We are taught that each change we encounter in life results in an experience of loss. Our transitions are stored in our beings. They are what make us human and blessedly unique.
Our lifetime of experiences with change link us to our ancestors. Besides tired bodies and tested faith, we can also imagine the accumulated feelings of loss that the 40 years of wandering inflicted upon the desert generation of Israelites. Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for our ancestors to settle down, build their homes (tents), organize their community and put down roots, only to have to tear down all that was built and move on. Not once, but again and again and again. What disruption and feelings of loss they must have known.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar, amid the careful detailing of census takings, we are given a snapshot of the immense psychological toll the Israelites’ wanderings had on them. Take, for example, the tribe of Levi, which was set apart from the rest of the tribes. Exempted from military service, the Levites were tasked with guarding and tending the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle). They were also tasked with its dismantling, safe transportation and reconstruction. While constructing a dwelling place for God might have been a spiritually fulfilling task, dismantling the Mishkan again and again must have taken a psychological toll on the Levites.
The Torah is adamant about the separation of the transportation duties. While Aaron and his sons were tasked with the packing up of the Mishkan’s sacred objects, the Kohathites, one of the Levitical clans, were assigned the specific duty of transporting the Tabernacle’s sacred objects from place to place. In the final verse of the portion, we learn, “But they [the Kohathites] shall not go inside and see when the sacred objects are covered, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20). The Kohathites could carry the sacred objects, but they were threatened with death if they watched them being packed.
Why such an extreme consequence for such a seemingly small infraction? Opinions differ — from a fear that the Kohathites would become mesmerized by the holy objects (Abravanel) to a fear that they would become desensitized to their holiness (Hirsch). But, I sense a simpler truth in the admonition: Seeing the sacred objects taken apart and put away would have been just too much for the Kohathites to bear.
The Kohathites’ role was to shoulder the physical burden of the community’s constant change. While members of other clans and ancestral houses carried loss, pain and grief within, the Kohathites, like beasts of burden, carried it on their backs. Through their sweat and brute strength, they safely transported the building blocks of the divine dwelling place from stop to stop. The physical toll on them must have been huge. The psychological toll must have been monumental. And so, it seems that the strict admonition for the Kohathites not to see the Mishkan’s dismantling was, in truth, an act of chesed, mercy and compassion. Requiring the Kohathites to carry the sacred objects was difficult enough; asking them to dismantle them, as well, would have been unreasonable and unkind.
Rambam teaches “One who stands to read Torah should begin with good and end with good” (Hilchot Tefillah 13:5), meaning every Torah portion should begin and end on a high note. And yet, as we read this week’s portion, we find the final verse’s warning against the Kohathites a profoundly negative one, “But they [the Kohathites] shall not go inside and see when the sacred objects are covered, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20). This closing seems to break the rule, by ending with death and not with good. What should we make of this?
We are reminded that when we act toward others with compassion, we begin and end with good. Just as our tradition cared so deeply for the Kohathites that they were protected from more loss than they could bear, so too are we called upon to care for the “Kohathites” among us today.
As you journey through your days, look for the spiritual Kohathites around you. Who in your community is carrying a burden that threatens to overwhelm them? (It may be you.) Who among your family, friends and colleagues has been tasked with more than they can bear?
Perhaps this week we can take up Torah’s call to ease the burden of others. Perhaps this week we can seek out opportunities to lighten someone’s spirit, shoulder someone’s pack or simply accompany someone on their journey. Perhaps this week it will be our collective actions that conclude our parasha with good.
Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator and religious school director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.