Parshat Bamidbar deals with, among other things, the service of the Kehatites. An important part of the Torah’s description of their service is the warning to Aaron and his sons to take care to cover the vessels of the Tabernacle before the Kehatites draw near to carry them. The Kehatites, despite their important role as bearers of the sacred vessels, are not allowed to cover them:

Do not let the tribe of the Kehati families be cut off from among the Levites. This is what you must do, so that they survive and not die when they come into the Holy of Holies. Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his service and to his burden. They will then not come and see the sacred [objects] being covered, and they will not die.1

Regardless of whether “cut off” here means death by the hand of G‑d or by the laws of man, regardless of whether this is an obligation, a prohibition, or a warning, it is clear that, for the Kehatites, witnessing the “covering of the sacred” involves mortal danger.

To bring the matter into sharper focus, let us first note something that may seem obvious at first: The Levites generally, and the Kehatites, from whom the Priests emerged, in particular, are not ordinary people who get out of bed each morning and go to work. They are people who are dedicated to the service of G‑d – “They are wholly given unto Me from among the People of Israel.”2 Yet despite the fact that the Levites are an eminent family in Israel, a family dedicated to God’s service and solely responsible for carrying the sacred vessels, they are forbidden to witness the “covering of the sacred.” Only a small group of Priests is permitted to cover the sacred objects; anyone else who does so puts himself in mortal danger.

Shattering the sacred

Every feature of the Temple was also included in the Tabernacle. In the Temple, there was an Outer Altar and an Inner Altar, and in the Tabernacle there were two altars as well. In the Temple there was a Sanctuary and a Holy of Holies, and only those who were on a certain level of sanctity and purity were allowed to enter, and so it was in the Tabernacle. Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between the Tabernacle and the Temple.

In the Tabernacle, despite the sanctity of the Holy of Holies, when the trumpets were sounded everything was moved. And when everything was moved, the place that previously had been the Holy of Holies ceased to be the Holy of Holies, and everyone could then walk on that place with impunity. Men and women, zavim and zavot, menstruant women and women who recently gave birth – they all are permitted to tread on this place.

What is more, in the Temple nothing would move from its place. The Ark of the Covenant was kept in a secluded place, closed off by a curtain, and not everyone could even look upon it. In the Tabernacle, by contrast, when the trumpets were sounded and it was time to move on, the Levites would take the Ark of the Covenant upon their shoulders and go. The Incense Altar, whose corners were sprinkled only once a year, was carried by four strong Levites, and the same goes for the Menorah and all the other vessels of the Sanctuary. Ten minutes earlier, the Ark of the Covenant was something that no one was allowed to hold; to touch its poles was forbidden, and even to look at it was impossible. Now, suddenly, these Levites must take it upon their shoulders and go. Before, the Ark was a place where the Shechina dwelled, and now it is taken away. The Talmud relates that the boards of the Tabernacle were often thrown from wagon to wagon.3 The Levites removed the boards as one would dismantle any other building.

The transition from relating to the Tabernacle as G‑d’s holy Sanctuary, to dismantling it and transferring it elsewhere is not simple, and it even involves danger. The very heart of the difficulty, the most dangerous stage is of course at the point of transition, and that is why the sacred vessels must be covered when the Levites come to take them: “They will then not come and see the sacred objects being covered, and they will not die.” Only the Priests, who are G‑d’s actual servants, and not servants of servants, may enter within, and they alone have the authority and permission to go in and cover the sacred. Others lack the authority and permission to do so; for them, such an act is fraught with danger. A Levite may not watch the Priest draw near and wrap the vessels in cloth. The concern is that he will not be able to bear the difficulty of the scene, and therefore he may not be present at this stage. Only after the covers have been placed upon the sacred vessels may the Levites draw near and carry them.

Dismantling the sacred

As long as one stands at a distance from the sacred, as long as one does not touch it and does not deal with it, and it remains in its place in its existing condition, one can see the sacred and stand in awe of it. But what happens when one has to dismantle the sacred? How does one switch from the stage where everything is sanctified to the stage where the sacred must be carried on one’s shoulder?

In I Samuel, we read that when the people of Beth-Shemesh gazed upon the Ark, a great plague broke out among the people. Our sages explain that the plague broke out because the people showed disrespect to the Ark.4 But why did they do this? Where did this disrespect come from?

As long as the Ark of the Covenant sat in the Tabernacle in Shiloh, no one dared touch it, and even the Philistines showed it reverence, until they could no longer maintain this reverence and eventually returned the Ark to the People of Israel. But the people of Beth-Shemesh looked at the Ark and said to it disdainfully, “Who angered you, so that you became angry and [therefore] did not save yourself from captivity? And now who appeased you, so that you became reconciled and came of your own accord?”5 The people accused the Ark of ruining their perfect world, where everything was simple and clear. Until now, they knew where everything stood, but the Ark came and spoiled the order of things. For the people of Beth-Shemesh, it was no longer possible to relate to the Ark as before; it was no longer the same sacred vessel.

The difficulty was coming to grips with the fact that the sacred vessel that was captured by the Philistines and moved from place to place was still the same sacred vessel that it was originally. It was hard to believe that just as it was sacred in the Holy of Holies, it is still sacred even now, and will continue to be so tomorrow as well, when it will be established in a new place. How could they absorb this truth? How could they witness the sacred vessels being taken in this fashion again and again?

In this parshah we have, in effect, a general acknowledgment that not every mind can bear. Not everyone can deal with the fact that what was once sacred is now voided of its sanctity; that something that could not be seen or touched or related to is now freely handled by the Levites.

The essence of study

The truth is that this fundamental problem is not limited to the Tabernacle; it applies to the world of learning as well – to study in general and to the study of Talmud in particular.

There is an essential difference between one who studies Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and one who is considered a true Torah scholar. If someone knows an entire tractate by heart, it can certainly be said that he is well versed in that tractate. But one who asks a novel question, pointing out an objection or a refutation that no one had ever thought of before, even though everyone has seen the page of Talmud in question, so that now neither Rashi nor Tosafot can be understood – he is considered a tremendous scholar.

Why is this so? Instead of praising him for his actions, we should take him to task for them – this scholar took something whole, something complete, and ruined it! He took a subject that was previously easily understood, and he shattered it. Why, then, is he called a scholar? What is the virtue in this? When one studies a page of Talmud with the commentaries of Rashi, Tosafot, and other early commentators, one begins to wonder: What are they doing with my page? Before Rashi and Tosafot, there was a simple, smooth page of Talmud; the commentators then enter the equation and tear it to pieces! What is more, the attitude is that the stronger and sharper one’s questions, the more praise one deserves.

Almost everyone has some kind of desire to destroy or ridicule something; there are people who have a special talent for destruction. One always has qualms about whether or not to destroy something, but when one knows that in destroying he is performing a mitzvah, and that he may enjoy it – he does it wholeheartedly. Just as this evil inclination exists regarding the physical, it exists regarding the spiritual as well. When a person is told to critique someone, he will usually waste no time in tearing him to pieces.

This is essentially how traditional Torah study works. We demonstrate that the first Tanna did not understand the last Tanna, and that the latter does not know what the former is talking about. There was a period when the “chilukim” method was prevalent, where the objective was to show that the questioner and answerer did not understand each other, and neither of them understood the Mishnah. This is how talmudic discussions were reconstructed. Thus, a person’s level of scholarship was judged not by how much he studies and how much he knows but by his ability to dismantle the Talmud into its smallest elements, so as to reconstruct it.

The study of Talmud and Torah study in general is essentially a matter of breaking things down into their composite parts. The greater one’s ability to break things down, the greater the depth of one’s learning. If one studies only Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, he will know all the information that is written in the book, but not more than that. For such a person, nothing exists outside the Kitzur. But what happens when he begins to study Talmud or Arba’a Turim? What happens when he studies the full Shulchan Aruch with all the commentaries? It becomes clear that everything that is presented so clearly and simply in the Kitzur is not at all simple: There are suddenly countless conflicting opinions, and it becomes difficult even to keep track of all of them. This is not limited to minor differences of opinion. Some differences range from one end of the spectrum to the other. For example, there is a difference between minhag Sepharad, minhag Ashkenaz, and minhag Sepharadim on the question of whether one counts the weeks or the days first in Sefirat HaOmer. In Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, these matters are treated very simply: This is what one must do, this is what happens in every case of error, and that is all. In this simplified world, one knows what is forbidden and what is permitted, what is ideal and what is not ideal. However, the more one studies in depth, the more one begins to break things down and take them apart.

The story is told of a new student at a certain yeshivah who attended the lectures of the rosh yeshivah. The rosh yeshivah would address Rashi’s commentary, saying, “I don’t understand Rashi!” and explain why his commentary was puzzling. Then he would turn to Tosafot and say that he doesn’t understand Tosafot. Then he would turn to the Talmud and say that he doesn’t understand the Talmud, and so forth. After a while, the new student wrote home: “Thank G‑d, I already don’t understand ten pages of Talmud!”

When one begins to study a page of Talmud, he believes that he knows everything, or almost everything, and that all he needs to do is to fill in a gap or two here or there. When he gets further into the subject, if he really delves into it, he discovers that he understands neither Rashi, nor Tosafot, nor the Talmud, nor the Rishonim, nor the Acharonim; and the more he delves into it, the less he understands. As he discovers more and more questions and peculiarities, the effect is cumulative: Things become increasingly complex.

Torah study is, in a sense, a kind of battlefield. One takes a page of Talmud, cuts it into pieces, and reduces it to dust and ashes. One takes a halachah, which he knows exactly how to implement in practice, and begins to demonstrate that it is built on compromises – between the Shach and the Taz or between Rava and Rabba. It is not a matter of merely sharpening the mind, where one looks for problems for no reason; these problems can actually be found everywhere, in every subject of Torah study. And for one who deals with matters of faith, the matter becomes even more complex than this.

When people explain to children that a man with a long white beard sits in heaven, holding a stick in one hand and a candy in the other, this may be an unsophisticated conception of the world, but it is simple and clear. After one begins to study, and the more one learns, the world does not become simpler and smoother. On the contrary, in a certain sense it becomes more and more complicated, more and more complex. What this means is that study entails a kind of traumatic process, a process of breaking things apart.

Various levels

As we see in the parshah, not everyone can bear the process of dismantling the sacred. There are various levels in this notion: Anyone who is tahor may touch the boards of the Tabernacle, but not everyone can perform the dismantling and the assembling, the carrying and the dragging. Most people are not allowed to participate in this process of changing from sacred to profane and back again. They do not touch the dismantled Sanctuary; for them, there is only a complete Tabernacle. Anyone of Israel may visit the Sanctuary, and when a person wanted to eat meat, he would bring his animal to the Tabernacle forecourt to offer it as a peace offering. But when it came to dismantling, carrying, or assembling the Tabernacle, he is told that he has no part in this work; for him, the Tabernacle may only be seen in its complete form.

This point can also be observed in the formation in which the camps would travel in the wilderness. Whether they would travel in square formation or in a straight line,6 the Tabernacle was always in the center, surrounded by the Levite camp. The various Levite families were likewise on different levels: Some would handle the outer boards; some would enter the interior; some would handle the hangings of the forecourt; some would handle the boards and the sockets; and some would handle even the sacred vessels. But even those who handled the sacred vessels could not draw near and cover them. Although the Levite knows what he is carrying, he does not actually see it.

Similarly, in Torah study, some people can only tackle the simplest types of questions, while others can ask deeper, more incisive questions. Sometimes, when a student begins to cross the boundary of his spiritual limitations, we advise him not to push further: There are questions that even an outstanding scholar should not ask, for he would not be able to bear the dismantling of the sacred and its subsequent reassembly. For this reason, every student must assess himself and determine his personal spiritual level.

Someone once remarked that in order to attain the proper fear of heaven, one must study MaimonidesGuide for the Perplexed from the end to the beginning, so as to begin with the answers and end with the questions. The meaning of this strange statement is that sometimes people begin with the questions and do not have the strength to continue to the answers, so they remain with the questions and never emerge from them.

Everyone must ask questions in order to learn. Even a small child must be encouraged to ask questions, for this is the only way he will understand. However, the distinction is in the type of questions one may ask. Some people can ask only very simple questions, and one must accordingly supply them with simple explanations. Other people can take apart deeper matters. The ordinary person’s problem is not that he is unable to take the Tabernacle apart and break it down, but that he cannot always reassemble it.

Demolishing in order to build

What happens later, when one wants to relocate the holy? How does the new location suddenly become holy? How does this place become the Holy of Holies? How can one be exposed to all the questions and contradictions, and after all that, still relate to the subject with the proper awe and fear? This level of spirituality is not easy to attain. It is a problem that is inherent in Torah study, in faith, and in Judaism: How can one question, take apart, demolish, and rebuild, and at the same time preserve the sense that one is in the realm of holiness?

Only those who can bear it – the sons of Aaron, the Priests – may enter the inner Sanctuary and dismantle it. Only they can they see “the sacred [objects] being covered” each time, because only Aaron was on such a level that he remained whole after the shattering of the sacred.

We read in Psalms: “With the wholehearted, You act wholeheartedly…and with the perverse You are wily.”7 This notion can be applied to such a person: On the one hand, he can be wholehearted and guileless, but on the other hand, he can be wily as well. The Midrash describes how Aaron would make peace between people: He would go to two people who had quarreled, whether it was a husband and his wife or a man and his friend, and shamelessly lie to both of them. He would approach one, saying, “Your friend so-and-so is now weeping bitterly”; then he would approach the other and tell him the same thing. When the two would next meet, it would be in a spirit of love and brotherhood.8 Aaron could be wily “with the perverse” and, in spite of this, remain wholehearted – as the Priest is described in Malachi, “a messenger of the L‑rd of Hosts.”9

The hallmark of the Priest is that while he has the ability to cover the sacred, he is still afraid to approach the Altar after doing so. Aaron is afraid, “for who is he that would risk his life to approach Me?”10 Hence, he is the one who may cover the sacred, handle the vessels, and move them from place to place. Some people may only see the vessels, others may disassemble them, but only a select few may see the removal of the essence of the sacred. Only one who serves G‑d wholeheartedly may do this, one who has nothing else but the worship of G‑d. Outsiders “who attach themselves to G‑d, to serve him”11 are shielded from this experience. Only one who does inner, hidden service, totally committed to serving G‑d, may enter the Sanctuary and cover the sacred.

It could be that one who disassembles the Tabernacle might be able to reassemble it in a different form, such that it is no longer the Tabernacle. For this reason, there are questions that not everyone may ask – not because they have no answers, but because after one has struggled with them, it will be impossible to build the Sanctuary properly on its site, and then one risks remaining in a void. Not to mention the two matters in the same breath, but an example of something similar is found in the laws of idolatry. For an idolater to nullify an idol, it suffices to spit at it, throw something at it, or chip one of its fingers. The assumption is that after treating it this way, he will never again regard it as an object of worship. A Jew, however, cannot nullify an idol. No matter what he does, it will always remain an idol.

When the Tabernacle is dismantled, it does not wander randomly; it must follow a certain course. It is dismantled and reassembled in order to ultimately reach the Temple – “the place You made to dwell in.”12 To get there takes centuries. The path is not straight – it is long and winding, but it is the only way to make progress.

In the Tabernacle, as it is so often in our lives, we dismantle in order to build. Something is uprooted from its place in order to be rebuilt more fruitfully in a new place.

The prohibition on destroying holy vessels – “You shall break down their altars…You shall not do so to G‑d your L‑rd”13 – does not apply to this process. We are commanded to dismantle the Tabernacle time and again, so that we can rebuild it elsewhere. This demolition is an extension of G‑d’s will – “at G‑d’s command they encamped, and at God’s command they journeyed”14 – and it is always a constructive act, as the Talmud says, “The destruction of the old is building.”15

Thus, the Tabernacle constantly moves forward, toward the chosen place, ever advancing to the eternal house of G‑d.