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Holiness in the Wilderness

With an eye to the Jewish cycle of readings, this week we open the Book of Numbers, also known by its Hebrew title ‘Bamidbar’ (In the wilderness’). It continues the story of the Israelites' forty-year wilderness trek after leaving Egypt, as they head for the promised land.

This week, we can also be aware of Jewish communities celebrating the Festival of Shavuot (‘Festivals of Weeks’), commencing at sundown on 16 May 2021. And we pray for peace in the Holy Land.


Numbers 4:1-20 relates the Lord’s instructions as to how the Tabernacle [the portable sanctuary] should be handled when the Israelites dismantle it in order to move camp.

Read these instructions. Note that Aaron and his sons have a specific role in dismantling and covering the holy items, while the Kohathites (part of the Levite tribe) have the duty of transporting them.

“Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each to a particular task and burden. But the Kohathites must not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment; otherwise they will die” (Numbers 4:19-20).

In Jewish tradition we find the Rabbis puzzling over these verses: Why the strict rules about who does what? Why the dire warning that the Kohathites must not look upon the holy objects? Where lies the danger? In the creative and inquiring spirit of the Jewish sages, ponder these verses before reading on.

The midrash [1] presents two different views, both containing the idea that assigned duties prevent chaos from breaking out in the presence of the Holy One. According to Rabbi Eleazar, the holiness of the Ark (the most precious item) is so overwhelming that people may be tempted to run away from it, preferring to carry something else like the lamp or the table.

Rabbi Samuel takes the opposite view: the privilege of carrying the Ark may cause people to abandon the other objects and quarrel over the right to carry the Ark. Either way, at risk is the decorum befitting such a sacred environment. Therefore, Aaron must “assign each to a particular task and burden” (v.19). Imaginatively enter the scenes depicted by these storytelling traditions. How does the sacred text speak to you?

Still, the question remains: why does the Torah forbid even ‘looking’ upon the holy things?

Says Hirsch [2], the Torah is warning against looking upon a sacred thing without the correct depth of vision. Should the Kohathites have witnessed the covering of the holy objects they might have perceived them as ordinary things being packed up like any other household item. Thus the command to refrain from looking protects ‘the sense of the sacred.’

For Abravanel [3] the holy things covered and kept from sight are a reminder to retain an appropriate sense of mystery. Not everything can be grasped by human endeavour. ‘The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings” (Ps. 115:16). Faith calls for restful trust in a mystery ultimately beyond us.

Yet another view is set forth by Hefez. [4] Enjoying the privilege of carrying the Ark, the Kohathites were in danger of becoming full of pride. By withholding from them an important detail, the Lord helps them to be humble and reverent.

Then again, Sforno [5] explains the text without any resort to symbolism. The matter is purely organizational! It allows for the smooth carrying out of sacred tasks.

Where do you find yourself entering this discussion? Share your views and the experiences and reflections that fuel them. Can we appreciate the vitality of Jewish interpretative voices and their respect for the 'seventy faces of Torah', the multiple interpretations that can be discovered within the infinite depths of God's word.

1. Bamidbar Rabbah.

2. Hirsch: 19th century German Torah scholar.

3. Abravanel: 15th c. Spanish.

4. Hefez: 16th c. Italian.

5. Sforno: 14-15th c. Italian

Bibliography: Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, (New York: Lambda, n.p.d.). Scripture: NRSV.

© Teresa Pirola, 2013, 2021. Reproduction for non-commercial purposes is permitted with acknowledgement of website.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 - 4:20), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!

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