Numbers Guarding the Mishkan: Peril and Possibility
As depicted in the book of Numbers, the task of creating holy community is truly daunting. Journeying through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, the Israelites stumble from crisis to crisis, none more toxic than the one in this week’s Torah portion.
A Levitical chieftain named Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of lording it over the Israelite community and abusing their status as leaders. Appearing before them with 250 other tribal leaders, Korach cries: “You have gone too far! All of the community are holy, and God is in their midst; why do you raise yourselves up above the community?” (Numbers 16:3)
On the face of it, Korach appears to be speaking on behalf of the people. Yet Moses interprets Korach’s and his followers’ complaint not as a cry for democracy, but as a power ploy: He accuses them of being dissatisfied in their supporting role as Levites and out to attain the full power of the priesthood (restricted to Aaron and his sons) for themselves.
To tamp down the revolt, Moses — with God’s help — causes the earth to open and swallow up Korach’s family, while the 250 other rebels are consumed by a fire flaming out from the Mishkan, the sanctuary. The larger Israelite community, quickly disintegrating into an unruly mob, is struck by a plague, and 14,000 people die. By the end of this troubling narrative, the Israelites are fearful and suspicious of the most holy object in their midst — the Mishkan itself — crying out, “Here, we perish, we are lost, all of us are lost! Anyone who comes near the Mishkan of YHVH will die…” (Numbers 17:27)
Perhaps the Mishkan itself — symbol of God’s presence, product of the collective effort of the entire Israelite people — was at the root of the community’s distress. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were an undifferentiated mass. Structure was needed in order for them to enter into covenantal relationship with one another and with God. At Sinai, they received ritual and ethical laws and an entire religious system, with the Mishkan at its center. It was built in order to enable the entire Israelite community to experience Godliness in their midst.
But its creation also entailed hierarchy — a priestly caste (Aaron and his sons), supported by the rest of the tribe of Levi, who were tasked with carrying and assembling and protecting the Mishkan and aiding the priests in their duties. To be a Levite was to have a special relationship with the sanctuary, but to be on a second rung when it came to priestly power. How and why did this combination of holy service and holy hierarchy become a problematic brew for Korach and his followers?
The special nature of the Levites’ service is emphasized immediately following the people’s fearful cry at the end of chapter 17. In chapter 18, Aaron receives from God a clear delineation of his family’s responsibilities for the sanctuary, as well as the Levite’s roles vis-à-vis the Mishkan. In verse 3, Aaron is told that “(the Levites) shall guard their duties to you and to the Tent”; in verse 5, “You are to guard the duties of the holy shrine.” The Mishkan is precious to the Levites, and it defines their role in the world. They are instructed to “guard it” — “lishmor” — but what does that mean?
In the Mishnah, we find a humorous description of the Levites “guarding” the Temple in Jerusalem:
In three places the priests guarded the Temple … and the Levites in twenty-one places … A “man of the Temple Mount” was appointed to make the rounds of the watches of the entire night, with burning torches before him. If any sentry failed to stand up and say, “Man of the Temple Mount, peace be upon you,” it was evident that he (the guard) was sleeping, and the man of the Temple Mount would hit him with his staff, and he had permission to set fire to his cloak, until it would be said, “What is that sound in the Temple court?” “It is the sound of a Levite being beaten and his clothing set on fire because he slept at his watch.” (Middot 1:1-2)
The Mishnah describes one way that we can fail in our “guarding” duties — by falling asleep and neglecting our responsibilities entirely. The other danger, as exemplified by Korach, is what happens when we become overly invested in something precious to us: our very sense of self, our measure of status and worth, gets all tangled up in that which we have been asked to “guard.” Like Korach, this can lead to self-aggrandizement and a desire for power and control.
Like the Levites, each of us has been given some kind of sacred service to do in this world — it might be our work as parents, as healers or teachers, as people working to create a more just and loving world … The question that the Torah poses is this: How do I do my sacred work without either falling asleep on the job, or becoming so possessive of or identified with the work that it becomes all about me and my standing, and not about the work itself?
The Torah teaches us that we each receive our sacred task in this world as a gift. Its source is not in me, and ultimately it does not belong to me. Each of us is here to guard something precious, and that act of guarding is itself a gift, something we’ve been given in service to something larger than ourselves.
There is a great letting go that can happen when we take on this perspective — the letting go that doesn’t have us falling asleep on the job, but allows us to attain a measure of humility, of release of ego, in going about our work in the world. Then we can truly appreciate that which we have been given, and honor the Godliness of our own service and of those around us.
Toba Spitzer is rabbi at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist community in West Newton, Mass.