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Parshat Nasso

Spiritual insight and sensitivity

Our parsha describes the division of labor between the different sects of Levites, the sons of Gershon, Kehat, and Merari. This division is not arbitrary, the task assigned to each family reflects the level of their connection to spirituality. In his book The Kuzari Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi draws an analogy between the vessels of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the different parts of the body:

And for the most honored of the sects of Levites… they are the sons of Kehat [who are tasked] to carry the inner organs, like the ark, the table, the menorah, the altars, and the holy vessels that serve them…

And of the Levites below them, the sons of Gershon [are tasked with] carrying the soft outer organs, and they are the curtains of the Mishkan and the Tent of Meeting its cover, and the tachash cover,

And below them the sons of Merari carry the hard limbs, the planks, bars, pillars, and sockets. (Kuzari, Book II, 26)


Out of all the Levite families it was the sons of Kehat who were chosen to perform the most delicate task, carrying the holy vessels themselves. The other families split the burden of carrying the outer sections that surrounded the vessels of the Mishkan. The difference in status is reflected in a technical difference between the sons of Kehat and the other two families. At the end of the parsha the text mentions that Moshe divided the carts and oxen that the tribal princes brought as gifts to the Mishkan between the families of Gershon and Merari. And yet, “and he did not give to the sons of Kehat, because it is for them to carry the holy work on their shoulders.” (Bamidbar 7, 6-9) The carts and oxen were meant to be transport carriers for the screens, planks, and other pieces that composed the structure of the Mishkan. The sons of Kehat did not need them because they were meant to carry their burdens themselves. Apparently the holy vessels of the Mishkan may not merely be placed in a cart; they must be carried on the shoulders.


A few hundred years after the ark was carried through the desert, King David decided to bring the ark from its obscure, temporary abode up to the City of David. On this occasion Uzza and Achio put the Ark of God in a cart instead of carrying it on their shoulders.

And David got up and went, and all the people that were with him, from Baalei-Yehudah to bring up from there the Ark of God that is called by the name “The Name of God, Lord of Hosts, Who dwells upon the Keruvim, is upon it.” And they transported the Ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it from the House of Avinadav that was in Gibea, and Uzza and Achio, the sons of Avinadav, guided the new wagon. (Shmuel II 6, 2-3)

This joyous event was brought to an abrupt halt when Uzza put his hand out to steady the ark after the oxen stumble, God’s anger flared against him and he died immediately. The text relates the sadness of this tragedy alongside David’s anger at the incident. (ibid, v. 7)

The Talmud explains Uzza’s death was related to the decision to carry the ark on a cart: 

God said to him [David]:… You call them [the words of Torah] songs?

Behold I will cause you to fail with something that even tinokot shel beit rabban (children [learning in] the house of the rabbi) know,

As it says: “and he did not give [a cart] to the sons of Kehat” etc.
And he [David] brought a cart.” (T.B. Sotah 35a)


According to this gemara, we learn from lack of a cart that the ark can only be transported by carrying it on the shoulders; this is something that even the schoolchildren know. This may seem strange, since there is no clearly stated instruction in the text, no line that states that the ark may not be transported on a cart or must be carried on the shoulders. Rather, this obligation is learned obit dicta, in passing. The instruction was given in such a way that Moshe, and perhaps also the sons of Kehat, were able to infer what to do on their own.


In fact, this instruction is based on simple human intuition. These vessels are held closely and carefully as an expression of the closeness and humility we are meant to feel in the presence of sanctity. It shows the proper awe and fear we are meant to display for the sanctified vessels of the Mishkan. Whosoever is unaware of the difference between carrying a vessel by hand and transporting it on a cart clearly suffers from a basic lack of understanding that is difficult to repair, a startling insensitivity to holiness. It should be intuitive that there are certain things we do not place in a cart, things that we must protect ourselves, hold close to our bodies, carry with the appropriate sentiment, and shield from all harm that presents itself.


One of the other opinions in the gemara has a much more radical understanding of Uzza’s death. It explains: “He relieved himself before it [the ark].” This explanation is not necessarily meant to described the actual events that took place; rather it seems more likely that it is an attempt to give dramatic literary expression to Uzza’s flagrant disrespect for the ark. The harsh imagery is a colorful portrayal of the severity of Uzza’s lack of spiritual sensitivity.

This specific law concerning the ark has been interpreted as an imperative for future generations. There are those that explain that the proper way to display respect for a Torah scroll is by supporting it on one’s shoulder when transporting it from one place to another. As the Sefer HaChinuch remarks:

Because the essence of Israel’s honor is the Torah, through which they were distinguished from all other nations and made the portion of God, therefore it is appropriate and proper to carry it on the shoulder of honored and holy people among us, and there is no need to elaborate on things that are understood by tinokot shel beit rabban. (Mitzvah 379)

While this is a quote from the section of the mitzvah “to carry the ark on the shoulders” the author of the Sfeer Hachinuch does not directly connect the two. He does not use a halachic source to reinforce the obligation to carry a Torah scroll in our arms; instead he bases it on svara, logical reasoning. The basis of this approach is simple human intuition, “understood by tinokot shel beit rabban.”


Practically, the principle lesson we must learn from the ark is that sacred objects must be treated with the appropriate caution and sensitivity. It is not possible to derive the exact laws that dictate how each one should be treated from any halachic work of note, rather each one of us is expected to acquire the consciousness necessary to understand this on their own and to act accordingly. One must develop the spiritual sensitivity to discern between what is pragmatic and what is proper, to have a sense of awe in the presence of sanctity and to respond appropriately. It’s clear that someone carrying the ark or a Torah scroll should not do so in the same way he would carry a desk or a dictionary.Similarly, a dead body is also only transported by hand. One who is handling a corpse must be able to discern between the technical tasks he must perform and the fact that before him lays a human body created in the image of God which must be handled with the appropriate dignity. Finally, someone who is binding holy books must see beyond the tasks of gluing and stitching and understand the honorable charge they have to respectfully cover the eternal words of Torah.


This spiritual sensitivity we must cultivate goes beyond holy objects. One example can be found in the festival of Shavuot we just celebrated:

There it says: “And it was on the third day in the morning and there was thunder and lightning.” And Moshe woke Israel up and took them out to the ceremony of the King, King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He.

And then it says, “Moshe took out the people to greet God…” (Shmot 19)

Rabbi Yitzchak said for this Yishayahu chastises Israel, as it says (Yishayahu 50), “Why do I come and there is no one? I call and there is no answer? Is My hand too short to grant redemption?” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1)

This midrash criticizes the People of Israel because they slept the night before they received the Torah, a night they should have spent anxiously preparing for the big day. Practically speaking it is a good idea to be rested in anticipation of such an exhilarating occasion, but such utilitarian thinking betrays a lack of spiritual sensitivity. It seems the people did not understand the grandeur and sanctity of their imminent experience.

Therefore it is possible that the all night learning that is still customary, the Tikkun (lit. repair) of Shavuot night, is a halachic repair (tikkun) meant to fix this historical mistake. (Magen Avraham, O.C. 494) The Tikkun on Shavuot does not merely call on us all to work to repair these past errors in judgment, it also provides us with the chance to do so- to seize the opportunity for tremendous spiritual growth and healing.



Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780