At the very end of the parsha, after the Leviim, as a whole, were given the privileged task of caring for and serving in the Mishkan, we are told that the specific Levi family of Kehat was charged with the even more privileged responsibility of carrying the actual vessels of the Holy of Holies. God then commands Moshe and Aharon, ‘make sure you do not cause the Tribe of the Family of Kehat to be cut off from amongst the Leviim; and this is what you should do for them so they will live and not die when they approach the Kodesh HaKodashim…they should not come and see the Mishkan while it is packed up.’
What is strange about this Divine injunction is the two types of possible deaths that are listed: at the beginning of the paragraph, the infraction would cause a ‘cutting off’, (‘karet’), which, in the Torah, implies a spiritual cutting off; however, the command then continues to state that they must not see the vessels in their uncovered state in order to avoid death (‘mot’), a physical demise. Which one is it: a physical death or a spiritual one?
In order to fully answer this question, we must understand the nature of the prohibited action; once the crime is understood, the reasons behind the punishments for it becomes clear. The focus of this section is the newly added forbidden act of ‘seeing’, (for the forbidden act of ‘touching’ was previously addressed throughout the preceding warnings to everyone, that, ‘no one shall touch it or they will die (‘met’)’- the family of Kehati, however, with their unique job of carrying the sacred vessels, were, of course, permitted to do so). So, the only new, additional injunction here is the forbidden act of ‘seeing’ by the Kehati who are specifically in charge of carrying these sacred vessels. So why does it state the warning for the avoidance of this particular action is the prevention from being ‘cut off’ spiritually and physical ‘death’?
Ramban, in explaining why they would physically die if they saw the vessels before they were packed away, says that seeing the vessels before the ‘kodesh ha’kodashim’ was covered up would overwhelm them, being too powerful for them to bear and they would die. Like the famous scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the awesome holiness of the vessels would be too potent for the Kehati and their physical bodies would fail them.
- Hirsch, in explaining the reason behind thespiritualdeath, says that if they saw it before everything was packed up the aura of holiness would diminish in their eyes which would belittle the loftiness of their role; however, if they only saw the vessels mysteriously covered, hidden from what really lay beneath, the spiritual integrity would remain.
We can now understand the need to include both types of death. Seeing the sacred vessels before they were covered would be deserving of a physical death for the Kehati (as Ramban stated), (like touching them is as in the case of the general populace), because the innate sanctity of these Godly vessels was overwhelmingly powerful – so touching to Bnei Yisrael was like seeing for the Kehati. The punishment of physical death allows us to understand that ‘seeing’ the vessels was a prohibited action like any other in the Torah, whose transgression of God’s word deserves death. The added ‘spiritual cutting off’ for this particular transgression of seeing, however, is there to teach the deeper lesson of the true significance of the Kehati’s sin in their unique case, in their unique role. To be physically killed for a transgression is ordinary, a general result of crime; so, this crime, a sin of elevated spiritual proportions, needed a ‘lesson punishment’ commensurate with the crime, to amply convey the infraction’s unique significance.
Knowing that God rewards and punishes in a way that teaches the person what he did, right or wrong, respectively, we can understand the integral lesson conveyed here for us, taught through the vehicle of the occupational restrictions of the Kehati. What was special about the family of Kehat was that they were ‘raised up’ (4; 2) from amongst all other Levi families specifically in order to perform this special job of carrying the vessels. What made them special was this role, if they then performed it incorrectly, ‘seeing’ the actual, physical vessels underneath, they would defame the Divine, uniquely elevated status of these vessels (as R. Hirsch stated) and, consequently, the Divine uniqueness of their uniquely elevated role would be diminished. The very same responsibility that conferred upon them the privilege to be ‘raised up from amongst the other Leviim’ (4; 2) would be the very same job that facilitated their ‘cutting off from amongst the other Leviim’ (ibid; 18); a perfectly paralleled consequence to teach the true ramifications of their negligence.
The Torah is teaching us that the real focus of the role of ‘a special officer of God’ is not on being ‘a special officer’ but on the fact that it is ‘of God’– the Leviim were special only because they were entrusted with the responsibilities of serving in God’s Mishkan, the Kehati were made even more special only because they were charged with carrying the Mishkan’s vessels; if they undermined the sanctity of the vessels that made them unique, their status too, would be undermined. Too often, peopled are lulled into their own sense of self-importance. They erroneously believe that it is they, themselves, who are better than others, when in fact, if their position, money, authority, looks, etc. were altered or eliminated, their ‘superiority’ would vanish, too. Even more chilling is when this attitude is found amongst Jews, where, (too) frequently, the holding of a privileged position of Torah and Halakha establishes in them the belief that they may demand respect and authority for themselves; the spiritual punishment for the Kehati in this week’s parsha illustrates the grave error of this belief.
I have always espoused, ‘you are not standing up for the rabbi but rather for the Torah he represents’.