Chapter 1

1 In the desert: The silent desolation of the desert is a metaphor for the lack of Divine revelation in creation. Yet, despite its spiritual silence, the mute world can indeed be taught to express the Divinity hidden within it.1 The Jewish people are uniquely suited to this task: by studying the Torah and observing its commandments, we can unveil the Divine purpose and potential behind every aspect of reality. In this way, we cultivate the barren desert, enabling it to express its Divine source and the purpose of its creation.2

2 Take a census: Counting something is a way of showing that we value it.3 By counting how much of something we possess, we express how much each unit of the aggregate whole adds to the value of the whole and how indispensable each unit is to the whole.

In this census, the fact that each Jew counted for one—neither more nor less—indicates that every Jew is equally dear to God, as an individual. Every Jew possesses this invaluable worth by virtue of his or her unique soul-essence. By virtue of this essence, which the simplest Jew possesses no less than did Moses, all Jews are all equally God’s children.

When we recognize this, we, too, will cherish and never dismiss or overlook any Jew.4

Take a census: The idiom the Torah uses for “take a census” is “raise the heads.” Since the purpose of the census was to conscript us for the task of battling the desolation of the spiritual desert, this indicates that in order to overcome this enemy, we must always feel above it.

Therefore, the first, fundamental directive of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law,5 is that when it comes to Jewish observance, we must not be embarrassed by scoffers. This includes external scoffers—those who try to mock us for our dedication to our ideals—and our inner scoffer, the evil inclination.6

Take a census: This is the third time the people were counted. The first time was when they left Egypt;7 the second time was after the sin of the Golden Calf, when God commanded them to build the Tabernacle.8

As was mentioned in the Overview, counting the people highlights our common essence, our Divine soul. The three censuses thus served to manifest our Divine consciousness within us in three stages:

1) When we left Egypt, the Divine soul became manifest, but only in a very general way. Our Divine consciousness encompassed our whole being enough to inspire us to follow God blindly into the desert, but it did not yet change us fundamentally. (This is similar to how people possessing only simple faith in God can be willing to lay down their lives for Jewish values even if these values have not yet affected their daily conduct.)

2) When God commanded us to build the Tabernacle, whose purpose it was to enable Him to dwell within us, our Divine soul became manifest enough to affect the way we think and feel. But because God “imposed” this revelation on us from above and it was not the result of any self-refinement on our part, its effect was only transient.

3) Finally, after the Tabernacle was built and we began to participate in the sacrificial rites, our Divine souls could become fully manifest; our efforts at self-refinement ensured that our Divine consciousness would become and remain an intrinsic part of ourselves.

This is another reason why this third census was held in Iyar rather than in Nisan. Nisan, the month of the Exodus, expresses how God takes the initiative to extricate us from our material orientation. Iyar, the month spent in spiritual preparation for the giving of the Torah, expresses our initiative in refining ourselves.

Finally, this is also why Aaron had to participate in this census, while Moses conducted the previous censuses by himself. Whereas Moses was “the Groom’s escort,” who brought God’s message down to earth, Aaron was “the Bride’s escort,” who brought the people to God, inspiring them to live their lives in a Godly way.9

By families: The purpose of counting the Jewish people according to families was in order to add the family tallies together and thus arrive at the sums of the different tribes. The count of the families themselves is not recorded in the Torah.

Nonetheless, the Torah still mentions the families, in order to stress the centrality of the family in Judaism. Even though we are counting the people as a whole and stressing the importance and uniqueness of every single Jew, we must still pay attention to the proper functioning of the family structure.

Our individual and national needs, goals, desires, and fulfillment are certainly important and we must not overlook them. Together with this, however, the Torah demands of us the selflessness necessary to forge the family unit. Husband and wife are two separate people with their own natures, desires, and even mission in life, yet each one must work for and with the other. They should strive to complete each other and to seamlessly merge into two halves of one complete unit.

The strife and lack of communication the world suffers stems from selfishness, from individuals seeing others as mere means to be exploited for their own personal ends. In contrast, as Jews, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the primary setting in which this commandment is to be fulfilled is our families. Inasmuch as loving our fellow Jew is an expression of our love of God, practicing loving our fellow Jew enhances our love of God. Love of God, in turn, brings us to love His Torah and study it—not merely out of our obligation to do so, but out of love. This threefold love of our fellow Jew, God, and the Torah ripples outward from the family setting and affects the entire world for the better.10

Inner Dimensions

[1-2] In the Sinai desert in the Tent of Meeting…take a census (lit. raise the heads) of all the congregation of the Israelites: The parched desert is a metaphor for the overwhelming thirst for Godliness we feel and express in prayer. King David articulated this imagery in the Psalms: “The song of David when he was in the Judean desert: ‘God, You are my God; I seek You in the morning, My soul thirsts for You.” ’11

The Tent of Meeting alludes to the revelation of God in the Torah and its commandments. A tent is an enveloping cover, alluding to the transcendent (makif) Divinity we access by performing the commandments, while the word “meeting” alludes to the intimate (penimi) encounter with Divinity we experience in learning the Torah.

Thus, the desert is a metaphor for our upward striving toward Godliness, while the Tent of Meeting alludes to the downward flow of Godliness into our lives.

Our relationship with God must incorporate both of these opposing yet complimentary dynamics, the ascent of prayer and the descent of learning Torah and performing the commandments. It can then “raise our heads,” i.e., elevate us to the highest expression of our souls, the revelation of their source.12

Inner Dimensions

[2] Take a census [‘raise the heads’]: When a person is born, only a radiance of his or her soul enters the body. The soul’s essence—its “head”—remains above, in the spiritual realms. Nonetheless, the soul’s “head” is affected by what the rest of the soul does while here below. By performing God’s commandments and fulfilling its mission from within the body, the soul below raises its “head,” enabling it to attain a higher awareness of God in the supernal realms.13

3 You and Aaron: Every organized country counts its citizens periodically. Those hired for this task are often unskilled people, unemployed or without credentials for more skillful work. To count the Jewish people, however, God enlisted Moses himself—the prominent leader of the Jewish people, the spiritual paragon who received the Torah directly from God—and told him to put aside his lofty concerns and go from tent to tent to count the Jewish people. Since this task stretches beyond the capacity of one person, God assigned Aaron and the tribal leaders, the next most prestigious individuals among the nation,14 to assist him.

We see from the fact that God delegated taking the census only to the most prestigious dignitaries how important He considers the Jewish people, His chosen nation.15

Shall count all those in Israel: Although counting expresses the importance of each individual, God instructed Moses to count only the Jews over twenty, the age of conscription into the army.

This is because the army is the representative of its nation. As the soldiers go out into the world, they are expected to act as a living example of their people. The same is true of all of us, since we are all charged to act as God’s “soldiers.” We are expected to wear our “uniforms” proudly, acting in a manner that makes it obvious that we serve in God’s army. Any observer should easily recognize that we have been drafted by God and have been charged with the mission to conquer the world with goodness and holiness.

We are counted only when we have reached the point in our spiritual maturity where we identify with our Divine soul strongly enough to enlist in God’s army. As long as we exhibit this readiness, no distinction is made regarding the level of spirituality or degree of Torah study we have achieved; no matter what, each of us counts as one.16

4 There shall be one man with you from each tribe: In contrast to the previous censuses,17 the people were counted in this census by tribes. This indicates that God was emphasizing now not only the common spiritual denominator of every Jew but also each Jew’s unique spiritual makeup, which distinguishes him or her from every other Jew. The fact that every Jew nonetheless counted as one emphasized how each individual’s unique nature contributes equally toward the creation of the Jewish people as a vital whole. For this reason, all the princes had to assist Moses and Aaron in counting each tribe.18

20 All who go out to war: This phrase (and its repetition in the tally of each tribe) implies that no one included in the census was unable to go to war; they were strong, all able-bodied men.19 This was a miracle. As we know, all the sick and crippled of our people were healed when the Torah was given; thanks to the protection given them by the clouds of glory, the Jews remained healthy, despite the adverse conditions of the desert.

We see from this that the Jewish people—by virtue of their connection to God expressed through studying the Torah and fulfilling its commandments—were not bound by the laws of nature. Furthermore, their ability to override nature was self-evident, expressed not only in spiritual concerns, but in physical health and well-being as well.

This holds true today as it did then. To the extent that we live our lives according to the dictates of the Torah, we too will be blessed with spiritual and physical health, despite any obstacles posed by the laws of nature.20

42-43 The tribe of Naphtali: While the tallies of the rest of the tribes are introduced (in Hebrew) with the phrase “of the tribe of…,” that of Naphtali is introduced simply with the phrase “the tribe of…,” without the word “of.” Rabbi Yitzchak Luria explains this discrepancy by describing the way the census was taken.

To count the people, the census-takers would go from door to door, writing down the names of the people and the tribes to which they belonged. When all this information was gathered, they would then need to establish the number of people per tribe. They would go through the list of names and copy those belonging to the first tribe, Reuben, onto another list. As they did this, they marked those belonging to Reuben as having been copied. They would then go through the names again and record all the names belonging to the tribe of Simeon on a third list, marking them off, as well. When reading the names they would say “this name belongs to the tribe of….” When they came to the last tribe, Naphtali, they simply counted all the remaining names. Since they did not have to copy the names to another list, they did not announce “this name belongs to the tribe of Naphtali.”21

Chapter 2

2 The Israelites shall camp: The people’s encampment on all four sides of the Tabernacle symbolized how they protect the holy edifice and the Torah that resided in its innermost sanctum. Certainly, the Torah does not need our protection—on the contrary, the Torah and its commandments protect us. However, God wishes to endow us with the noble mission of protecting the Torah.

The lesson in this is that we must guard our inner sanctuary and our inner identification with the Torah—within our hearts and our homes—from all four sides: from cool spiritual indifference on the cold north; from hot, lustful passions on the warm south; from gratification from brilliant accomplishment on the morning east; and from dark despair on the evening west.22

Inner Dimensions

[2-32] They shall encamp around the Tent of Meeting: Both the Torah and the Jewish people play an integral role in channeling God’s beneficence into the world. The Torah is the instrument through which God’s blessings flow, but the Jewish people are the ones who activate and use this vessel to accomplish the goal.

In order to properly draw God’s beneficence into reality, the Jewish people had to be organized and separated into tribes. This is firstly because the word for “tribe” (shevet), also means “branch”: the branches of a tree channel the life-force of in the trunk into its fruit. This step-down process is necessary; no fruit grows directly on the trunk.

Secondly, each tribe reflected a unique Divine attribute and correspondingly emphasized a unique variation on the theme of fulfilling humanity’s Divine mission on earth. Only when these different capabilities are properly defined and organized can they function together harmoniously. When they are all jumbled together and their identities are blurred, the result is chaos. Separation is the prerequisite for true inter-connectedness and unity.

In the natural order of creation, it is the heavenly array of angels that channel Divine beneficence into the world. Once the Torah was given and the Jewish people was formed, God assigned this function to the Jewish people. Therefore, we are told by the Midrash, when the Torah was given and the heavens opened up, the people saw the angels in their heavenly array, camped around the celestial Divine chariot, and instinctively wanted to be organized similarly. They sensed clearly that in order to fuflill their new function, they would have to emulate the angels’ military formation.

So here God calls them into formation around the Tent of Meeting, which housed the Torah. Just as the angels elevate the Divine chariot they carry, so does the Jewish people “elevate” the Torah, revealing new levels of Divine insight latent within it, by learning it and obeying the Divine commandments it contains. This is why they must camp “around” the Torah, because the word for “around” (saviv) alludes to the transcendent aspects of Divinity (sovev kol almin) they draw into it.

By catalyzing the revelation of these new insights from the Torah, the Jews draw the infinite Torah into the finite realm of time and space. This is alluded to by the name of the Tent of Meeting itself, for a “tent” is a structure that extends in space, while a “meeting” is an event, a moment in time.

Yet, at the same time, God tells the people to camp at a distance of two thousand cubits from the Tent, alluding to the two thousand “years” by which the Torah preceded creation. The Jews must always be aware that there is a distance separating them from the Torah, that no matter how profound their role in wresting its treasures from it and revealing them to the world, the Torah is infinite and therefore remains forever out of reach, beyond us.23

17 Just as they camp, so shall they travel: Even when they journeyed, the Jewish people kept the same positions on their respective sides of the Tabernacle.

This teaches us that we are bidden to protect our inner sanctuary and the Torah within it24 at all times and under all circumstances, whether relaxed or restless, tranquil or unsettled, even when we are engaged in our struggle against the wilderness of the spiritual desert.25

Chapter 3

6 Bring forth the tribe of Levi: The Levites were singled out among the rest of the Israelites to act as God’s personal servants. But, as Maimonides notes, anyone who wishes to dedicate himself to the service of God can become, in effect, a spiritual Levite, regardless of his actual tribal lineage:

Not only the tribe of Levi [can devote themselves completely to God], but any given person in the entire world whose spirit has motivated him and whose perception has enlightened him to set himself apart to stand before God, to serve Him…has [by this fact] been hallowed as the holiest of the holy, and God will be his lot and inheritance forever and ever…as He granted the priests and the Levites.26

Furthermore, we may infer from Maimonides’ words that a layperson can not only attain the spiritual level of a Levite, but even that of a priest, and in fact, even that of a high priest! He states that someone who has dedicated himself completely to the service of God becomes “hallowed as the holiest of the holy,” and this expression is applied in the Torah to the high priest, as it is written,27 “And he separated out Aaron to sanctify him [to be] holiest of the holy.”28

Based on this, we can derive numerous lessons in how to fulfill our Divine mission on earth from the details of the Levites’ service.

8 The charge of the Israelites: The tribe of Levi did not serve God on their own behalf, but rather as representatives of the entire Jewish people.

In the Book of Psalms, the righteous are compared both to palm trees and cedar trees: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree; he will grow tall like the cedar in Lebanon.”29 The Midrash,30 however, compares the Levites chiefly with the palm tree. The Ba’al Shem Tov explained this as follows:31

There are in fact two types of righteous people, exemplified by the palm tree and the cedar tree. The cedar has many great attributes—it is strong, tall, and beautiful—but it bears no fruit. Similarly, some people study Torah and fulfill God’s commandments perfectly, but do not share their spiritual wealth with others; their efforts bear no fruit.

The palm tree, on the other hand, does not reach the degree of perfection the cedar does, but it bears sweet fruit that vitalizes all those who partake of it. Similar to this are those people who give of the time and energy they could have spent on striving for self-perfection in order to help others. Their efforts ensure that others, too, can become sweet fruit.

Of course, the first lifestyle is a bona fide way of serving God, and someone who follows it attains the rank of a tzadik. However, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, this is not the ultimate path that God desires. He wishes us to follow the example of the palm tree and to spare neither time nor energy to ensure that we bring benefit to others.

This was the path of the tribe of Levi. To be sure, there were other tribes with different ways of serving God. But the Levites embodied the value of the palm: they ensured that their service would be beneficial not only for themselves, but for every Jew. In this way, they showed us the path and provided us an example of how we can illuminate the entire world.32

The charge of the Israelites: As we saw previously,33 Maimonides teaches us that anyone “whose spirit has motivated him and whose perception has enlightened him to set himself apart to stand before God, to serve Him…has [by this fact] been hallowed as the holiest of the holy.” Based on this, we might think that in order to lead a Godly life, we must be on the lofty level Maimonides describes. But we see here that this is not true. The Talmud rules that an agent cannot be empowered to accomplish more than his dispatcher can by himself.34 So, if the Levites are our agents, it means that we have the spiritual power to do all that they do. And all of us are responsible for tending to the needs of the Tabernacle. Thus, anyone, even one who thinks he is spiritually lacking, can be a spiritual Levite, a servant of God on earth.35

10 And they shall guard their priesthood: The Torah makes it clear that different people have different tasks. One person’s path to holiness is another person’s death—spiritual and physical. And just as the Israelites are divided by different roles, so it is for all the nations: each one has its function and responsibility. When a person is incorrectly informed that he is a member of a nation not his own, he has been robbed of his self, of his path to holiness.36

12 I have taken the Levites: God originally intended that the firstborn of each family perform the priestly service. He selected the tribe of Levi for this service only because—unlike the firstborn—they refused to participate in the sin of the Golden Calf.

From this we see that a person who was not born into the spiritual elite and was not originally destined for the highest levels of Divine service can ascend to these levels by virtue of his merits. A businessman, for instance, need not think that he is excluded from in-depth Torah study.37

This is the textual support for Maimonides’ claim that we quoted above.38

15 One month old and over: As we have mentioned, counting a group of individuals accentuates the essential value of every individual, the value they all share regardless of their differences. Nevertheless, all of the tribes except the Levites were counted only from the age of twenty, the age of conscription. Allegorically, we said,39 this indicates that laypeople are counted only once they have exhibited their spiritual preparedness to join God’s army.

The Levites, however, are different. Their very nature as a tribe is defined by their willingness to separate themselves from mundane pursuits and serve God in all facets of their lives. It is therefore not necessary to wait for them to exhibit their willingness to serve in God’s army; in their case, every member of the tribe is counted from the moment his life is assured.40

As mentioned, we all have the capacity to join the spiritual legions of the Levites. We can all, just as did the Levites, reveal and implement in our daily lives the intrinsic connection between the essence of our soul and the essence of God— the connection that transcends all variations in time and environment. When we do this, our willingness to serve God becomes intrinsic and assumed; it no longer has to be demonstrated. Based on this connection, we can fulfill the injunction to “know Him in all your ways,” down to the mundane aspects of life that a mature adult shares with the smallest child.41

17 Gershon, Kehat, and Merari: The Levites were divided into three clans, the descendants of Levi’s three sons. These clans were assigned the job of erecting, dismantling, and transporting the different components of the Tabernacle when it had to be moved. In particular, the clan of Gershon was in charge of the curtains of the Tabernacle and veils of the enclosure, the clan of Merari was in charge of the walls of the Tabernacle and pillars of the enclosure, and the clan of Kehat was in charge of the furnishings and the screen.

These three divisions of the components of the Tabernacle reflect the three spiritual components of the spiritual Tabernacle we are to construct for God out of our own lives:

The rigid walls and pillars are the skeletal structure that gives the Tabernacle and its courtyard their form. The basic, rigid structural foundation of our spiritual Tabernacle is our selfless devotion to God’s will. This devotion is born of the resentment we feel toward egocentricity and its empty promises of fulfillment, which leads us to turn instead to God as the true reality. This facet of our spiritual life was personified by Merari, whose name is derived from the word for “bitter” (mar).

The fluid curtains and veils of the Tabernacle and its courtyard are the pliant flesh that covers the skeleton. The flesh of our spiritual Tabernacle is our emotional involvement with God, which flows naturally from our growing focus on God as the only true reality, and our loving expression of this emotional relationship in performing His commandments. This aspect of spiritual life was personified by Gershon.

The Tabernacle’s furnishings are the instruments used for the specific activities for which the Tabernacle serves as a setting. In our spiritual Tabernacle, the furnishings are the particulars of how our relationship with God changes our lives and enables us to spiritualize reality. The central feature of this component of the Tabernacle was the ark, which housed the Tablets of the Covenant, the quintessence of the Torah, which is our guide for transforming both ourselves and reality. This aspect of spiritual life was personified by Kehat.42

The Levite Clans

Inner Dimensions

[17] Gershon, Kehat, and Merari: In the Song at the Sea, the Tabernacle was referred to as “The Sanctuary that Your hands, O God, have established.”43 The phrase “Your hands” alludes to the three ways God’s hand is described in Scripture, describing the three basic ways God acts in the world:

  • the “great hand,”44 signifying God’s kindness (chesed), the source of His beneficence,
  • the “strong hand,”45 signifying God’s strength or severity (gevurah), and
  • the “uplifted hand,”46 signifying God’s beauty (tiferet).

Spiritually, the three Levite clans reflect these three hands in the service they performed in the Sanctuary:

  • Levi’s first son, Gershon, personified the “great hand,” since the long final nun with which his name is spelled depicts God’s bestowal of beneficence to the lowest levels, which is motivated by kindness.
  • Merari, whose name is related to the word for “bitterness,” personified the “strong hand” that metes out punishment.
  • Kehat personified the “uplifted hand” since his clan carried (or “uplifted”) the ark and the tablets on their shoulders (as opposed to the other sons, who were allowed to transport their respective parts of the Tabernacle on wagons).47

Yocheved, Moses’ mother and Levi’s daughter, had three children: Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. These three children resembled Yocheved’s three brothers, Gershon, Kehat, and Merari, since, according to the Talmud, children generally take after their mother’s brothers.48 Thus, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam also correspond to the three pillars of Divine service:

  • Moses (who received the Torah and is therefore associated with da’at, which is in turn aligned with tiferet) resembled Kehat,
  • Aaron (the man of kindness) resembled Gershon, and
  • Miriam (whose name means “bitterness”) resembled Merari.

Thus, the numerical value of Yocheved is 42, which is 3 x 14, 14 being the numerical value of the word for “hand” (yad), alluding to the three “hands” that she bore.49

29 To the south side of the Tabernacle: “Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor!”50 The tribe of Reuben also camped on the south, near the clan of Kehat.51 Consequently, Dathan and Aviram and 250 other members of the tribe of Reuben joined with Korach, one of the clan of Kehat, in his mutiny against Moses.52

In Rabbinic sources, there are three perspectives on the effect our neighbors can have on us:

  • Neighborly influence is superficial. We may be swept up in our neighbors’ evil schemes and even share in their punishment—as, in this case, the rebels from the camp of Reuben were swallowed up with Korach—but their influence does not in and of itself penetrate into our psyche.53
  • Neighborly influence can affect how we think and feel. In this case, this would mean that the rebels from the camp of Reuben were influenced by Korach to become what they were not before: rebels.54
  • Neighborly influence reveals inherent predispositions. We settle next to our neighbors because even prior to our contact with them, we shared similar characteristics. We were drawn to them because of their deep similarity to us; our physical proximity to them then causes these common traits to surface. In the present case, this would mean that the camp of Reuben possessed a propensity toward rebellion even before Korach began his revolt.55

But neighborly influence also works in the other direction: “Fortunate for the righteous one and fortunate for his neighbor!” The tribes of the camp of Judah, who camped on the east side of the Tabernacle,56 became great Torah scholars because of their proximity to Moses and Aaron, who also camped on the east side of the Tabernacle.57

Moreover, the effect of positive influence is greater than that of negative influence. Thus, even according to the first perspective, the camp of Judah experienced an internal change for the good.58 Furthermore, while Korach only negatively affected the tribe of Reuben (but not the other two tribes that camped with it), Moses and Aaron positively affected all three tribes of Judah’s camp.59

38 In front of the Tent of Meeting to the east: As we have mentioned,60 the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun became great Torah scholars because of their proximity to Moses and Aaron, while the tribe of Reuben was adversely affected by its proximity to Korach. The juxtaposition of these two lessons teaches another, double lesson: (a) the way to avoid being dragged into a dispute is by studying the Torah, and (b) the way to study the Torah in its ultimate form, to become one with the Torah, is by distancing oneself from any trace of dispute.61

Chapter 4

2 Take a census: The three Levite clans are now counted, each one separately. But the idiom of “take a census” (literally, “raise the head”) is used only twice: here, in the case of the clan of Kehat, and later,62 in the case of the clan of Gershon. Of the clan of Merari, it is simply said, “count them.”63

This is because the preeminence acknowledged in this census was the physical strength necessary to carry the components of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. The clan of Kehat had the hardest burden: they had to carry the furnishings themselves from encampment to encampment, without loading them on wagons.64 The jobs of the clans of Gershon and Merari were much easier, for they were allowed to place their burdens on wagons. Still, the clan of Gershon had to use their strength more than the clan of Merari did: they had to climb up the walls and poles to drape and undrape the curtains and hangings of the Tabernacle and its courtyard before laying them on their wagons. The clan of Merari, in contrast, hardly had to do any carrying at all: they simply dismantled the Tabernacle’s walls and courtyard poles and laid them on their wagons.65

We explained above66 that Merari personified the selflessness that serves as the foundation of our spiritual life, while Gershon and Kehat personified our emotional involvement with God and the way our relationship with God changes us and enables us to transform reality. Thus, allegorically, the fact that Merari is not accorded any acknowledgement of preeminence is not because of any shortcoming on his part, but rather because his is the expression of pure selflessness. In this aspect, he exceeded his two brothers, who personified more the active, self-assertive facets of spiritual life.67

3 Take a census…from the age of thirty until the age of fifty: God led the Jews through the desert with the Tabernacle in order to break the forces of evil, which the desert embodies.68 The desert is an uninhabited, uncultivated, desolate, and dangerous place, but wherever the Jews traveled, the desert became green and verdant: the water from Miriam’s well caused manifold trees and plants to sprout69 and the protective clouds neutralized the desert’s dangers, killing snakes and scorpions and leveling the treacherous terrain.70

As we have explained previously, the Jews were counted before their sojourn in the desert in order to give them the power to overcome the spiritual challenges it posed. In this general counting, the laity was counted from age 20 and the Levites from one month old. Now, the Levites between ages 30-50 were counted again. These Levites were given the mission of carrying the Tabernacle and its vessels into the desert, this being the principal way they transformed the desert into a hospitable place. In order for these Levites to do this, they required a spiritual “boost.” Inasmuch as “count” (naso) also means “uplift,” it was this census that provided them with the power to successfully and fearlessly accomplish their task.

Analogously, our own environment sometimes seems like a spiritual “desert,” devoid of Godliness. This perspective makes it easy to lose heart in the daunting task of living our lives as practicing Jews. The Torah teaches us, however, that not only can we persevere, God has given us the capacity to overcome and transform the world around us, just as the Levites did in their time.

Still, upon honest reflection, we may realize that we ourselves have become a “desert”—i.e., that we have developed habits and modes of behavior that are contrary to our task of spreading Divine consciousness. How can we possibly hope to change ourselves (let alone the outside world) when these habits and behavior have already become embedded within us as second nature?

Here, too, we can take our cue from the Levites. They reached the age of thirty before they ever carried the Tabernacle, yet they were instructed and empowered with the ability to begin their holy service at this age despite this. God gives us, too, the ability to begin something we feel unqualified and unprepared to carry out; we just have to avail ourselves of it.71

5-6, 20 Aaron and his sons…shall cover the Ark of the Testimony: We see here that great care is to be taken to keep the holy furnishings and utensils of the Sanctuary hidden. The lesson for us in this is that even though these furnishings express and embody sublime levels of Divine consciousness, God does not want us to bask constantly in the experience of the spirituality they express. This was the mistake of Nadav and Avihu, “when they drew near to God and died”72 in their ecstasy of Divine awareness. Rather, God desires that we spread awareness of Him in the “desert,” in the mundane, material world, even though doing so prevents us from maintaining the intense consciousness of God that is ours when the Tabernacle is set up and all its furnishings are uncovered.

Yet, even while involved in refining the world, we must always carry the ark and the Torah inside it with us. Even though it is submerged in our memory, Divine consciousness must accompany us even (and especially) into the bleakest moments and aspects of our lives. In this way, the Torah can illumine even these last moments of the multi-layered darkness73 of our Exile.

The Torah also gains by this: carrying the ark within this thick cloak allows us to transport it to yet-unreached levels of expression and ultimately bring it to its natural setting, the Holy Temple.74

19 When they approach the holiest of the holy things: Aaron and his sons shall come and appoint each man: Allegorically, “the holiest of the holy things” represents the highest levels of spiritual life and Divine consciousness. It often happens that when we strive to reach our potential in spiritual matters, we encounter various forces of opposition. Sometimes these are other people’s ridicule and hostility; sometimes these are inner voices of doubt. The Torah teaches us here that the proper response to these challenges is not to battle them, but rather to confront them with the power of Aaron, the peacemaker.75 The power of loving-kindness mitigates the severity of the other’s negativity, or often eliminates it altogether. And turning an adversary into an ally is the most complete victory possible.76

Inner Dimensions

[19] Aaron and his sons shall come and appoint each man: In Kabbalah, the Levites personify gevurah (restraint and judgment), while the priests (and Aaron in particular) personify chesed (love and kindness). In the Temple service, the music of the Levites inspired the worshippers to scale the heights of holiness and purity, while the sacrifices offered by the priests drew down Divine blessing and revelation. By placing the priests in charge of the Levites, the Torah here indicates that while both chesed and gevurah are necessary and complimentary facets of spiritual life, we should nonetheless ensure that chesed sweeten gevurah—that love temper fear and kindness direct strictness.77