Dismantling Holiness with Love
As Israel traveled through the desert, they frequently erected the mishkan (tabernacle) anew. This means that they also deconstructed the mishkan frequently, dismantling what had been sacred. The act of taking down the mishkan was an especially fragile moment. When we are so aware of the logistics involved in creating spaces to facilitate a sublime experience, it can become demystifying, for better and for worse. In Parashat Bemidbar, we get a behind the scenes view of the logistics of holiness, and a profound message about how to balance the mystique of kedushah alongside the very mundane—and relentless—work to sustain it.
At the end of Parashat Bemidbar, the last group of the tribe of Levi receives their task. The clan of Kehat carries the most sacred items of the mishkan (קדש קדשים), including the ark. It is no simple matter to transport these vessels that command such gravity and honor while set up. In particular, the ark requires a careful procedure where first Aharon and the kohanim cover it with the parokhet (the curtain that separates the holy of holies from the rest of the mishkan) and then with other cloths.1 Only afterwards may the clan of Kehat pick it up. The stakes are high for this custodial role for the kodesh kodashim. If they catch a glimpse in the wrong moment—when the sacred is “swallowed up”—they will die:
וְלֹא־יָבֹ֧אוּ לִרְא֛וֹת כְּבַלַּ֥ע אֶת־הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וָמֵֽתוּ:
But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling (lit. swallowing up) of the sanctuary, lest they die.
This punishment seems over the top. Is it really plausible for those so closely involved in transporting these holy items to make absolutely certain they never see them? Maybe in this ad hoc context there could have been more convenient standards? The Torah pushes back on that instinct and teaches that it takes great care to maintain a sense of kedushah in such an unstable situation. The only way for the mishkan to mean anything when it was dismantled so often was for those involved in logistics to constantly be aware of its power.
There are two possibilities of what this danger might actually be. One concern is exposure of what is most holy and usually hidden, like other passages where we see that inappropriate access to the ark can lead to death. But Ibn Ezra sides with a different concern, that Kehat would see the sacred being covered.2 It is precisely in the moment that logistics involve “packing up” the sacred that a sense of holiness might vanish. What used to demarcate the space from which the divine voice emanated now becomes a nondescript piece of luggage; God’s voice is gone. The moment those who transported the ark thought of it as just moving furniture is when the mishkan would be truly dismantled, robbed of its essence.
Shockingly, though the kohanim and Levi’im in the desert had to engage in such intricate coordination in dismantling the mishkan, the Talmud relates that, in later times, the curtain was pulled back for everyone to see the ark in full view:
תלמוד בבלי יומא נד.
אמר רב קטינא: בשעה שהיו ישראל עולין לרגל מגללין להם את הפרוכת, ומראין להם את הכרובים שהיו מעורים זה בזה, ואומרים להן: ראו חבתכם לפני המקום כחבת זכר ונקבה.
Talmud Bavli Yoma 54a
Said Rav Katina: When Israel would come up [to the Temple] for pilgrimage, they would roll off for them the parokhet and show them the keruvim that were intertwined with one another, and say to them, “See! Your love before God is like the love of male and female!”
How could it be that the Torah requires the kohanim to carefully throw the cover over the ark so not even they glimpsed it as the mishkan was dismantled, but the curtain was pulled back for everyone who came to the Beit haMikdash in later times to see the ark in full view?!
Rav Nahman (in the continuation of the Gemara) explains that these were two very different stages in Israel’s relationship to God. In the desert, Israel and God were like a modest bride still in her father’s house, hence the restrictions on a gaze that would invade this privacy. Once they entered the land (i.e. got married), the dynamic of the relationship shifted and intimacy became more comfortable.3 Ironically, caution about veiling the mystique of the mikdash (sanctuary) diminishes once there is a more settled place for divine dwelling. Instead of the grand structure of the Beit haMikdash introducing a measure of distance compared to the modesty and intimacy of the mishkan, its stability correlates with familiarity and ease in our relationship with God. The passage goes on to speak of a later stage of “divorce” during exile, but depicts a return to a love as delicate and deep as the first love. The image of love between God and Israel ultimately is like the mutual and familiar embrace of the keruvim atop the ark, not the uncomfortable, transgressive gaze of an outsider peeking at the ark.4 In this dynamic trajectory of distance and closeness, our relationship with God becomes a story of two lovers jittery about opening themselves up to each other, failing each other, and finding the possibility of connection again.
Where are we in this story of creating and dismantling the possibility for an intimate sense of holiness? How do these intense images of lovers affect our sense of the logistics of kedushah?
When we focus on the delicateness of the moment of dismantling the mishkan, it reminds us that God isn’t just “there” to be encountered. Real people do a whole lot of work with rough edges to create the context for a glimpse of holiness. Being part of this behind the scenes logistics could in theory be deflationary. To roll the Torah, you open the ark without ceremony, place the Torah on a table without procession, open it and glance at the words—but recite no blessing. The Torah can feel just a bit more like an unwieldy object made of parchment, ink, and wood, rather than an access point for some kind of deep relationship with the Divine.
Yet, like any relationship rooted in profound and unfathomable love, awareness of the raw details need not diminish our sense of the Divine. Even those acts of “dismantling” contain a distinct power. Jewish life and community over the past many centuries reflects a constant state of attempting to carve out space for holiness across time and location, dismantling previous attempts and trying again. There is always the potential for this kind of instability to undermine a sense of the power of holiness, but it can also lead to a much more healthy and robust religious life. It becomes entirely out of the question to slip into familiarity and a fetishized vision of holiness, overly fixated on a particular form of expression. Yes, we rebuild the mishkan using the same materials and structure, but by virtue of each moment of our life experiences and knowledge of the wider world around us, it would be an error to assume that the way to reach God from where we stand today is the same as it was yesterday. There are periods of distance and jittery nervousness when we feel we may have landed on a new possibility for connecting. Dismantling and rebuilding holiness so frequently is hard (as our parashah emphasizes, it can have drastic consequences), but it is of absolute necessity—until we have the confidence to say God dwells securely in our world. While we remain in a much less certain reality, all we can do is trust that God is waiting to embrace us at every turn like the keruvim, and set our compass with this vision of a deep, mutual love as our northstar.
1 Bemidbar 4:4-6: “זֹ֛את עֲבֹדַ֥ת בְּנֵי־קְהָ֖ת בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד קֹ֖דֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִֽׁים׃ וּבָ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן וּבָנָיו֙ בִּנְסֹ֣עַ הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְהוֹרִ֕דוּ אֵ֖ת פָּרֹ֣כֶת הַמָּסָ֑ךְ וְכִ֨סּוּ־בָ֔הּ אֵ֖ת אֲרֹ֥ן הָעֵדֻֽת׃ וְנָתְנ֣וּ עָלָ֗יו כְּסוּי֙ ע֣וֹר תַּ֔חַשׁ וּפָרְשׂ֧וּ בֶֽגֶד־כְּלִ֛יל תְּכֵ֖לֶת מִלְמָ֑עְלָה וְשָׂמ֖וּ בַּדָּֽיו׃”
3 “אמר רב נחמן: משל לכלה, כל זמן שהיא בבית אביה - צנועה מבעלה, כיון שבאתה לבית חמיה - אינה צנועה מבעלה / Said Rav Nahman: It’s like a bride. As long as she is in her father’s house, she is hidden from her husband. When she comes to her father-in-law’s house, she is not hidden from her husband.”
4 Rashi’s comments on this passage show a striking asymmetry. At first, Rashi speaks of a unilateral shyness during the “engagement period” when Israel was in the desert and not yet “comfortable” with God (לא היו גסין בשכינה). But then, in describing a “remarriage” after “divorce,” when they built the second Beit haMikdash, Rashi offers a more mutual description of the shyness of first love “when they were not comfortable with each other" (שאין גסין זה בזה).