The Guarding of the Mishkan

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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The Guarding of the Mishkan

By Rav Michael Hattin





            With the reading of Parashat Bamidbar, the preparations for journeying towards the new land begin in earnest.  First, a census of the people is taken by their tribal leaders under the direction of Moshe, commencing on "the first day of the second month of the second year," just more than a short year after the exodus from Egypt and scarcely a month after the completion of the Mishkan.  The purpose of the count is to ascertain the number of males above the age of twenty, for with Israel poised to engage the Canaanites in battle, the necessary military preparations must be made.  Next, the twelve tribes are organized into four groupings, each if which is to occupy a different quadrant around the Mishkan that is to be located at the center.  In this way, the journey towards the land is to be undertaken in an organized and structured fashion, with the Mishkan placed at the physical hub of the Israelite camp in order to highlight its role as the people's spiritual focal point.


            An additional level of organizational complexity is introduced by the division of the Levitical families into their three main clans, each one of which is to be stationed directly around one of the four sides of the Mishkan, thus forming a buffer between the holy precincts and the camp of Israel.  The Levitical clans are henceforth to be charged not only with their specific duties that relate to the conveyance of the Mishkan elements but also with the task of serving as the loyal guardians of the sacred spaces, ensuring that unauthorized Israelites do not trespass.  As for the missing fourth side along the honored eastern axis that marks the entry portal of the Mishkan, it is to be settled by none other than Moshe and Aharon and their respective families.  Moshe is God's prophet and Aharon is His priest and together they have been designated by God to serve as the people's leaders.  The effect of the whole arrangement, therefore, is to emphasize to the people of Israel that the cultivation of a functioning society depends not only upon the imposition of order and organization, but also upon the acknowledgement of hierarchy and rank.




            The ordering principles that underlie the organization of the Israelite camp appear to be temporary provisions that are in force only during the course of the journey towards Canaan.  This is reasonable since it is precisely at such a time that heightened structure is needed.  Since the wide-open environment of the wilderness as well as the jarring experience of traversing its barren expanse would both tend to undermine any "real time" attempts enroute at imposing order, it is important that these principles be imposed and rehearsed while the people of Israel are still encamped at Sinai.  In fact, it will be almost another three weeks before the people actually break up camp and commence their journey, as narrated in Parashat Behaalotkha:


It came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year that the cloud lifted from upon the Mishkan of the testimony.  The people of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sinai according to their arrangements, and the cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran… (Bamidbar 10:11-12).


It is therefore not surprising that tradition, as expressed in the writings of those that made it their task to count the Torah's commandments, found not a single provision in all of this material that had normative Halakhic significance.  Neither the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (Book of the Commandments) nor the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (14th century, Spain) in his popular explication of the Torah's laws modeled upon the Rambam's work, found here any formal commands that could be reckoned among the Torah's six-hundred and thirteen laws.  In fact, the Ramban went a step further, indicating that he understood the main contribution of Sefer Bamidbar as a whole to be something other than the revelation of laws.  As he relates in his introductory remarks to the book:


…This entire book is wholly concerned with temporary provisions that the people were commanded as long as they were in the wilderness, as well as with the miracles that were wrought for them, in order to recount all of God's works that He wondrously performed on their behalf.  It (later) recounts how He began to deliver their enemies into their hands by the sword and then instructs how the land is to be divided up among them.  This book contains few commands that have permanent application except for a number of provisions relating to the sacrifices that were introduced in the Book of Vayikra and not fully explicated there, and in this book they are completed…




            Significantly, however, this same Ramban, in contrast to the others, did find one short directive in the Parasha, in that section that describes the hierarchical structure of the Israelite encampment.  The text relates, after the initial census of the people has been taken, that:


…they (the Levites) shall carry the Mishkan and all of its vessels, and they shall serve in it, and around the Mishkan they shall encamp.  When the Mishkan journeys then they shall take it down, and when they camp then they shall set it up, and the Israelite (literally "outsider") that draws close shall die.  The people of Israel will encamp each one in accordance with his place and each one according to his standard, in keeping with their numbers.  The Levites will encamp around the Mishkan of the testimony, so that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the people of Israel.  The Levites shall guard the watch of the Mishkan of the testimony (Bamidbar 1:52-53).


In his lengthy remarks, paralleled by his even more lengthy critique of the Rambam in his Book of Commands (positive command #36), the Ramban here states:


The Levites will encamp around the Mishkan of the testimony, so that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the people of Israel – even though this provision is stated while the Mishkan is located in the midst of the tribal standards in the wilderness, this is a command for all generations at the Temple as well, because the Levitical watches were instituted based upon this source.  The meaning of the Levites' guarding of the Mishkan is to watch over it at night and patrol around its perimeter.  The Sages relate that the Kohanim are to guard the Mishkan from within while the Levites guard it from without, for all of them are like the body guards of the king.


This we learned in the Beraita of the thirty-two exegetical principles: "…we have not found in our Parasha support for the tradition that God commanded Aharon to organize his children into twenty-four watches (as related in Talmud Bavli Tractate Tamid 25b – 26a).  Where then is this support to be found?  In the verse in Divrei Ha-Yamim (Chronicles) 1:24:19 that states: 'These are their numbers for their service to arrive at the house of God, according to their laws by the command of Aharon their forefather as God the Lord of Israel commanded him'.  This indicates that this mitzva (of the twenty-four watches) was already communicated to Moshe and to Aharon."


Furthermore, we learn in Tractate Tamid (25b) that "the priests guard at three locations in the Temple…"  The ensuing Talmudic discussion enquires: "from whence do we know this?  Said Abaye: because the verse states that 'those that encamped before the Tent of Meeting towards the east were Moshe, Aharon and his sons, forming the watch of the guarding of the holy place' (Bamidbar 3:38).  Aharon guarded one location while his sons guarded two more," as it is stated there.  Thus we learn that these are mitzvot for all generations and not only for the Mishkan.  The verses in Divrei HaYamim are explicit concerning the watches and about the entire institution (commentary to 1:53).


            For the Ramban, then, there is a general mitzva from our Parasha for the priests and the Levites to provide a watch over the Mishkan, as well as a specific provision to divide the watch into twenty-four discrete units.  The general mitzva is learned from our verses directly, while the specific division was an oral tradition communicated to Aharon (as implied in Divrei HaYamim 1:24:19) at that time.




            Interestingly, while the Sefer Ha-Chinukh finds no source for this mitzva here, he does derive it from another context:


The priests and Levites were commanded to guard the Temple and to patrol its perimeter constantly, every night, all night.  This guarding is in order to glorify it and to elevate it and to increase its honor, and not, God forbid, because we fear an enemy onslaught.  This is based upon the verse: "they shall guard the watch of the Tent of Meeting" (Bamidbar 18:4)…In the Mekhilta (Sifrei Zuta) it was stated: glorious is the Temple that has watchmen guarding it.  A palace with guards is not to be compared to a palace without guards…(Mitzva #388 – The Command to Guard the Temple).


The scriptural section to which the Sefer Ha-Chinukh refers is the aftermath of Korach's failed rebellion, as described in Bamidbar Chapters 16-18.  It is after Korach questioned and attempted to undermine the special status of Aharon the priest that God reemphasized in no uncertain terms the unchallengeable hierarchy of the system: the sacrificial service was to be the exclusive preserve of the priests, while the Levites were to provide a supporting and safeguarding role:


God said to Aharon: you and your sons and your clan with you shall bear responsibility for the holy place, and you and your sons with you shall bear the responsibility for your priesthood.  Also your kinsman the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, you shall draw close to you, for they shall join you and serve you, but you and your sons with you shall be positioned before the Tent of the testimony.  They (the Levites) shall guard your watch, and the guarding of the entire Tent, but they shall not come near the holy vessels or the altar, lest they and you both die.  They shall join you and guard the watch of the Tent of Meeting and all of the service of the Tent of Meeting, so that no Israelite (literally "outsider") shall draw close to you (Bamidbar 18:1-4).




            Why was the Ramban loathe to learn the source of the mitzva from the same context that had inspired the Sefer Ha-Chinukh?  After all, while the reference in our Parasha is but a fleeting phrase that occurs in an overall context describing impermanent wilderness arrangements, the verses in Parashat Korach are part of passage that celebrates at its core the eternal validity of the statute!  "An eternal edict" is the refrain (repeated no less than five times) that follows the Parashat Korach reference, as the section goes on to spell out the unique privileges of the priesthood that are immutable.  Our passage, in contrast, speaks of journey and encampment, disassembly of the Mishkan and its refabrication, for the matter at hand is the temporary traversing of the wilderness, its changing landscape as impermanent as the other provisions that are spelled out in our Parasha! 


            If what we seek is an everlasting source for the mitzva that devolves upon the Levites to guard the precincts of the Mishkan/Temple, then the approach of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh appears more reasonable.  The Korach context, though initiated by the specific episode of that firebrand's demagogical outburst after being denied a position of leadership, highlights the timeless quality of the Levites' election to their station and the eternal charge placed upon them to guard the sanctity of the Mishkan.  Why, then, does the Ramban choose instead to focus the mitzva of guarding the Mishkan upon a source associated with the transitory life of the wilderness?




            Often in life, we are consumed by our objectives.  We focus upon the goal, dream of the destination, and impatiently mark the milestones that speak of our achievements.  But in our headlong race towards the goal, we scarcely consider the process of the passage, regarding the trek as nothing more than a necessary but inconsequential means to the securing of the ends.  We pursue an education to acquire a degree, we acquire a degree to pursue a career, and we cultivate our careers as part of an increasingly more elusive search for ultimate fulfillment.  Our society encourages goal-oriented approaches and has little patience for sidetracking diversions.  Scarcely do we take a moment to reflect upon the course, the winding paths that lead us from point A to point B.  Who can afford to think about the experience of the process when that process itself is often only engaged for the sake of the outcome that it will yield? 


            While this approach certainly has its advantages in maintaining focus and fostering excellence, it also has its drawbacks, chief among them its tendency to overlook the inherent value contained in the journey itself towards the goal.  Most of life, after all, is consumed by those journeys, by the sometimes circuitous routes that take us from one destination to the next.  But we regard those odysseys as necessary evils, the setbacks and hurdles along the way as useless debris to be discarded once we reach the destination. 


            Enter the Ramban to remind us that life is about more than just the outcomes, for he indicates that the journey through the proverbial wilderness presents us with an unrivaled opportunity to encounter God.  The Mishkan was itself a temporary structure, assembled and disassembled according to the people's peregrinations.  The arrangement of the Israelite camp was transitory, an arrangement meant to serve them only until such a time as they had reached the Promised Land.  The guarding of the Levites under such circumstances could therefore have been only as fleeting and as impermanent as the Tabernacle and the encampment themselves. 


            But, suggests the Ramban, that guarding WAS significant, important enough to serve as the source for more eternal statutes.  This is because, as the Ramban explained in his introduction mentioned above, the wilderness experience – the living out of the JOURNEY towards the destination – contained within it the most profound lessons of all.  Faith and trust, perseverance and dedication, the living of life's more mundane moments under God's watchful gaze, all of them were the special legacies of the Midbar, the fundamentals and the foundations for the more permanent structures that followed.  In essence, the guarding by the Levites in the wilderness was a deliberate declaration that there was inherent preciousness in those experiences, that traversing the wilderness was not only about reaching the new land but also about encountering God along the way, an encounter that held within it the potential for transformation.  And as for us, as our increasingly frantic and frenetic lives become ever more goal-oriented, we would do well to recall the Ramban's reading concerning the guarding of the Mishkan by the Levites.


Shabbat Shalom