations 1:8). The Romans brought the naked, uncovered cherubs into the marketplace, where they were no longer part of the divinely-ordained architecture of the Mishkan and became objectified commodities. Removed from the sacred enclosure of the Tabernacle, the naked cherubs became objects of mockery and scorn.
And so it seems that the purpose of covering these vessels was to ensure that they, like the cherubs, were not desacralized. We might think of the transported Mishkan like a body on the operating table. When not being operated upon, that body is a living, breathing human being pulsing with life, teeming with ideas and energy and emotion. But when the patient has been anesthetized and the body lies inert, the surgeon is presumably focused not on the whole person, but on where to make an incision, and how deep to cut. By covering the body parts that are not being operated on, it is easier for the surgeon to detach the body part from the person to whom that body belongs, and thereby focus on the surgery. Seeing an abdomen as a small square of flesh is much less distracting than seeing the abdomen in the context of the larger body. By dehumanizing in order to operate, the surgeon ironically maintains the sanctity of the human body in its entirety.
So too, by covering the Mishkan when its parts are dismantled, we preserve the sanctity of the whole. When the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was up and running, it was pulsing with the sacred rhythm of the sacrificial rites, and no one would think to treat it with disrespect. But once the Mishkan was transported, it was easy to view it merely as an object to be lifted and lugged. There was a danger that its vessels would be regarded as heavy loads, not holy lamps and lavers. It was therefore essential that those who dismantle the Mishkan know how treat it with proper respect, laying covers on all the sacred vessels so that not everyone could gaze upon them. The Mishkan must never be reduced to a burden, just like a patient ought never be reduced to a body.
T.S. Eliot was surely not describing the Mishkan in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and yet his imagery is all too apt:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
When it was time to go—when the Israelites were on the move, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire spread out against the evening sky—the Mishkan vessels became inert objects, like a patient etherized on the table. Anyone who objectified or commodified these vessels was violating the sacred, an act deserving of death. As our parashah reminds us, there is a time for revelation and a time for concealment. May we learn to discern when to reveal and when to conceal as we journey through life and shoulder our burdens.