Sunday, May 31, 2009

Parshat Bahalotcha 5769

Parshat Bahalotcha 5769
Rabbi Ari Kahn
A Little Pesach

The Second Pesach
An entire year has passed. It had certainly been an eventful year. The year began with the word of God – and the gift of time, the Israelites were told about the Pesach – the Passover offering, and the grand exodus which would follow. Indeed soon the people were on their way, through the sea into the desert, arriving at a mountain. They had glorious highs – like receiving the Torah, and humiliating lows, like serving a molten calf. They built the Mishkan, but the consecration was marred by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

Now they stood one year after the first Pesach, and are told to do it again, this time not in anticipation of leaving Egypt, but now a national observance would be celebrated; commemorating the Exodus.

במדבר פרק ט
(א) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה בְמִדְבַּר סִינַי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן לֵאמֹר: (ב) וְיַעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַפָּסַח בְּמוֹעֲדוֹ: (ג) בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם תַּעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ בְּמֹעֲדוֹ כְּכָל חֻקֹּתָיו וּכְכָל מִשְׁפָּטָיו תַּעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ: (ד) וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲשׂת הַפָּסַח: (ה) וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת הַפֶּסַח בָּרִאשׁוֹן בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת משֶׁה כֵּן עָשׂוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2. Let the people of Israel also keep the Passover at its appointed season. 3. In the fourteenth day of this month, at evening you shall keep it in its appointed season; according to all its rites, and according to all its ceremonies, shall you keep it. 4. And Moses spoke to the people of Israel, that they should keep the Passover. 5. And they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month at evening in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did the people of Israel. Bamidbar 9:1-5

There were however a group of people who felt disenfranchised, those who were ritually impure and could not participate felt as if they were excluded from the Jewish people.

במדבר פרק ט
(ו) וַיְהִי אֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לַעֲשֹׂת הַפֶּסַח בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיִּקְרְבוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וְלִפְנֵי אַהֲרֹן בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא: (ז) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵמָּה אֵלָיו אֲנַחְנוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִב אֶת קָרְבַּן ה’ בְּמֹעֲדוֹ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
6. And there were certain men, who were defiled by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day; 7. And those men said to him, We are defiled by the dead body of a man; Why are we kept back, so that we may not offer an offering to the Lord in his appointed season among the people of Israel? Bamidbar 9:6,7

Their feelings are understandable, this defining practice, which in a sense created the nation, separated between life and death. It separated between the Israelites who were headed for freedom, and the Egyptians, whose every home – which did not have the paschal lamb, and blood on the doorposts suffered death. The blood on the doorposts was not to be repeated, but the paschal offering would be repeated, and those who could not participate felt as if they were separated from the people.

Moreover, the defilement by a dead body is part of vicissitudes of life. A thriving bustling community will have births and sadly will also have deaths.[1] Those who deal with the dead are performing an important mitzva, an unparalleled mitzvah of chesed.[2] The members of the group who prepare the body for burial, and take care of the burial are called to this very day the chevra kadisha the holy society. Why should the performance of a mitzva, certainly an important mitzva cause the practitioners to suffer religiously, by being excluded from the paschal service?[3]

A Second, Second Pesach
Moshe feels that the question is a valid one and asks God what should be done:

במדבר פרק ט
(ח) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֹשֶׁה עִמְדוּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָה מַה יְצַוֶּה ה’ לָכֶם: פ
8. And Moses said to them, Wait, and I will hear what the Lord will command concerning you. Bamidbar 9:8

The answer received is extraordinary; an answer which flies in the face of the laws of offerings. Under normal circumstances the time an offering can be brought is precise, if the day in missed the opportunity is forfeited.[4]
Nonetheless, they are told that there would be a second opportunity to bring this offering:

במדבר פרק ט
(ט) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (י) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יִהְיֶה טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה לָכֶם אוֹ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַ ה’: (יא) בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ עַל מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ: (יב) לֹא יַשְׁאִירוּ מִמֶּנּוּ עַד בֹּקֶר וְעֶצֶם לֹא יִשְׁבְּרוּ בוֹ כְּכָל חֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ: (יג) וְהָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הוּא טָהוֹר וּבְדֶרֶךְ לֹא הָיָה וְחָדַל לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ כִּי קָרְבַּן ה’ לֹא הִקְרִיב בְּמֹעֲדוֹ חֶטְאוֹ יִשָּׂא הָאִישׁ הַהוּא:

9. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any man of you or of your posterity shall be unclean because of a dead body, or is in a journey far away, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. 11. The fourteenth day of the second month at evening they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12. They shall leave none of it to the morning, nor break any bone of it; according to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it. 13. But the man who is clean, and is not in a journey, and refrains from keeping the Passover, that same soul shall be cut off from among his people; because he brought not the offering of the Lord in his appointed season, that man shall bear his sin. Bamidbar 9:9-13

The normal rules of offering are ignored; the people would receive a second chance. Why in this case were the rules changed? What is it about this situation that allowed a second chance? Perhaps understanding why they were impure would help us unravel this mystery. We saw earlier that they were defiled due to an anonymous death in the camp. This question is debated in the Talmud, and three explanations for the defilement are offered. The Talmud was discussing the principle of osek bmitzva patur mmitzva, if someone is involved with the performance of one mizvah they are then absolved from the performance of second mitzva:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוכה דף כה עמוד א
והעוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה מהכא נפקא? מהתם נפקא, דתניא: +במדבר ט+ ויהי אנשים אשר היו טמאים לנפש אדם וכו' אותם אנשים מי היו? נושאי ארונו של יוסף היו, דברי רבי יוסי הגלילי, דף כה: רבי עקיבא אומר: מישאל ואלצפן היו שהיו עוסקין בנדב ואביהוא. רבי יצחק אומר: אם נושאי ארונו של יוסף היו - כבר היו יכולין ליטהר, אם מישאל ואלצפן היו - יכולין היו ליטהר. אלא עוסקין במת מצוה היו, שחל שביעי שלהן להיות בערב פסח.
But is the law that he who is engaged on one religious duty is free from any other deduced from here? Is it not deduced from elsewhere, As it has been taught: And there were certain men who were unclean by the dead body of a man, etc. Who were these men? They were those who bore the coffin of Joseph, so R. Jose the Galilean. R. Akiba said, They were Mishael and Elzaphan who were occupied with [the remains of] Nadab and Abihu. R. Isaac said, If they were those who bore the coffin of Joseph, they had time to cleanse themselves [before Passover,] and if they were Mishael and Elzaphan they could [also] have cleansed themselves [before the Passover]. But it was those who were occupied with a meth mizwah, the seventh day [of whose purification] coincided with the eve of Passover, as it is said, They could not keep the Passover on that day, on ‘that’ day they could not keep the Passover, but on the morrow they could? Talmud Bavli Sukka 25a,b

While the Talmud gravitates to the opinion that those who died were anonymous people, the opinion of Rabbi Yose; that it was those who were entrusted with carrying the remains of Yosef, which has captured the imagination of later authorities. The Midrash clearly states that the creation of Pesach Sheni was not the performance of a pedestrian deed; it was the remains of Yosef which generated this extraordinary law.

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה כ ד"ה יט וחמושים עלו
וחמושים עלו בני ישראל שעלו מזוינין, ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף עהכ"א (משלי י) חכם לבב יקח מצות שכל ישראל היו עסוקים בכסף וזהב ומשה היה עסוק בעצמות יוסף שנאמר ויקח משה את עצמות וגו',... והיו עצמותיו של יוסף מחזרין עמהם במדבר מ' שנה, א"ל הקב"ה אתה אמרת לאחיך (שם /בראשית נ'/) אנכי אכלכל אתכם חייך אתה נפטר ויהיו עצמותיך מחזרין עמהם במדבר מ' שנה שנאמר (במדבר ט) ויהי אנשים אשר היו טמאים לנפש אדם ואין אדם אלא יוסף שנאמר (תהלים עח) אהל שכן באדם, וכתיב (שם /תהלים ע"ח/) וימאס באהל יוסף, בזכות עצמותיך הם עושים פסח קטן,
AND THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL WENT UP ARMED (XIII, 18)--They went up armed against all attacks. AND MOSES TOOK THE BONES OF JOSEPH (ib. 19). Concerning him does it say: The wise in heart will take good deeds (Prov. X, 8), for at the time when the whole of Israel were busily occupied in collecting gold and silver, Moses was occupied with collecting the bones of Joseph, as it says: AND MOSES TOOK THE BONES OF JOSEPH. … During the entire forty years’ wanderings in the wilderness, the bones of Joseph traveled with them. God had said to him [Joseph]: ‘Because thou hast said: "I will feed you" to thy brothers, I assure thee that when thou art dead, thy bones will journey with them for forty years in the wilderness,’ as it says: But there were certain men, who were unclean by the dead body of a man (Num. IX, 6). The word ’man’ refers to Joseph, for it says: The tent which He had made to dwell among men (Ps. LXXVIII, 60), and then: Moreover He abhorred the tent of Joseph (ib. 67) For the sake of thy bones shall they celebrate the lesser Passover. Midrash Rabba Sh’mot 20:19

The Midrash connects the Pesach Sheni with Yosef, as reward for a specific deed of Yosef, his remains travelled with the community, because he took care of and fed his brothers. To fully appreciate this gesture we need to appreciate the context. Yaakov has died and the brothers and Yosef have returned to Egypt. The brothers are apparently frightened; therefore they take a preemptive action, and offer to be slaves to Yosef. One who is not scared would not offer themselves to a life of servitude, the sad case was that the brothers were scared of something worse than servitude; they were scared of death.

בראשית פרק נ
(יד) וַיָּשָׁב יוֹסֵף מִצְרַיְמָה הוּא וְאֶחָיו וְכָל הָעֹלִים אִתּוֹ לִקְבֹּר אֶת אָבִיו אַחֲרֵי קָבְרוֹ אֶת אָבִיו:(טו) וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף כִּי מֵת אֲבִיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוּ יִשְׂטְמֵנוּ יוֹסֵף וְהָשֵׁב יָשִׁיב לָנוּ אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר גָּמַלְנוּ אֹתוֹ: (טז) וַיְצַוּוּ אֶל יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר אָבִיךָ צִוָּה לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ לֵאמֹר:(יז) כֹּה תֹאמְרוּ לְיוֹסֵף אָנָּא שָׂא נָא פֶּשַׁע אַחֶיךָ וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי רָעָה גְמָלוּךָ וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא לְפֶשַׁע עַבְדֵי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ וַיֵּבְךְּ יוֹסֵף בְּדַבְּרָם אֵלָיו:(יח) וַיֵּלְכוּ גַּם אֶחָיו וַיִּפְּלוּ לְפָנָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ הִנֶּנּוּ לְךָ לַעֲבָדִים: (יט) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי: (כ) וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב:(כא) וְעַתָּה אַל תִּירָאוּ אָנֹכִי אֲכַלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת טַפְּכֶם וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לִבָּם:
14. And Joseph returned to Egypt, he, and his brothers, and all who went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. 15. And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will perhaps hate us, and will certainly pay us back for all the evil which we did to him. 16. And they sent a messenger to Joseph, saying, Your father did command before he died, saying, 17. So shall you say to Joseph, Forgive, I beg you now, the trespass of your brothers, and their sin; for they did to you evil; and now, we beg you, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father. And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18. And his brothers also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we are your servants. 19. And Joseph said to them, Fear not; for am I in the place of God? 20. But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. 21. Now therefore do not fear; I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them. Bereishit 50:14-21

A Second Chance
Yosef’s response to their offer, was not just non belligerence or non-violence, he offered to care for them, to feed them. He offered to treat them as brothers, as family. The reason they feared, was there was a time long ago, before Yosef became a viceroy in Egypt, that they wished to thrust him out of the family, an act which would have cut him out of the Jewish people. Now with his father dead and buried Yosef could have his sweet revenge. Instead of intimidation and violence Yosef offers a gesture of love. Ironically had he accepted their offer, he would have been again separated from his family. But Yosef offers to feed them; he wants to be with them. His reward was that he remained with his family, with his people, and when they leave he will leave with them.[5]

This may allow us to understand why Yosef is connected with Pesach Sheni. When those who could not bring the offering complained, they described their plight not just that they would not be able to fulfill the command – but they would be unable to fulfill the command among the rest of the people:

במדבר פרק ט
(ז) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵמָּה אֵלָיו אֲנַחְנוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִב אֶת קָרְבַּן ה’ בְּמֹעֲדוֹ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Why are we kept back, so that we may not offer an offering to the Lord in his appointed season among the people of Israel? Bamidbar 9:7

Non performance of the Pesach offering is related to separation from the people of Israel:

במדבר פרק ט
(יג) וְהָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הוּא טָהוֹר וּבְדֶרֶךְ לֹא הָיָה וְחָדַל לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ כִּי קָרְבַּן ה’ לֹא הִקְרִיב בְּמֹעֲדוֹ חֶטְאוֹ יִשָּׂא הָאִישׁ הַהוּא:
13. But the man who is clean, and is not in a journey, and refrains from keeping the Passover, that same soul shall be cut off from among his people; because he brought not the offering of the Lord in his appointed season, that man shall bear his sin. Bamidbar 9:13

The punishment is described as karet, which means to be spiritually separated from the Jewish people. This punishment is usually reserved for severe crimes, when someone has done something severely wrong. In this instance it is not that something was done, rather it was for being passive and not performing a task required task – eating from the paschal lamb. The only other punishment of karet meted for nonperformance of a positive commandment is non-performance of circumcision. These two commandments have a commonality, they both define peoplehood, and non-performance is a bill of divorce from the Jewish people. Karet as punishment for these omissions may be more of a result of not doing an act which defines the Jewish people, rather than as a punishment per se.

Yosef was thrust out of his people, and he had an opportunity to thrust out his people. Instead he chose the moral high road. He chose love, he chose peace he chose camaraderie. He chose family.

Yosef’s heroic gesture resulted in a second chance; another attempt for the nation to be one. As a result of this gesture Yosef’s remains would travel with them on their journey. He would leave and finally go back home to Israel with his family. Nonetheless his remains, like all Jewish corpses generated impurity, however it was deemed inconceivable, that those who tended to Yosef, would feel separated from the community, with beautiful poetic justice God gave them a second chance. The normal rules of sacrifices could be suspended. Yosef’ benevolence is mirrored by God’s benevolence. A new holiday representing second chances would be established.[6] A fitting holiday for Yosef.[7]

The enslavement in Egypt resulted from the sale of Yosef. The callus meal eaten as Yosef languished in the pit required a tikun. They broke bread as Yosef screamed. They were impervious to his screams, for they had deemed him no longer part of the Jewish people. It was a meal which brought the brothers together, together in a dastardly deed, with one brother missing. When the Jews leave Egypt they are commanded to have a meal and eat the Paschal lamb, but now they are told they must bring the family together when they eat.

שמות פרק יב
(ג) דַּבְּרוּ אֶל כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר בֶּעָשֹׂר לַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה וְיִקְחוּ לָהֶם אִישׁ שֶׂה לְבֵית אָבֹת שֶׂה לַבָּיִת:(ד) וְאִם יִמְעַט הַבַּיִת מִהְיֹת מִשֶּׂה וְלָקַח הוּא וּשְׁכֵנוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֶל בֵּיתוֹ בְּמִכְסַת נְפָשֹׁת אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ תָּכֹסּוּ עַל הַשֶּׂה:
3. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house; 4. And if the household is too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every man’s eating shall you make your count for the lamb. Sh’mot 12:3,4

Bring the family together, and even invite the neighbors if you can. The offering must be eaten with Matzah, perhaps bread which symbolized haughtiness – and that horrific meal eaten within earshot of the pit was deemed unacceptable. In fact all bread and bread products must be exorcized from the home. However Pesach Sheni has no such requirement, now bread and matzah can reside together in one home – truly an extraordinary holiday[8]. A holiday of unity[9], a holiday which shows the love that God has for His people, a holiday of second chances.[10]

[1] See Comments of Ibn Ezra
אבן עזרא על במדבר פרק ט פסוק ו
ויהי אנשים - לא יתכן שיהיה מחנה ישראל גדול ושלא ימותו שם מתים בכל יום:
[2] See Rashi Bereishit 47:29
רש"י בראשית פרק מז
חסד ואמת - חסד שעושין עם המתים הוא חסד של אמת, שאינו מצפה לתשלום גמול:
[3] In the words of the Seforno Bamidbar 9:7 – why should our mitzva cause a sin – by non-compliance to the pesach mitzva.
ספורנו עה"ת ספר במדבר פרק ט פסוק ז
אנחנו טמאים לנפש אדם, למה נגרע. מאחר שהיתה טומאתנו לדבר מצוה למה תהיה גוררת עבירה. במועדו. שזו מצוה עוברת:

[4] The principle is known as עבר זמנו בטל קרבנו avar zmano batel korbano. See Tosfot Brachot 26a SV Ibaya Lihu. It is there explained that the daily prayers, which were instituted by the forefathers, and commemorate a sacrifice from the Mishkan, can be said even if the proper time passed, because of the aspect of the prayers which were instituted by the forefathers. However musaf (the additional prayer said on holidays) can not be made up, for this is a commemoration of the additional offering brought on holidays.
תוספות מסכת ברכות דף כו עמוד א
איבעיא להו טעה ולא התפלל תפלת מנחה כו' - לא בעי אם טעה ולא התפלל תפלת מוסף דהא ודאי אינו מתפלל בערבית דהיאך יקרא את הקרבנות וכבר עבר זמן מוסף וגם לא תיקנו שבע ברכות של מוסף אלא משום ונשלמה פרים שפתינו ובזה ודאי עבר זמנו בטל קרבנו אבל שאר תפלות דרחמי נינהו ולואי שיתפלל אדם כל היום כולו ואין כאן עבר זמנו בתפלה אחרת.
[5] The Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah 20:19, stresses that Yosef was taken from Shechem, in order for the sale of Yosef to have full and final closure, he will need to be returned to Shechem
שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה כ ד"ה יט וחמושים עלו
כך משכם גנבו אחיו של יוסף אותו ומכרו אותו וכשבא ליפטר מן העולם השביע אותם אמר להם בבקשה מכם אחי משכם גנבתם אותי חי החזירו את עצמותי לשכם לכך נאמר (יהושע כד) ואת עצמות יוסף אשר העלו בני ישראל ממצרים קברו בשכם.
Similarly, it was from Shechem that the brothers of Joseph had stolen him and had sold him: and when he was about to die, he adjured them: ' My brothers! ye have stolen me from Shechem while I was alive, I pray you, return my bones to Shechem.’ For this reason does it say: And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem (Josh. XXIV, 32)
[6] According to the Zohar (Bamidbar 152b) the spiritual feeling of Pesach Sheni can be felt for seven days:
זוהר - רעיא מהימנא כרך ג (במדבר) פרשת בהעלותך דף קנב עמוד ב
פקודא (ל) למעבד פסח שני על אינון דלא יכילו או דאסתאבו במסאבו אחרא, אי רזא דפסח רזא דמהימנותא דישראל עאלין בה שלטא בניסן וכדין איהו זמנא לחדוה איך יכלין אלין דלא יכילו או דאסתאבו למעבד בירחא תניינא דהא אעבר זמנא, אלא כיון דכ"י מתעטרא בעטרהא בניסן לא אתעדיאת כתרהא ועטרהא מנה תלתין יומין וכל אינון ל' יומין מן יומא דנפקו ישראל מפסח יתבא מטרוניתא בעטרהא וכל חילהא בחדוה, מאן דבעי למחמי למטרוניתא יכיל למחמי, כרוזא כריז כל מאן דלא יכיל למחמי מטרוניתא ייתי ויחמי עד לא ינעלון תרעיה, אימתי כרוזא כריז בארבעה עשר לירחא תניינא דהא מתמן עד שבעה יומין תרעין פתיחן, מכאן ולהלאה ינעלון תרעי, ועל דא פסח שני ע"כ: (פקודא דא לספור ספירת העומר צז א):
There is a commandment to bring a Pesach sheni for those who were unable to fulfill the mitzvah in the proper time, or were impure with some other impurity. If the secret of Pesach is the secret of the faith which Israel entered, this rules (only) in the month of Nisan, then is the time for joy, how can someone who was impure or missed the (proper) time bring the offering in the second month – the (correct) time has passed?
The answer is that the community of Israel is endowed with the crown in the month of Nisan, the crown is not removed for thirty days. And for these thirty days the matron sits with her crown and all the hosts rejoice. And whoever wishes to see the matron can see. The crier then goes and announces whomever can not see the matron can come and look before the gates are closed. When does the crier go out? On the fourteenth of the second month and from that day the gates are opened for seven more days, from that day onward the gates are closed, this is the Pesach Sheni

[7] See Shem Mishmuel Bahalotcha 5672
ספר שם משמואל פרשת בהעלותך - שנת תרע"ב
ויהי אנשים וגו' אותם אנשים מי היו נושאי ארונו של יוסף היו, והנה יוסף השביע את ישראל שיעלו את עצמותיו עמהם, והם שנשאו את ארונו היו במקום כל ישראל, ע"כ חשבו שיהי' הדין אצלם כמו בכל ישראל שטומאה דחוי' בציבור. ואולי הטעם שלא הסכים עמהם הש"י הוא, מפני שעדיין יש להם תקנה בפסח שני, וכמו חגיגה שאינה דוחה שבת, אבל ציבור ממש שדוחין הוא משום דאין להם תקנה בשני, דאי אמרת שאין דוחין ולא עבדי ציבור בראשון שוב אינם עושין את השני כלל וכמו שהי' הציבור זבין בראשון, ודו"ק:
ובזה יש לפרש דברי המדרש (שמו"ר פ' כ') שבזכות יוסף עושין פסח קטן, דהנה אמרו ז"ל (דב"ר פ"ב סי' ה') יוסף שהודה בארצו נקבר בארצו, ובזכותו היו כל ישראל משועבדים להעלותו, והי' הדין נותן שידחה טומאה ויעשו בראשון כנ"ל, אלא שנעשתה להם תקנה שיעשו בשני, אבל בשאר טמאים אי לא היתה נתחדשה ההלכה לעשות פסח שני ע"י נושאי ארונו של יוסף היו נדחין לגמרי, אבל כשנתחדשה הלכה ע"י נושאי ארונו של יוסף שוב גם שאר הטמאים עושין פסח שני, א"כ כל ענין פסח שני הוא רק בזכות יוסף, ודו"ק

[8] See Rashi Bamidbar 9:10
רש"י במדבר פרק ט פסוק י
פסח שני מצה וחמץ עמו בבית ואין שם יום טוב, ואין איסור חמץ אלא עמו באכילתו:

[9] Yosef represents unity see Sfat Emet Miketz 5652
שפת אמת ספר בראשית - פרשת מקץ - שנת [תרנ"ב]
ובאמת יוסף הצדיק הוא בחי' השבת והשבת הוא כולל כל ימי השבוע. ויוסף הוא הכולל כל נפשות בני ישראל ולכן קרבנו הוא קרבן ציבור וקרב בשבת:

[10] See Shem Mishmuel Vayikra –Chodesh 5674
ספר שם משמואל פרשת ויקרא - וחודש שנת תרע"ד
והנה יוסף באשר מיאן להתדבק לדבר שאינו ראוי לו זכה שנדבקו בו כל הכחות הקדושים, וע"כ בכחו לחבר ולאחד את הכל, ומדתו צדיק יסוד עולם כי כל בשמים ובארץ ובתרגום דאחיד בשמיא ובארעא, ע"כ אמרו אין אדם אלא יוסף, ומייתי לה מאוהל שיכן באדם התחברות עליונים ותחתונים. ומעתה יש לומר דכל שם אדם לדורות הוא כשהוא שומר הברית, הוא ראוי לחבר מה שראוי לחבר, וע"כ אתם קרוים אדם ולא אומה"ע כי כתיב (ישעי' ס') ועמך כולם צדיקים, ולהיפוך (ירמי' ט') כי כל הגוים ערלים היפוך מדת צדיק, דצדיק לא נקרא אלא דנטר האי ברית:
והנה קרבן הוא כשמו לקרב את הכחות שראויים לקרב, וע"כ בראשית דיני קרבנות פריש האי שמא להורות מי הוא הראוי להקריב קרבן, ואף שגם הגויים מתנדבין קרבנות ונתרבו מאיש איש, מ"מ אין קרבנם ענין אחד עם קרבן ישראל:
ולפי האמור יש ליתן טעם דערל אסור בפסח, ועיקר ענין פסח ומילה שניתן להם אז, כי קרבן פסח לקרב כל הכחות ואפי' כל האכילות לגבוה, ומצד זה עצמו היתה הגאולה שגם הם נתקרבו ונדבקו בהשכינה וכשעלתה ממצרים נתעלו עמה. אך א"א הי' לקרב ולאחד את כל הכחות כי אם בכח שמירת הברית ברישא כנ"ל, וע"כ צריכין למילה ברישא:
ולפי האמור תובן טענת נושאי ארונו של יוסף (במדבר ט') אנחנו טמאים לנפש אדם למה נגרע לבלתי הקריב את קרבן ה' וגו', דמאחר שהם נושאי ארונו של יוסף שהוא שורש ויסוד כל הקרבנות אינו בדין שידחו הם מקרבן ה'. וזה שהשיבם משה דין פסח שני, אדרבה בזכות יוסף נתגלגל על ידיהם עוד קרבן והוא פסח שני לאחד ולקרב אפי' הרחוקים מפסח ראשון, וזה שבמדרש (שמ"ר סו"פ כ') שבזכות יוסף הם עושין פסח קטן

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Parshat Naso 5769 -A Head Full of Holiness

Parshat Naso 5769
Rabbi Ari Kahn

A Head Full of Holiness

More Prohibitions
In Parshat Naso we are introduced to a new type of individual, a person who is not satisfied with the multitude of other commandments and prohibitions which all Jews are commanded; instead he/she looks for further limitation, with a vow becoming a Nazir.

במדבר פרק ו
(א) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר נָזִיר לְהַזִּיר לה’: (ג) מִיַּיִן וְשֵׁכָר יַזִּיר חֹמֶץ יַיִן וְחֹמֶץ שֵׁכָר לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה וְכָל מִשְׁרַת עֲנָבִים לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה וַעֲנָבִים לַחִים וִיבֵשִׁים לֹא יֹאכֵל: (ד) כֹּל יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר יֵעָשֶׂה מִגֶּפֶן הַיַּיִן מֵחַרְצַנִּים וְעַד זָג לֹא יֹאכֵל: (ה) כָּל יְמֵי נֶדֶר נִזְרוֹ תַּעַר לֹא יַעֲבֹר עַל רֹאשׁוֹ עַד מְלֹאת הַיָּמִם אֲשֶׁר יַזִּיר לה’ קָדֹשׁ יִהְיֶה גַּדֵּל פֶּרַע שְׂעַר רֹאשׁוֹ: (ו) כָּל יְמֵי הַזִּירוֹ לה’ עַל נֶפֶשׁ מֵת לֹא יָבֹא: (ז) לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לְאָחִיו וּלְאַחֹתוֹ לֹא יִטַּמָּא לָהֶם בְּמֹתָם כִּי נֵזֶר אֱלֹהָיו עַל רֹאשׁוֹ: (ח) כֹּל יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ קָדֹשׁ הוּא לה’:
1. And God spoke to Moshe, saying, 2. Speak to the People of Israel, and say to them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazirite, to separate themselves for God; 3. He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, nor shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. 4. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is produced from the grape vine, from the seeds to the grape skin. 5. All the days of the vow of his separation no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled, during which he separates himself for God, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. 6. All the days that he separates himself for God he shall not come near a dead body. 7. He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because the consecration of his God is upon his head. Bamidbar 6:1-7

In his commentary on these verses, the Recanati observes that the holiness which the Nazir accepts is reminiscent of a Kohen - or even of a Kohen Gadol. [1] The wine which he has sworn off is one of the conditions of a Kohen who is on active duty, serving in the Temple.[2] The prohibition of defiling himself to the dead is like the Kohen, though in this case it is even more severe than the normal restriction: A regular Kohen is permitted to defile himself if a member of his immediate family passes away, whereas the Nazir is prohibited from doing so even in these circumstances.

Internal and External Holiness
This additional level of prohibition against defilement (tum'ah) may be understood as an indication of the holiness achieved by the Nazir, placing him on a level equal to that of a Kohen Gadol. Yet the commentaries offer a more technical explanation: A regular Kohen achieves his holiness from his bloodline; had his father not been a Kohen – neither would he. Had his mother not possessed the requirements necessary to marry a Kohen, he – her son - would not be a Kohen. However the Kohen Gadol achieves his higher level of holiness due to external factors: He is chosen for this exalted task, not as an automatic result of his bloodline. He therefore cannot defile himself for family.[3] Likewise, the Nazir’s status is based on a vow, and is independent of his family line and his parents' level of holiness; hence, he may not defile himself even for his parents.[4]

The third aspect of the Nazir’s “holiness” manifests itself in the proscription against cutting his hair. This stands in stark contrast to the law of the Kohen, and of the Kohen Gadol. A person whose hair is long is not permitted to function as a Kohen, and a Kohen Gadol must always see to it that his hair is not wild. In fact, the length of hair prohibited to the Kohen is derived from the minimum length that a Nazir must grow his hair: 30 days' growth.[5]

Why is it specifically regarding the Nazir's hair that we find a deviation from the laws of the Kohen? The Torah contains a precedent regarding wild hair - in the section immediately preceding the discussion of Nazir, where the Torah describes the ordeal endured by the Sotah: A woman is known to have secluded herself with a man other than her husband, a man her husband specifically asked her not to be alone with. While she denies infidelity and claims virtue, the circumstantial evidence is damning. The Torah introduces a rite that will prove her innocence – or guilt.

This woman, who is guilty of poor judgment at least insofar as her choice to place herself in this compromising situation, is brought to the Beit Hamikdash. Her hair is uncovered – literally, "made wild”:

במדבר פרק ה
(יח) וְהֶעֱמִיד הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הָאִשָּׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ וּפָרַע אֶת רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה וְנָתַן עַל כַּפֶּיהָ אֵת מִנְחַת הַזִּכָּרוֹן מִנְחַת קְנָאֹת הִוא וּבְיַד הַכֹּהֵן יִהְיוּ מֵי הַמָּרִים הַמְאָרֲרִים:
18. And the Kohen shall set the woman before God, and loosen the hair of the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering of jealousy; and the Kohen shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse; Bamidbar 5:18.

Rashi defines the word para' as 'to make wild': her hair should be released, her braids undone.[6] This is the same word (see Bamidbar 6:5 cited above) used to describe the Nazir, and what happens when he refrains from cutting his hair. This linguistic connection strengthens the textual bond created by the proximity of these two sections, a connection amplified by the rabbinic tradition that delves into the psychology of the Nazir: The reason a person takes such stringency upon themselves, the impetus for becoming a Nazir, is the trauma of the Sotah ritual. A bystander or witness to the Sotah's disgrace would not be left untouched by the entire scenario. Having witnessed a Sotah in her moment of embarrassment, any man or woman might be led to seek out a spiritual remedy. This tradition is recorded by Rashi:

רש"י על במדבר פרק ו פסוק ב
למה נסמכה פרשת נזיר לפ' סוטה לומר לך שכל הרואה סוטה בקלקולה יזיר עצמו מן היין שהוא מביא לידי ניאוף (סוטה ב.)
Why is the section of Nazir placed next to Sotah, to tell you that whoever sees a Sotah in her disgrace should take upon himself to abstain from wine, for it leads to adultery (Rashi Bamidbar 6:2)

Rashi traces the scenario back to its roots cause: Wine causes confusion;[7] when intoxicated, ones' judgment is impaired. This woman displayed poor judgment by secluding herself with a man –not just any man, but specifically one whom her husband didn’t trust – and has thus caused damage to her relationship with her husband. She is sent to the Kohen, who is himself prohibited from having any wine when he performs the service in the Beit Hamikdash. Meanwhile the “innocent” onlooker witnesses the disgrace, sees how the delicate balance between spiritual and physical is upset by wanton desire, and makes a gesture in the opposite direction. He swears off wine, and grows his own hair. Simply stated, the laws of the Nazir combine the laws of the Kohen with a reaction to the disgrace of the Sotah.

The Talmud regards the Nazir's vow of asceticism as a concession, a necessary though drastic measure undertaken by the onlooker who attempts to regain his own equilibrium. Even an outsider, an innocent bystander, is affected and impacted by witnessing the sexually charged situation. The Torah laws surrounding the Nazir bear out this attitude: While on the one hand the Torah condones this method of spiritual healing (for a period of thirty days), the Nazir concludes this process by bringing a sin offering, penance for the legitimate pleasure that could have been enjoyed but was voluntarily forfeited.[8]

The complex set of reactions and attitudes of the Nazir to sin may help explain a very difficult relationship recorded in the Prophets. King David was the first anointed king, the founder of the Davidic dynasty. Clearly, David would have preferred to choose the son who would rule after him, and would certainly have expected the succession to take place only after his own passing. Yet one of his sons, Avshalom, declared himself king - regardless of the fact that his father, King David, was still quite alive at the time.
Avshalom’s rebellion began when his half-brother Amnon (they shared a father, but had different mothers) developed an obsession for his own half sister: the beautiful Tamar, Avshalom’s full sister. Amnon plotted until he was secluded with his sister and then took her by force.

שמואל ב פרק יג
(א) וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי כֵן וּלְאַבְשָׁלוֹם בֶּן דָּוִד אָחוֹת יָפָה וּשְׁמָהּ תָּמָר וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ אַמְנוֹן בֶּן דָּוִד: (ב) וַיֵּצֶר לְאַמְנוֹן לְהִתְחַלּוֹת בַּעֲבוּר תָּמָר אֲחֹתוֹ כִּי בְתוּלָה הִיא וַיִּפָּלֵא בְּעֵינֵי אַמְנוֹן לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהּ מְאוּמָה:
(ו) וַיִּשְׁכַּב אַמְנוֹן וַיִּתְחָל וַיָּבֹא הַמֶּלֶךְ לִרְאֹתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אַמְנוֹן אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ תָּבוֹא נָא תָּמָר אֲחֹתִי וּתְלַבֵּב לְעֵינַי שְׁתֵּי לְבִבוֹת וְאֶבְרֶה מִיָּדָהּ:
(יא) וַתַּגֵּשׁ אֵלָיו לֶאֱכֹל וַיַּחֲזֶק בָּהּ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ בּוֹאִי שִׁכְבִי עִמִּי אֲחוֹתִי:
(יד) וְלֹא אָבָה לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹלָהּ וַיֶּחֱזַק מִמֶּנָּה וַיְעַנֶּהָ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ:
1. And it came to pass after this, that Avshalom the son of David had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her. 2. And Amnon was so tormented, that he fell sick for his sister Tamar; for she was a virgin; and Amnon thought it hard for him to do any thing to her.
6. So Amnon lay down, and feigned to be sick; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, I beg you, let Tamar my sister come, and make me a couple of cakes in my sight, that I may eat of her hand.
11. And when she had brought them to him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, Come lie with me, my sister.
14. But he would not listen to her voice; but, being stronger than she, forced her, and lay with her. 2 Shmuel 13

When Avshalom found out he plotted what he thought to be the proper revenge – and saw to it that Amnon would die. Soon after, Avshalom declared himself king.

According to the Talmud, Avshalom (and Tamar) were children of a relationship which David had with a woman captured in battle – a beautiful captive (Yefat Toar).[9]

The Talmud teaches that the permissibility of taking such captives in war is a concession to man’s frailty, a compromise with the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination).

 תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף כא/ב
... יפת תואר: לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע מוטב שיאכלו ישראל בשר )כב/א( תמותות שחוטות ואל יאכלו בשר תמותות נבילות
 ‘Of beautiful countenance": The Torah only provided for human passions: it is better for Israel to eat flesh of [animals] about to die, yet [ritually] slaughtered, than flesh of dying animals which have perished; Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 21b

Avshalom, as the product of such a union, may have drawn a mental and moral line connecting Amnon’s despicable behavior back to its roots in their father’s libidinous behavior.[10] Whether this idea was fully formed in his mind or not, we can never know; what we do know is that he decided to usurp the kingdom from his father after this episode. Presumably, he felt he had found a more deserving occupant for the throne - himself.

There is another aspect of Avshalom's personal story recorded in rabbinic tradition: Avshalom was a Nazir.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת נזיר דף ד עמוד ב
דתניא, רבי אומר: אבשלום נזיר עולם היה, שנאמר: (שמואל ב' טו) ויהי מקץ ארבעים שנה ויאמר אבשלום אל המלך אלכה נא ואשלם את נדרי אשר נדרתי לה' בחברון, ומגלח אחד לשנים עשר חדש...; ר' נהוראי אומר: מגלח אחת לל' יום; רבי יוסי אומר: מגלח מערב שבת לערב שבת, שכן מצינו בבני מלכים שמגלחים מע"ש לע"ש.
Rabbi said that Avshalom was a life-nazirite, for it says, And it came to pass at the end of forty years that Avshalom said to the king: 'I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow which I have vowed to God in Hevron'. He used to cut his hair every twelve months… R. Nehorai said: [Avshalom] used to cut his hair every thirty days. R. Jose said: He used to cut it on the eve of each Sabbath, for princes usually got haircuts on the eve of each Sabbath. Talmud Bavli Nazir 4b-5a

Perhaps this was his response to the corrupt world he saw around him. His personal response to the Yetzer Hara was to become a Nazir. Perhaps he convinced himself that asceticism would safeguard him from sin. But the battle against the Yetzer Hara is tricky: The opponent wears many different masks and costumes. Confidence of victory on this battlefield is almost a sure sign of defeat.

Ironically, it was Avshalom’s hair that brought about his demise:

ספר שמואל ב פרק יח
(ט) וַיִּקָּרֵא אַבְשָׁלוֹם לִפְנֵי עַבְדֵי דָוִד וְאַבְשָׁלוֹם רֹכֵב עַל הַפֶּרֶד וַיָּבֹא הַפֶּרֶד תַּחַת שׂוֹבֶךְ הָאֵלָה הַגְּדוֹלָה וַיֶּחֱזַק רֹאשׁוֹ בָאֵלָה וַיֻּתַּן בֵּין הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבֵין הָאָרֶץ וְהַפֶּרֶד אֲשֶׁר תַּחְתָּיו עָבָר:
9. And Avshalom met the servants of David. And Avshalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the sky and the earth; and the mule that was under him walked on. 2 Shmuel 18:9

Not only was it his hair which brought his demise, the Talmud teaches that the rebellion was through his hair:

שמואל ב פרק יד
(כה) וּכְאַבְשָׁלוֹם לֹא הָיָה אִישׁ יָפֶה בְּכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַלֵּל מְאֹד מִכַּף רַגְלוֹ וְעַד קָדְקֳדוֹ לֹא הָיָה בוֹ מוּם: (כו) וּבְגַלְּחוֹ אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ וְהָיָה מִקֵּץ יָמִים לַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר יְגַלֵּחַ כִּי כָבֵד עָלָיו וְגִלְּחוֹ וְשָׁקַל אֶת שְׂעַר רֹאשׁוֹ מָאתַיִם שְׁקָלִים בְּאֶבֶן הַמֶּלֶךְ:
25. But in all Israel there was none so much praised as Avshalom for his beauty; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. 26. And when he shaved his head, for it was at every year’s end that he shaved it; because the hair was heavy on him, therefore he shaved it; he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels according to the king’s weight. 2 Shmuel 14:25,26

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף י עמוד ב
אבשלום נתגאה בשערו וכו'. ת"ר: אבשלום בשערו מרד, שנאמר: )שמואל ב' יד( וכאבשלום לא היה איש יפה וגו' ובגלחו את ראשו (וגו') והיה מקץ ימים לימים אשר יגלח כי כבד עליו וגלחו ושקל את שער ראשו מאתים שקלים באבן המלך, תנא: אבן שאנשי טבריא ואנשי ציפורי שוקלים בה; לפיכך נתלה בשערו, שנאמר: )שמואל ב' יח) ויקרא /ו' בפתח, י' בחיריק, ק' בקמץ ר' בצירה/ אבשלום לפני עבדי דוד ואבשלום רוכב על הפרד ויבא הפרד תחת שובך האלה הגדולה ויאחז ראשו באלה ויותן בין השמים ובין הארץ והפרד אשר תחתיו עבר, [שקל ספסירא בעא למיפסקיה],
AVSHALOM GLORIED IN HIS HAIR etc. Our Rabbis have taught: Avshalom rebelled [against his father] through his hair, as it is said: There was none to be so much praised as Avshalom for his beauty . . . And when he cut his hair, at every year's end that he cut it because the hair was heavy on him. Therefore he cut it, and he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels, in the king's weight. It has been taught that [the king's weight] was the weight with which the men of Tiberias and Sepphoris weigh. Therefore he was hanged by his hair, as it is said: And Avshalom chanced to meet the servants of David. And Avshalom rode upon his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth, and the mule that was under him walked on. He took a sword and wished to cut himself loose; Talmud Bavli Sotah 10b

Avshalom felt that his hair, the hair of a Nazir, “weighed” more than his father the king. His sense of superiority, of entitlement, was born of this self- righteousness. He took pride in his own virtue, his Nazirite vows of chastity and abstinence. He saw himself as clearly superior to David, for he, Avshalom, would not be tempted by beauty, he would not succumb to lust as David (and Amnon) had. He would sooner cut off his flowing Nazirite locks and dedicate them to God.

But Amnon's Yetzer Hara took a different form; his own personal Evil Inclination focused on a different weakness: obsession for power. Soon enough, his desire for power led him to commit an act that even he – especially he - should have seen as immoral.[11]

שמואל ב פרק טז
(כא) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲחִיתֹפֶל אֶל אַבְשָׁלֹם בּוֹא אֶל פִּלַגְשֵׁי אָבִיךָ אֲשֶׁר הִנִּיחַ לִשְׁמוֹר הַבָּיִת וְשָׁמַע כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי נִבְאַשְׁתָּ אֶת אָבִיךָ וְחָזְקוּ יְדֵי כָּל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ:(כב) וַיַּטּוּ לְאַבְשָׁלוֹם הָאֹהֶל עַל הַגָּג וַיָּבֹא אַבְשָׁלוֹם אֶל פִּלַגְשֵׁי אָבִיו לְעֵינֵי כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל:
21. And Ahithophel said to Avshalom, 'Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house; and all Israel shall hear that you have made yourself odious to your father; then shall the hands of all who are with you be strengthened.' 22. So they spread Avshalom a tent upon the top of the house; and Avshalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. 2 Shmuel chapter 16:21,22

Avshalom's lapse in judgment did not play out in seclusion, like the Sotah suspected of infidelity; his folly was placed on display, in broad daylight, demonstratively – "in the sight of all of Israel”. He thought that being a Nazir protected him. He believed himself to be more righteous than his father. In the end, the very hair that symbolized his “holiness” betrayed him, just as he had betrayed his own vows of purity, and as he had betrayed his father.

The First Nazir
The first time the word Nazir appears in the Torah is in connection with Yosef. It is part of a glorious blessing which Yaakov bestows upon his beloved son:

בראשית פרק מט
(כב) בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי עָיִן בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר:(כג) וַיְמָרֲרֻהוּ וָרֹבּוּ וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים: (כד) וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵיתָן קַשְׁתּוֹ וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו מִידֵי אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב מִשָּׁם רֹעֶה אֶבֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל: (כה) מֵאֵל אָבִיךָ וְיַעְזְרֶךָּ וְאֵת שַׁדַּי וִיבָרְכֶךָּ בִּרְכֹת שָׁמַיִם מֵעָל בִּרְכֹת תְּהוֹם רֹבֶצֶת תָּחַת בִּרְכֹת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם: (כו) בִּרְכֹת אָבִיךָ גָּבְרוּ עַל בִּרְכֹת הוֹרַי עַד תַּאֲוַת גִּבְעֹת עוֹלָם תִּהְיֶיןָ לְרֹאשׁ יוֹסֵף וּלְקָדְקֹד נְזִיר אֶחָיו: פ
22. Yosef is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a wellspring; whose branches run over the wall; 23. The archers fiercely attacked him, and shot at him, and hated him; 24. But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Yaakov; from there is the shepherd, the Stone of Israel; 25. By the God of your father, who shall help you; and by the Almighty, who shall bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb; 26. The blessings of your father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Yosef, and on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brothers (literally," Nazir of his brothers"). Bereishit 49:22-26

The use of the word Nazir in this context is unclear. The Rashbam relates it to the word nezer - crown, for Yosef ruled over the others. In Yosef's dreams, he saw his father bowing down to him; perhaps Yosef, too, suffered from the sense of superiority and entitlement we saw in Avshalom? Perhaps Yosef, like Avshalom, would be guilty of usurping his father’s place? The brothers hated him for his dreams, suspected him of this very same sense of superiority; even his father was unsure, reserving judgment about his youngest son's attitude. What they all failed to understand was that Yosef would indeed rule, but not at the expense of his father or his family. Yosef would rule the mighty Egyptian empire.

The Talmud understands Yaakov's blessing more literally: Yosef was a Nazir.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קלט עמוד א
ואמר רב מלאי משום רבי יצחק מגדלאה: מיום שפירש יוסף מאחיו לא טעם טעם יין, דכתיב (בראשית מט) ולקדקד נזיר אחיו.
R. Melai also said in the name of R. Isaac of Magdala: From the day that Yosef departed from his brothers he did not taste wine, for it is written, "[The blessings of thy father...shall be on the head of Yosef], and on the crown of the head of him who was a nazirite [since his departure] from his brothers." Talmud Bavli Shabbat 139a

There are other details of Yosef's path to greatness that are bringus to an examination of Yosef as a Nazir. Most interesting is the incident in the House of Potiphar whichthat led to Yosef's incarceration. Yosef found himself secluded with a woman who had every intention to commit adultery with him.

בראשית פרק לט
(ו) וַיַּעֲזֹב כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ בְּיַד יוֹסֵף וְלֹא יָדַע אִתּוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר הוּא אוֹכֵל וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה: (ז) וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו אֶת עֵינֶיהָ אֶל יוֹסֵף וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי: (ח) וַיְמָאֵן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא יָדַע אִתִּי מַה בַּבָּיִת וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדִי: (ט) אֵינֶנּוּ גָדוֹל בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה מִמֶּנִּי וְלֹא חָשַׂךְ מִמֶּנִּי מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם אוֹתָךְ בַּאֲשֶׁר אַתְּ אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִי לֵאלֹהִים: (י) וַיְהִי כְּדַבְּרָהּ אֶל יוֹסֵף יוֹם יוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ לִשְׁכַּב אֶצְלָהּ לִהְיוֹת עִמָּהּ: (יא) וַיְהִי כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיָּבֹא הַבַּיְתָה לַעֲשׂוֹת מְלַאכְתּוֹ וְאֵין אִישׁ מֵאַנְשֵׁי הַבַּיִת שָׁם בַּבָּיִת: (יב) וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂהוּ בְּבִגְדוֹ לֵאמֹר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה: (יג) וַיְהִי כִּרְאוֹתָהּ כִּי עָזַב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס הַחוּצָה:
6. And he left all that he had in Yosef’s hand; and he knew not what he had, save for the bread which he ate. And Yosef was handsome and good looking.7. And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Yosef; and she said, Lie with me. 8. But he refused, and said to his master’s wife, Behold, my master knows not what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand; 9. There is none greater in this house than I; nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? 10. And it came to pass, as she spoke to Yosef day by day, that he listened not to her, to lie by her, or to be with her. 11. And it came to pass about this time, that Yosef went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there inside. 12. And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me; and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got out. 13. And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and had fled out, Bereishit 39:6-13

Yosef, like Avshalom, was good looking; ultimately, this caused his troubles and led to his incarceration. Yosef found himself in a situation fraught with sexual energy, at the verge of the abyss of moral decay: He was the object of the desire of a married woman, and indeed he entered her home and was secluded with her. But Yosef's purity remained untainted. He emerged victorious. Yosef responded to this situation by becoming the first Nazir, voluntarily abstaining from certain pleasures that had not been forbidden to him. He himself did not see the path that this would take him; he had no ulterior motives, seeking only to remain pure and true to God. He did not demand greatness or reward for his heroic behavior; he ended up in a cell, together with political prisoners. He did not see how his escape from Potifar’s wife would one day lead him to the Palace. Like Avshalom, Yosef was a Nazir – and he did, in fact, rule in Ya’akov’s lifetime. Unlike Avshalom, Yosef did not feel entitled because of his beauty, his virtue, his abstinence. Yosef is known for eternity as Yosef the Tzadik, Yosef the Righteous; Avshalom is remembered in infamy.

Yosef is the prototypical Nazir: The true Nazir should not feel entitled; he should see his chosen path as a necessary step in his personal battle against the Yetzer Hara. When his oath is fulfilled, the Nazir brings a sin offering, to atone for the very necessity of this path, for having been so profoundly impacted by the Yetzer Hara.

Many years later another Tzaddik came across a Nazir:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדרים דף ט עמוד ב
דתניא, אמר (רבי) שמעון הצדיק: מימי לא אכלתי אשם נזיר טמא אלא אחד; פעם אחת בא אדם אחד נזיר מן הדרום, וראיתיו שהוא יפה עינים וטוב רואי וקווצותיו סדורות לו תלתלים, אמרתי לו: בני, מה ראית להשחית את שערך זה הנאה? אמר לי: רועה הייתי לאבא בעירי, הלכתי למלאות מים מן המעיין ונסתכלתי בבבואה שלי, ופחז עלי יצרי ובקש לטורדני מן העולם, אמרתי לו: רשע! למה אתה מתגאה בעולם שאינו שלך, במי שהוא עתיד להיות רמה ותולעה? העבודה, שאגלחך לשמים! מיד עמדתי ונשקתיו על ראשו, אמרתי לו: בני, כמוך ירבו נוזרי נזירות בישראל, עליך הכתוב אומר: (במדבר ו) איש... כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה'.
For it was taught: Shimon the Tzaddik said: Only once in my life have I eaten of the trespass-offering brought by a defiled Nazir. On one occasion a Nazir came from the South country, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was of handsome appearance, and with thick locks of hair symmetrically arranged. Said I to him: ‘My son, what [reason] did you see to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?' He replied: ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my town. [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed upon me and sought to drive me from the world [through sin]. But I said unto it [my lust]: "Wretch! why do you vaunt yourself in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? I swear that I will shave off [this beautiful hair] for the sake of Heaven." Immediately [Rabbi Shimon] arose and kissed his head, saying: ‘My son, may there be many Nazirites such as you in Israel! Of you the Holy Torah says, 'When either a man or a woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazirite, to separate themselves unto God.' Talmud Bavli Nedarim 9b

Recognizing the Yetzer Hara as his enemy, this Nazir sets off to battle, and removes the object of his own pride. Seeing his own reflection jarred him into this new awareness, and with the very act that breaks the Nazir's vow, he became a Nazir.

One of the great Kabbalists of the middle ages, Rav Menachem Azarya DeFano, adds an interesting postscript to this passage. He says that this Nazir fixed the blemish in the soul of Avshalom. Whereas Avshalom allowed his hair to be the source of his pride, this man used his hair to truly serve God, and subdue his pride.[12] This is the challenge of the true servant of God: to identify their own personal Yetzer Hara and wage the battle against it, without any expectation of congratulation or reward but simply in order to overcome the artificial barriers that hinder our closeness to God. Each of us possess the capability to fight and win this war.

[1] Commentary of Recanati to Parshat Naso:
פירוש הרקאנאטי על התורה - פרשת נשא
איש או אשה כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר וגו' מיין ושכר יזיר וגו'. מצות הנזיר דומות לכהנים כי הוא נכנס בגדר החסד ועל כן נקרא קדוש. בכהנים כתיב יין ושכר אל תשת וכן בנזיר. וסוד ענבים לחים ויבשים הלחים רומזים למדת הדין הקשה שנאמר ודם ענב תשתה חמר והיבשים למדת הדין רפה היבשה לפעמים משפע העליון. בכהנים כתיב ועל כל נפשות מת לא יבא ובנזיר כתיב על נפש מת לא יבא בכהן כתיב וראשם לא יגלחו (יחזקאל מד' כ') ובנזיר ותער לא יעבור על ראשו. והנה הוא מעין דוגמה של מעלה ועל כן כתיב קדוש יהיה. וטעם תער לא יעבור על ראשו הוא הפך והעבירו תער על כל בשרם כי הנזיר כחותיו הם ממדת החסד ושערותיו רומזים לצינורות עליונות ולכחות אלהיות הנאצלות ממדת החסד ולפיכך אסור להשחיתן הלא תראה כי בהשחתתן חוזרין וצומחין רמז שהשם יתעלה מאציל אצילותו ונותן מהודו ואינו חסר. והבן כי שמשון בהתגלחו אבד כחו בעבור היותו נזיר כי ה' יתעלה סר מעליו שנפסקו ממנו צינורות השכינה שמשם ניזונין עליונים ותחתונים. אמנם בלוים באה המצוה בהפך כדי לכלות הקוצים מן הכרם כי צריך לבער כחות הטומאה שלא ישלטו:

[2] See Comments of the Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz in his Shnei Luchot Habrit Parshat Naso
ספר השל"ה הקדוש - ספר במדבר דברים - במדבר נשא בהעלותך תורה אור (יא)
והנה כתיב אצל הנזיר כי נזר אלהיו על ראשו, כמו שכתוב בכהן כי נזר שמן משחת אלהיו עליו. כי הנזיר הוא כמו כהן שלא יטמא למת, ונקרא קדוש. אמנם יש יותר מעלה בנזיר, כי הכהן לא זכה להנזר אלא על ידי שמן המשחה, אבל הנזיר נזר אלהיו עליו.

[3] There is, however, a preference to appoint a son, or someone who would otherwise inherit the position of Kohen Gadol – if the latter is worthy. See Rambam Laws of Klei Hamikdash 4:20
רמב"ם הלכות כלי המקדש פרק ד :הלכה כ
כשימות המלך או כהן גדול או אחד משאר הממונים מעמידין תחתיו בנו או הראוי ליורשו, וכל הקודם לנחלה קודם לשררות המת, והוא שיהיה ממלא מקומו בחכמה, או ביראה אע"פ שאינו כמותו בחכמה שנאמר במלך הוא ובניו בקרב ישראל, מלמד שהמלכות ירושה והוא הדין לכל שררה שבקרב ישראל שהזוכה לה זוכה לעצמו ולזרעו.
[4] See Sod Eser Sefirot by Rav Moshe DeLeon
סוד עשר ספירות - לרבי משה די ליאון ז"ל
דע והבן משה מפני מה לא היה כהן גדול שהשמוש של אהרן היה ומאותו שלשלת בא שהיתה אמו גרושה שאמר ז"ל בשעה שנגמרה גזרת פרעה דכתי' כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו בא עמרם וגירש את אשתו ולימים החזירה בנבואת מרים בתו ולפי' אבד משה את הכהונה הואיל והיה בן גרושה ועיין במה שאמר ז"ל בספרים שאמרו בענין נזיר לאביו ולאמו לאחיו ולאחותו לא יטמא להם במותם ונאמ' בכהן גדול לאמו ולאביו וגו' ויש לומ' מפני מה הקדים לנזיר אביו בתחלה ולכהן גדול הקדים אמו בתחלה אלא נזיר שכל קדושתו תלויה בגופו ולא באביו ולא באמו הרי הוא כשאר כל אדם בענין זה. אבל כהן גדול כל קדושתו תלויה באמו ודרשינן הכי לאמו שלא היתה זונה לאמו שלא היתה חללה לאמו שלא היתה גרושה וודאי. על כן הוצרכנו לומ' משה נמי בכלל הוא כלומר לא היה כהן אבל מפני הצורך נכנס בכלל.

[5] See Rambam Hilchot Biat Hamikdash
רמב"ם הלכות ביאת המקדש פרק א :הלכה י
כשם שאין הכהנים מוזהרין על היין אלא בשעת ביאה למקדש כך אין אסורין לגדל פרע אלא בשעת ביאה למקדש, בד"א בכהן הדיוט אבל כהן גדול אסור לגדל פרע ולקרוע בגדיו לעולם, שהרי תמיד הוא במקדש ולכך נאמר בו את ראשו לא יפרע ובגדיו לא יפרום. +/השגת הראב"ד/ אלא בשעת ביאה. א"א ליתיה להאי כללא שאפילו שלא בשעת ביאה אסור לגדל פרע שהרי חייב להסתפר משלשים יום לשלשים יום כדכתיב ופרע לא ישלחו, (ביאה למקדש פירוש במשמרתם).+
הלכה יא:כמה הוא גידול פרע, שלשים יום כנזיר שנאמר בו גדל פרע שער ראשו ואין נזירות פחותה משלשים יום, לפיכך כהן הדיוט העובד מגלח משלשים יום לשלשים יום.
[6] See Rashi Bamidbar 5:18
רש"י במדבר פרק ה פסוק יח
ופרע - סותר את קליעת שערה כדי לבזותה, מכאן לבנות ישראל שגלוי הראש גנאי להן:
[7] According to the Mishna in Sotah (found in the Talmud Bavli Sotah 7a), this is one of the things said to the suspected woman, in hopes that she admit her guilt.

[8] See Rashi Bamidbar 6:11 based on Talmud Bavli Nazir 19a.
רש"י במדבר פרק ו
(יא) מאשר חטא על הנפש - שלא נזהר מטומאת המת, רבי אלעזר הקפר אומר שציער עצמו מן היין:
[9] The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21a) records this fact in the context of a discussion regarding Tamar, and we know from the Biblical text that she was Avshalom’s full sister.
Rav Yehuda further said in Rav's name: Tamar was a daughter of a yefat to'ar, as it is written, Now therefore I pray thee, speak unto the King, for he will not withhold me from thee. Now, should you imagine that she was the offspring of a legitimate marriage, how could his sister have been granted him [in marriage]? We must infer therefore, that she was the daughter of a yefat-to'ar.
[10] See the comments of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin in Yisrael Kedoshim section six, who says that Avshalom hated Amnon for his sexual indiscretions.
ספר ישראל קדושים - אות ו
ובושתי לא נאמר שהיתה יפה באמת רק להראות העמים והשרים את יפיה שלמראה עיניהם השקועים בתאוות רעות ופרוצים בעריות היו נראה יופי אבל בכל מקום שיספר הכתוב יופי בעצם ובאמת. אינו אלא במי שמוגדר מערוה. וכאבשלום שנאמר עליו (שמואל - ב י"ד, כ"ה) לא היה איש יפה בכל ישראל להלל וגו' היה נזיר המופרש מתאוות ועל כן קינא על זנות אמנון. וכן מה שנאמר עליו (שם) מכף רגליו ועד קדקדו לא היה בו מום ודאי הכוונה מה שהוא מום רע על האמת אצל התורה. דהיינו חסרון וקלקול בקדושת שום אבר כי היה בתכלית השלימות ועל כן טעו כל ישראל אחריו. ונאמר (שם ט"ו, ו') ויגנב אבשלום את לב אנשי ישראל היינו במה שהאמינו בו שהוא צדיק גמור:

[11] See the comments of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin, ibid.
ספר ישראל קדושים - אות ו
ובאמת היה בו חסרון בשורש, שהיה בן יפת תואר ועל ידי זה נעשה בן סורר ומורה. …
ואבשלום נתגאה בשערו כמו שאמרו בסוטה (ט' ע"ב) היינו שחשב שהוא נזר אלהיו שעל ראשו. ושורשו דרע מיפת תואר הוא בתאוה והוא היפך מזה מוגדר בכל תאוות גופניות וכן נזר אלהיו הוא היפך הגאות. אבל כל תאוה שלו היה לכתר המלכות וזה התאוה זרה שהיה בו בשורשו הנעלם בהעלם עצום ובגניבה גמור בכל שלושה חלקי נפש רוח נשמה שהם מתפשטים בכוחות הגוף ובמדותיו ואפשר למבין להכירם. וזהו השלושה לבבות ששנינו שם שגנב לב אביו היינו מצד החכמה שבמוח. ולב בית דין היינו מצד הבינה שבלב. ולב כל ישראל היינו מצד כוחות הנפש המתפשטים בכל איברי הגוף והיא שהביאתו להיות כסורר ומורה:

[12] Writings of Menachem Azarya Defano, Sefer Gilgulay Nishamot ot aleph section 20.
כתבי הרמ"ע מפאנו - ספר גלגולי נשמות - אות א
[כ] אבשלום בא באדם נזיר הנזכר בנדרים פרק קמא [ט' ב'], תניא אמר (רבי) שמעון הצדיק מימי לא אכלתי אשם נזיר [טמא] אלא (פעם) אחד, [פעם אחת] בא אדם אחד [נזיר] מן הדרום (ונזיר היה), וראיתיו [שהוא] יפה עינים וטוב רואי כו', הוא תיקונו של אבשלום, שם היה שערו סבה כי נתגאה בשערו, והיה נזיר כדאיתא בנזיר, והבחור הלזה היה נזיר לגלחם לשמים, וכאן בשערות היה תיקונו בסוד שערות אדם הראשון:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Parshat Ba’midbar 5769 -The Danger of Holiness

Parshat Ba’midbar 5769

Rabbi Ari Kahn

The Danger of Holiness

As the Parsha and the new book "B'midbar" ("Numbers") open, Moshe is instructed to take a census of the males aged twenty and above, all those who are fit for military service.

במדבר פרק א

(א) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר: (ב) שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת כָּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם: (ג) מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה כָּל יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל תִּפְקְדוּ אֹתָם לְצִבְאֹתָם אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן: (ד) וְאִתְּכֶם יִהְיוּ אִישׁ אִישׁ לַמַּטֶּה אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא:

1. And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out from the land of Egypt, saying, 2. Take a census of all the congregation of the People of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; 3. From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aharon shall count them by their armies. 4. And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one chief of the house of his fathers. B’midbar 1:1-4

A Different Counting

In the fourth chapter of B'midbar, another group is counted - a group that was excluded from the earlier census: the Levites. The range of the census is markedly different; the Levites are counted from the age of 30, and not 20 as were all other men.

במדבר פרק ד

(א) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר: (ב) נָשֹׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי קְהָת מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי לֵוִי לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם: (ג) מִבֶּן שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה וְעַד בֶּן חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה כָּל בָּא לַצָּבָא לַעֲשׂוֹת מְלָאכָה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:

1. And God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, 2. Take a census of the sons of Kehat from among the sons of Levi, after their families, by the house of their fathers, 3. From thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all who enter into the army, to do the work in the Tent of Meeting. B'midbar 4:1-3

The difference is more than simply ten years, more than a mere mathematical percentage of lifespan. In terms of experience, maturity, perspective, the gap between a 20- year-old and a 30-year-old is extreme. Apparently, the task reserved for the Levi’im was a solemn one, a weighty one, requiring insight, maturity and levelheaded thinking.

במדבר פרק ד

(ד) זֹאת עֲבֹדַת בְּנֵי קְהָת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים:

4. This shall be the service of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting, the most holy things; B’midbar 4:4

Indeed, the work of the Levi’im involved the holiest item in the Mishkan – the Ark. The next verse contains instructions regarding the covering of the Ark:

במדבר פרק ד

(ה) וּבָא אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו בִּנְסֹעַ הַמַּחֲנֶה וְהוֹרִדוּ אֵת פָּרֹכֶת הַמָּסָךְ וְכִסּוּ בָהּ אֵת אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת:

5. And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering veil, and cover the Ark of Testimony with it.

The Burden of the Kehat family

The particular family entrusted to carry the Ark was the family of Kehat. This chore was fraught with danger:

במדבר פרק ד

(טו) וְכִלָּה אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו לְכַסֹּת אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת כָּל כְּלֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ בִּנְסֹעַ הַמַּחֲנֶה וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבֹאוּ בְנֵי קְהָת לָשֵׂאת וְלֹא יִגְּעוּ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ אֵלֶּה מַשָּׂא בְנֵי קְהָת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:

15. And when Aharon and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary, and all the utensils of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to carry it; but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting.

These instructions sound ominous: “lest they die”, “they shall not touch any holy thing”, “the burden of the sons of Kehat”. God adds an additional comment, designed to save the family of Kehat from this precarious situation:

במדבר פרק ד

(יז) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר: (יח) אַל תַּכְרִיתוּ אֶת שֵׁבֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַקְּהָתִי מִתּוֹךְ הַלְוִיִּם: (יט) וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּגִשְׁתָּם אֶת קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יָבֹאוּ וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ וְאֶל מַשָּׂאוֹ: (כ) וְלֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ: פ

17. And God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, 18. Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kehatites from among the Levites; 19. But thus do to them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach the most holy things; Aharon and his sons shall go in, and appoint them each to his service and to his burden; 20. But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die. B'midbar 4:17-20

This last line contains a word whose meaning is unclear: k’vala. The translation offered here is based upon Rashi's[1] explanation of this word as "to cover". Literally rendered, the word k'vala means "as it is swallowed". The Ramban offers a mystical explanation: The holiness was so overwhelming that it was beyond the capacity of human perception: anyone who beheld it would be "swallowed up", consumed or subsumed by holiness.[2]

The mission of the sons of Kehat was such that their lives were in peril every time they performed their assigned task; such is the price for proximity to holiness.

The core of this holiness was encapsulated in the Ark which housed the Tablets of Testimony, the Word of God, inscribed and transcribed by God. As the Ramban describes it, the holiness of Sinai was transferred to the Mishkan.[3] At Sinai, the epicenter of holiness was the Decalogue, the Ten Statements uttered by God. In the Mishkan, these same words were to be found on the Tablets in the Ark. The medium had shifted, but the holiness was the same.

At Sinai, the words were accompanied by sounds and lights, thunder and lightning. The entire mountain was holy, and no man or beast was permitted to touch the mountain – any infringement on this holy space would result in death. That same holiness now resided in the Mishkan, and the consequences of violating that holiness remained unchanged. Moving the Ark posed a supreme challenge: it must be done with the utmost respect and care.

Man’s Orientation to Holiness

Holiness fascinates and terrifies man. We are drawn toward it, despite the danger, yet we are frightened – frightened of knowledge which obligates, scared of truth which could be life-altering. We are terrified by the intensity. And we are scared of the possible consequences - death. Nonetheless, as if pulled by a magnet, we find holiness irresistible. This was true during the Revelation at Sinai, and it is true today. At Sinai, the text reflects both the attraction and the terror felt by the people: The mountain had to be fenced off, and the people severely warned and carefully prepared in order to keep them from breaking through the barriers and attempting to approach the unapproachable. On the other hand, the Israelites recoiled at the mountain, afraid to hear the Word of God directly – afraid of death, of being consumed by the holiness.

שמות פרק כ

(טו) וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק:(טז) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה וְאַל יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹהִים פֶּן נָמוּת:(יז) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי לְבַעֲבוּר נַסּוֹת אֶתְכֶם בָּא הָאֱלֹהִים וּבַעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל פְּנֵיכֶם לְבִלְתִּי תֶחֱטָאוּ: (יח) וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם מֵרָחֹק וּמֹשֶׁה נִגַּשׁ אֶל הָעֲרָפֶל אֲשֶׁר שָׁם הָאֱלֹהִים: פ

15. And all the people saw the thunder and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood far away.16. And they said to Moshe, Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. 17. And Moshe said to the people, 'Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not.' 18. And the people stood far away, and Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was. Sh’mot 20:15-18

Yet we are told that there were individuals who felt comfortable. They ate and drank in the midst of this singular revelation of holiness; they looked on unabashedly, luxuriously, and saw what should have remained unseen.

שמות פרק כד

(ט) וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא וְשִׁבְעִים מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: (י) וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר: (יא) וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ: ס

9. Then Moshe, and Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up; 10. And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11. And upon the nobles of the People of Israel he laid not his hand; also they saw God, and ate and drank.

These mutually exclusive, contradictory feelings coexist within man. In fact, in comments on the verse that discusses the perils of the Kehatites' task, the Midrash identifies both sides.

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ה ד"ה א אל תכריתו

א"ר אלעזר בן פדת בשם ר' יוסי בן זמרא בשעה שהיו ישראל נוסעין היו שני ניצוצין של אש יוצאין מתוך שני בדיו של ארון כדי לפגוע שונאיהם ומניין שכן משה אומר לישראל מה אתם מתייראין מן בני ענק וכי קשים הם מאותן שהיו באים כנגדנו והיה הארון שורפן וכן הוא אומר (דברים ט) וידעת היום כי ה' אלהיך הוא העובר לפניך וגו' מכאן אתה דורש שהיו ב' ניצוצין מקדמין לפניהם אמר להם הוא ישמידם והוא יכניעם לפניך

R. Eleazar b. Pedat, in the name of R. Yose b. Zimra, said: When Israel were on their journeys, two sparks of fire would emerge from the two staves of the ark to strike their enemies. Whence do you know this? Because Moshe in effect asks Israel: 'Why should you be afraid of the sons of Anak? Are they harder to conquer than those who came against us and were burned by the Ark?' And so he says to them: 'Know therefore this day, that The Almighty, Your God is He who goes over before you as a devouring fire' (Devarim 9, 3). From this you may infer that two sparks advanced before them, and so he said to them: 'He will destroy them, and He will bring them down before you (ib.)'. B'midbar Rabbah 5:1

The Midrash describes a power emanating from the Holy Ark which is reminiscent of Sinai; the Midrash continues and tells how this power also burned those who carried the Ark.

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ה ד"ה א אל תכריתו

וכיון שהיו הניצוצין יוצאין היתה האש שפה בטעוני הארון והיו נשרפים ומתמעטין ומנין שהיו שבט קהת ממועט אלא כשם שאמר ר"א בן פדת בשם ר"י בן זמרא מתוך שהיתה האש יוצאת ושפה בטועני הארון היו מתמעטין והיו כל א' וא' רצין זה נוטל את השלחן וזה נוטל את המנורה וזה נוטל את המזבחות ובורחים מן הארון מפני שהיה מזיקן והיה הארון כאלו מתבזה והיה הקב"ה כועס עליהם ושוב היו מתכלין אמר הקב"ה למשה מה אני הורג בני קהת אם יטענו הרי מתמעטין ואם לא יטענו הרי כעס עליהם א"ל הקב"ה למשה ולאהרן עשו להם תקנה לבני קהת כדי שלא יכרתו מן העולם שלא יהו מניחין ובורחין אל תכריתו את שבט וגו' אלא יבא אהרן ובניו ושמו אותן איש איש על עבודתו ואל משאו כדי שלא יוכלו להתחלף מעבודה לעבודה וממשא למשא הה"ד (במדבר ד) וזאת עשו להם וחיו וגו'

Now when the sparks came out the fire grazed those that bore the ark and so they were burned and reduced in numbers. How do you know that the tribe of Kehat suffered depletion? You find that three families carried all the vessels of the Tabernacle. Gershon carried all the woven articles: the curtains, the veil of the screen, and the hangings. The family of Kehat carried the Ark, the Table, the Menora, the Altars, and the vessels of the Sanctuary. Merari carried the boards, the bars, the pillars, and the sockets. … Why was it so? As R. Eleazar b. Pedath said in the name of R. Jose b. Zimra: Their numbers were depleted because the fire came out and grazed those that carried the Ark. In consequence everybody would run elsewhere; one would take the Table, another would take the Menora, and a third would take the Altars, and they would all flee from the Ark because it inflicted damage upon them, and so it seemed as though the Ark was being slighted, whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, was angry with them and they were again consumed. B'midbar Rabbah 5:1

They were frightened, they were burned, their numbers depleted. Their quandary was clear: How can they carry the Ark? The task is far too dangerous. How can they not carry the Ark? Rejecting an opportunity for holiness proved equally dangerous. And yet, the Midrash tells us of their desire, despite the danger, to embrace and carry the Ark:

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ה ד"ה א אל תכריתו

רבי שמואל בר נחמן אמר ח"ו לא היו בני קהת מניחין את הארון ורצין לשלחן ומנורה אלא אע"פ שמתמעטין היו נותנין נפשם על הארון ואם כן למה היה מזהיר עליהם אל תכריתו את שבט וגו' אלא מפני שהיו יודעין שכל מי שטוען בארון שכרו מרובה והיו מניחין את השלחן והמנורה והמזבחות וכולן רצין לארון ליטול שכר ומתוך כך היה זה מריב ואומר אני טוען כאן וזה מריב ואומר אני טוען כאן ומתוך כך היו נוהגין בקלות ראש והיתה השכינה פוגעת בהם אמר האלהים למשה עשה להם תקנה כדי שלא יתכלו מן העולם אל תכריתו וגו' אלא יסדרו אותם על עבודתם ועל משאם שלא יריבו זה עם זה עשה להם משה תקנה אלא שהיו מריבין זה כנגד זה זה אומר אני טוען בארון וזה אומר לאו אלא אני טוען ולא היה יודע אחד מהו קבוע לו מהו משאו אמר הקב"ה והיו אהרן ובניו נכנסין ונותנים לכל אחד ואחד טעונו שנאמר ואהרן ובניו יבאו ושמו אותם וגו'.

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: Heaven forfend! The sons of Kehat did not abandon the Ark and run to the Table and the Menora. On the contrary, even though their numbers dwindled they gave their lives for the Ark, and the only reason why He warned them, CUT YE NOT OFF THE TRIBE, etc., is because they knew that whoever carried the Ark would have great reward in store for him, and so they left the Table, the Menora, and the Altars and they all ran to the Ark in order to obtain reward. In consequence quarrelling would break out; one would insist and say, ' I am going to carry it here,’ and another would insist and say, ' I am going to carry it here.’ As a result they would behave irreverently, and the Shechina would strike them. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore said to Moshe: 'Make some provision to safeguard them so that they may not be exterminated from the world; CUT NOT OFF, etc., but let them be arranged properly in their service and in their burden so that they may not quarrel with each other. So Moshe instituted a measure for their protection. However, they still quarrelled with each other, one saying, ‘I shall carry the Ark’ and another saying, ' No, I shall carry it,’ and no one knew what was definitely his duty or what was his burden. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore said: ‘Then let Aharon and his sons go in and assign to each one his burden ‘; as it says: AHARON AND HIS SONS SHALL GO IN, AND APPOINT THEM, etc. B'midbar Rabbah 5:1

The Midrash records a disagreement among the Rabbis. Apparently, the point of debate goes beyond the precise historical accounting of what transpired in the Mishkan; the rabbis debated the meaning and necessity of this "additional" verse to protect the sons of Kehat, "Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kehatites from among the Levites." Both rabbinic opinions express authentic human feelings and reactions to holiness, even holiness fraught with danger: On the one hand, a desire to run away, and on the other hand a desire to embrace the task with disregard for personal safety.


Embracing holiness, while perhaps preferable to running away, holds its own dangers: Familiarity with the holy may erode the awe which should accompany every moment spent in the proximity of something holy. The Midrash laments the implications of such nonchalance:

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ה ד"ה ד ד"א אל

ד"א אל תכריתו וגו' מה כתיב למעלה וידבר ה' אל משה ואל אהרן אמר ר' לוי מה עסקו של אהרן נזכר כאן אלא שהוא נותן רמז לבני קהת ואומר להם תנו דעתכם שלא לנהוג בקלות ראש ולהכנס אצל הארון אם נהגתם בו בקלות ראש למדו מבני אהרן אמר בני אהרן בשביל שנכנסו שלא ברשות מה כתיב בהן (ויקרא י) ותצא אש מלפני ה' ותאכל אותם אף אתם תנו דעתכם שלא יגיע לכם כשם שהגיע לבני אהרן

"And God spoke unto Moshe and unto Aharon" (B'Midbar 4, 17). Why, asked R. Levi, should Aharon be mentioned here? Because He gives a hint to the sons of Kehat, saying to them in effect: ‘Take good heed not to be irreverent when you enter the place where the Ark is; for if you would behave with irreverence towards it, take a lesson from the sons of Aharon. The sons of Aharon,’ said He, ‘entered without permission, and what does Scripture state concerning them? And there came forth fire from before God, and devoured them (Vayikra 10, 2). Take note, therefore, in your turn, lest what befell them befall you! 'B'midbar Rabbah 5:4

The sons of Kehat are warned not to suffer the same fate as the sons of Aharon: Every detail of their task must be performed with precise adherence to the rules set by God. Approximation of the rules, deviance from those rules, taking the rules lightly or failing to treat the task with the appropriate seriousness would result in death. Both the nature and the messenger of this warning offer a very painful reminder of how even the slightest infraction can end. The case of the sons of Aharon was all too familiar to the generation of Kehatites receiving this warning, but did not end there. There is an archetypical episode which occurred in the Beit Hamikdash, recorded in the Mishna and Talmud: Two kohanim, rushing to perform divine service, jostled for position and one fell and broke his foot:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף כב עמוד א

משנה. בראשונה, כל מי שרוצה לתרום את המזבח - תורם. ובזמן שהן מרובין - רצין ועולין בכבש, כל הקודם את חבירו בארבע אמות - זכה. ואם היו שניהן שוין - הממונה אומר להן: הצביעו. ומה הן מוציאין - אחת או שתים. ואין מוציאין אגודל במקדש. מעשה שהיו שניהם שוין ורצין ועולין בכבש, ודחף אחד מהן את חבירו ונפל ונשברה רגלו. וכיון שראו בית דין שבאין לידי סכנה - התקינו שלא יהו תורמין את המזבח אלא בפייס. ארבע פייסות היו שם, וזה הפייס הראשון.

Mishnah. Originally whosoever desired to remove [the ashes from] the Altar did so. If they were many, they would run and mount the ramp [of the Altar] and he that came first within four cubits obtained the privilege… It once happened that two were even as they ran to mount the ramp. One of them pushed his fellow who fell and broke his leg. When the court saw that they incurred danger, they ordained that the Altar be cleared only by casting lots. There were four lots; this is the first. Mishna, Talmud Bavli Yoma 22a

The kohanim in this episode seem to suffer from sort of tunnel vision. They lose sight of the larger picture, and in their zeal and their eagerness to perform the exalted, holy task, the kohanim push and shove so that they can merit this opportunity to serve God.[4] And if that story isn’t bad enough, the Talmud cites an even more disturbing episode - a tale so horrific that it leads inexorably to the destruction of the Temple:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף כג עמוד א

תָּנוּ רַבָּנָן, מַעֲשֶׂה בִשְׁנֵי כֹהֲנִים שֶׁהָיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם שָׁוִים וְרָצִים, וְעוֹלִים בַּכֶּבֶשׁ, קָדַם אֶחָד מֵהֶם לְתוֹךְ אַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת שֶׁל חֲבֵרוֹ, נָטַל סַכִּין וְתָקַע לוֹ בְלִבּוֹ. עָמַד רַבִּי צָדוֹק עַל מַעֲלוֹת הָאוּלָם (בהר הבית) וְאָמַר, אַחֵינוּ בֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁמָעוּ. הֲרֵי הוּא אוֹמֵר, (דברים כא) "כִּי יִמָּצֵא חָלָל בָּאֲדָמָה, וְיָצְאוּ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְשֹׁפְטֶיךָ". אָנוּ, עַל מִי לְהָבִיא עֶגְלָה [עֲרוּפָה]? עַל הָעִיר? אוֹ עַל הָעֲזָרוֹת? גָּעוּ כָל הָעָם בִּבְכִיָּה. בָּא אָבִיו שֶׁל תִּינוֹק, וּמְצָאוֹ כְּשֶׁהוּא מְפַרְפֵּר, וְאָמַר לָהֶם, הֲרֵי הוּא כַּפָּרַתְכֶם, וַעֲדַיִן בְּנִי מְפַרְפֵּר, וְלֹא נִטְמָא הַסַּכִּין. לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁקָּשָׁה עֲלֵיהֶם טָהֲרַת כֵּלִים יוֹתֵר מִשְּׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים. וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר, (מ"ב כא) "וְגַם דָּם נָקִי שָׁפַךְ מְנַשֶּׁה הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד" וְגוֹ'. עָמַד רַבִּי צָדוֹק עַל מַעֲלוֹת הָאוּלָם בְּהַר הַבַּיִת כו'.

IT ONCE HAPPENED THAT TWO WERE EVEN AS THEY RAN TO MOUNT THE RAMP. Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two kohanim were equal as they ran to mount the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the Altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. R. Zadok stood on the steps of the Hall and said: Our brethren of the House of Israel, hear ye! Behold it says: If one be found slain in the land... then thy elders and judges shall come forth. . On whose behalf shall we offer the heifer whose neck is to be broken, on behalf of the city or on behalf of the Temple Courts? All the people burst out weeping. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: ‘May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.’ [His remark] comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood. Thus is it also said: Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other. Talmud Bavli Yoma 23a

The knife plunged into the heart of the Kohen did not kill only one person; it killed the Beit Hamikdash, and caused holiness itself to be exiled. This is tunnel vision in the extreme – extreme attention to minutiae of the law and utter disregard of the larger purpose, the spirit of holiness and awe with which one must approach the Sanctuary. Familiarity, routine practice of ritual to the point where the sense of awe had disappeared, caused destruction and devastation. These men allowed themselves to be "swallowed up" by the holiness, and the holiness disappeared.


We find a in a later episode in the Torah a descendant of Kehat who speaks of holiness:

במדבר פרק טז

(א) וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי (ג) וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְקֹוָק וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְקֹוָק:

1. Korah, the son of Yizhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi took, …3. And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of God?

Korah is not satisfied with being a Levi; he jockeys for position, angles for an opportunity to be a Kohen – to be Kohen Gadol. At first glance this seems strange: Surely Korah, a son of one of the Levitic families, was aware of the tremendous responsibility, the awesome task – and the potential for disaster – in the position he sought. Surely, he knew of the peril[5] that a Kohen Gadol would endure if he were to blunder when entering the Holy of Holies.[6] The test Moshe suggests is to bring incense. Surely Korah knew what fate befell Nadav and Avihu when they brought the unsanctioned k’toret. How could he imagine that he would survive? Why would Korach wish to endanger himself?

When we realize that Korach as a son of Kehat has already been endangering himself – every time the Ark was moved - we may gain insight into his personality, or more importantly his state of mind. Carrying the Ark – both the proximity to such holiness and the danger involved - must have been exhilarating. At the same time, this task required tremendous focus: the older, more mature sons of Kehat were expected to remain constantly aware of their place, constantly focused on the task they must accomplish, constantly mindful of their limitations, vigilantly differentiating between the things that they were permitted to look at and the things that were beyond their capacity to comprehend. Only in this focused state of mind could they survive and continue to serve in their unique role.

Korach lost focus. He shifted his gaze, and began to view his task in terms of the perception of others, and he became dissatisfied with himself and his task. In that mindset, his life was in danger each time he ventured into the Mishkan. Carrying the Ark became a form of “Russian roulette”, and the terror of this life-and-death situation may have led Korach to behave recklessly, in ways typical of sufferers of post-traumatic stress. Korach may have asked himself, 'If I am to endanger myself, to look death in the face time and time again, then why do it as a Levi, as a glorified moving man? If I am to take the risks, why not enjoy the glory of the spotlight?' Korach seeks out the one task that will hold even greater risks, but will entail commensurate respect and fame, a position that places him at the spearhead of the entire nation's hopes and prayers.

The erosive effect of constant exposure to holiness and to danger brought about his nonchalant attitude toward holiness and danger. Despite the precautions instituted to insure that the sons of Kehat not be "swallowed up" by their awesome task, Korach looked where he should not have looked. Driven by ego and tortured by stress, he made himself at home with the holiness, became too familiar with the danger, and he was swallowed up by the ground.

Here, then, is the challenge for all of us in our personal journey towards greater spirituality and holiness: We must continue to be cognizant of real holiness, to treat it with proper respect, to embrace it to the extent that we are allowed. But we must maintain the distance required of us, safeguarding the awe of things that are holy. While we seek God, we must avoid the nonchalant familiarity which is born of egotism and narcissism. We must look and listen when possible, and cover our eyes in modesty and respect when required. Only in this way can we appreciate holiness and avoid being swallowed by it.

[1] It is likewise explained by Targum Unkelus and R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra.

רש"י על במדבר פרק ד פסוק כ

(כ) ולא יבאו לראות כבלע את הקדש - לתוך נרתק שלו כמו שפירשתי למעלה בפרשה זו ופרשו עליו בגד פלוני וכסו אותו במכסה פלונית ובלוע שלו הוא כסויו:

[2] See Ramban 4:20

רמב"ן על במדבר פרק ד פסוק כ

אבל ע"ד האמת טעם הכתוב, כי בעבור היות כבוד יושב הכרובים שם הוזהרו הלוים שלא יהרסו לראות את ה' עד שיורידו הכהנים את הפרכת, כי אז תראה הכבוד בחביון עזו, וישוב אל מקומו הראשון לקדש הקדשים, ויהיה כבלע את הקדש כפשוטו והמשכיל יבין:

[3] See Ramban Sh’mot 25:2

רמב"ן שמות פרק כה

וסוד המשכן הוא, שיהיה הכבוד אשר שכן על הר סיני שוכן עליו בנסתר.

[4] See comments of the Seforno, who certainly has this Gemara is mind in his commentary to the verses speaking about the family of Kehat, B’midbar 4:18,19

ספורנו עה"ת ספר במדבר פרק ד פסוק יח

(יח) אל תכריתו. אל תניחו את המשאות באופן שיזכה בהם כל הקודם, כי בזה האופן יקרה שידחפו זה את זה ויחללו את הקודש, וזה יהיה סבה להכריתם, כמו שסיפרו ז"ל שקרה בתרומת הדשן:

(יט) ושמו אותם איש איש על עבודתו ואל משאו. ולא שיהיה כל הקודם זוכה, אבל ימתין כל אחד להיות מצווה ועושה:

[5] See Talmud Bavli Yoma 8b -9a,19b.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: What is the meaning of the passage, 'The fear of God prolongs days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened'? 'The fear of God prolongs days' refers to the first Sanctuary, which remained standing for four hundred and ten years and in which there served only eighteen high priests. But 'the years of the wicked shall be shortened' refers to the second Sanctuary, which abided for four hundred and twenty years and at which more than three hundred [high] priests served. Take off therefrom the forty years which Simeon the Righteous served, eighty years which Johanan the high priest served, ten, which Ishmael b. Fabi served, or, as some say, the eleven years of R. Eleazar b. Harsum. Count [the number of high priests] from then on and you will find that none of them completed his year [in office].

[6] The teaching that a rope was tied to the Kohen Gadol in the event he dies while performing the service is found in the Zohar Vayikra 102a.

R. Isaac said: ‘A cord was tied to the feet of the High Priest before he entered the Holy of Holies, so that if he died suddenly within they should be able to draw him out.