Thursday, May 22, 2014

Who carries whom?

I don't know that I have regular readers anymore, but if I do, sorry for the lag between posts. It's not for lack of topics on which to blog. I'm trying to get my schedule under control, but I don't expect to succeed until after Shavuos...

In the meantime, here is an article I wrote for this week's Toronto Torah, on the job of carrying the Aron. The core idea is original, but I think it's right:

Our Torah portion, collaborating with Parshat Naso, offers perplexing misdirection.

This week we are told, "Aharon and his sons will take down the curtain, and use it to cover the Aron [Ark]. They shall place over it a cover of tachash, spread a garment of techelet above it and put its poles in place… and then the sons of Kehat will come to transport." (Bamidbar 4:5-6, 15) Next week we will add, "The sons of Kehat… work with the sacred items, transporting [these] upon their shoulders."

These verses teach that the clan of Kehat carries sacred items, including the Aron. However, the Talmud (Sotah 35a) contends that the Aron actually carries its "bearers". Describing the way the Jews entered Canaan, the Talmud claims that G-d split the Yarden River to allow the Jews to cross, then the river was restored, and then "the Aron carried its bearers" across the water. Lest one say this levitative incident was a momentary fluke, the Talmud continues to say that this state is the norm. [See Shemuel II 6 for more regarding this.]

If the Aron truly carries itself, why does the Torah pretend that human beings carry it?

Perhaps we may compare "carrying" the Aron with another unlikely biblical pretense of transportation. The prophet Yechezkel describes four chayot which transport a Divine throne. (Yechezkel 1) As explained by Don Isaac Abarbanel, the chayot do not actually move the throne; rather, "transporting the throne" refers to carrying out the Divine will. One chayah, which has the image of a bird, flies swifly to the rescue of those who serve G-d. A second chayah, pictured as an ox, delivers benefit like the blessings of the fields. The third chayah, appearing like a lion, deploys massive strength to punish criminals. And the fourth chayah, looking like a human being, conveys the Divine message via prophecy. The bearers of the Divine throne are transported by that throne, charged with a mission and energized with the power to carry it out. The same may be said for the task of carrying the Aron; to "carry" the Aron is to be charged with implementing a mission on its behalf.

This idea may illuminate a debate regarding which people were charged with "carrying" the Aron. Bamidbar 4 teaches that the Levite clan of Kehat carried the Aron. On the other hand, Devarim 31:9 mentions "the Kohanim, sons of Levi, who carried the Aron." Is this mitzvah for Levites, or for Kohanim? The mixed message persists after the Jews enter Israel. When the Jews cross the Yarden River (Yehoshua 3-4), the Kohanim carry the Aron. The Kohanim also carry the Aron when the Jews surround the city of Yericho (Yehoshua 6), and when the first Beit haMikdash is dedicated. (Melachim I 8) On the other hand, Divrei haYamim I 15 records that the Levites carried the Aron during the days of King David. So whose mitzvah is this?

Rambam (Sefer haMitzvot, Aseh 34) contends that Levites only carried the Aron in the early days, when there were few Kohanim, and then the mitzvah was transferred to the Kohanim. Ramban (Hasagot to Shoresh 3) disagrees, contending that the mitzvah was always for the Levites; the three recorded times when the Kohanim carried the Aron were exceptions, commanded by prophets.

Perhaps transport by the Kohen and Levite reflects two different missions carried out with the Aron on behalf of G-d: the Kohen's service in the Beit haMikdash, and the Levite's task of teaching Torah to the nation. (Devarim 33:10) Per Rambam, the Aron is a denizen of the Beit haMikdash, associated with the Kohen's service of G-d in the Beit haMikdash; carrying the Aron is an act between Man and G-d. Per Ramban, the Aron is home of the Torah, associated with the Levite's teaching of Torah to the Jews; carrying the Aron is an act of conveying the presence of G-d to the nation. Within this view, only in unique moments of Divine closeness – crossing the Yarden, the miracle at Yericho and the inauguration of the Beit haMikdash – is the Aron carried by those who conduct the service in the Beit haMikdash.

Whether transporting the Aron is a way for Man to serve G-d or a way to communicate G-d's Torah to Man, one point is clear: its bearers, like those who bear the Divine throne, have a fundamental mission. G-d does not need the service of the Kohanim or the Torah teaching of the Levites, but if the Torah were to state openly, "the Aron moves on its own," then the bearers might take their mission lightly. By stating, "You shall carry the Aron upon your shoulders," the Torah emphasizes our great task. Service of G-d, and communication of the Divine message to human beings, ought not be left to others, or to G-d; these responsibilities rest upon human shoulders.


  1. "Rambam (Sefer haMitzvot, Aseh 34) contends that Levites only carried the Aron in the early days, when there were few Kohanim, and then the mitzvah was transferred to the Kohanim"
    Which perhaps is why, the bnei kehat were forbidden to see the dismantling and covering. It really wasn't their job to carry, they were just placeholders.

  2. Count me as one regular reader...

  3. Nachum-
    An interesting thought, certainly. Although, they did carry other items, and they were not to see those covered either?

    Thanks for reading!

  4. don't worry you do have readers!