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Guarding the Temple

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


YCT and Michlelet Herzog's Yemei Iyun
on Bible and Jewish Thought

Tuesday, June 27, 2006 - Thursday, June 29, 2006

At Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School, Teaneck, NJ

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Guarding the Temple

By Rav Michael Hattin




Parashat Korach follows closely on the heels of the episode of the Spies.  Just recently condemned to perish in the barren wilderness after they had been swayed by the Spies' defeatist report, the people of Israel were now easily swept up by Korach's indignant allegations.  "All of the community, all of them are holy!" he thundered in the direction of Moshe and Aharon, "why then do you lord it over God's congregation?" (Bamidbar 16:3).  Gathering about himself a motley assortment of malcontents, Korach ostensibly pressed for reforms and for a more equitable distribution of power, but to no avail.  The priesthood and the sacrificial service remained concentrated in the hands of Aharon and his descendents, the maintenance of the Mishkan remained under the aegis of the Levites, while the earth suddenly opened up to swallow the ringleaders as Korach and his two hundred and fifty firstborn followers perished in the flames at the challenge of the firepans.  As if anyone missed the point, a plague broke out among the people and was stayed by Aharon's intervention, the High Priest's wooden staff then miraculously blossomed to confirm his election as leader of the tribe of Levi, and the unique status of his priesthood was subsequently enshrined in law with a lengthy communication to him from God Himself.


God said to Aharon: You and your children and your family shall bear the responsibility for the Holy Precinct, and you and your children with you shall bear the responsibility of the priesthood.  Also your kin the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, you shall draw near so that they accompany you and serve you, but you and your children with you shall be before the Tent of the Testimony.  They shall keep your charge and guard the entire Tent, but they shall not come near to the holy vessels or to the altar lest they and you both perish.  They shall join you and guard the charge of the Tent of Meeting according to all of its service, but an Israelite shall not draw near to you.  You shall guard the charge of the holy place and the charge of the altar, and there shall not be any anger against the people of Israel.  As for Me, behold I have selected your brethren the Levites from among the people of Israel, to you they are given for God to perform the service of the Tent of Meeting.  But you and your children with you shall guard your priesthood concerning all matters pertaining to the altar or to within the curtain where you serve, for I have appointed you to serve as priests, but the Israelite who draws near shall die (Bamidbar 18:1-7).




In the passage above, the respective roles of the Kohanim and the Levi'im are spelled out, and the hierarchical relationship between them is emphasized.  The priests alone shall serve at the altar and minister to God using the holy vessels housed in the sanctified precincts beyond the dividing curtain.  The Levites in turn shall guard the perimeter of the Mishkan, ensuring that no Israelites trespass or else attempt to perform those parts of the service for which they are unfit.  The single repeating word in the passage that highlights its central theme is, of course, "guarding" (veShaMRu, miShMaRtecha, miShMeRet, etc.), and in its various forms it occurs no less than nine times.  Quite clearly God's words to Aharon constitute a strong Divine reaction to the failed rebellion, and to Korach's repeated calls for the portals of the Mishkan and for its exclusive services to be flung open in order to accommodate the people of Israel at large.  In effect, God now makes it abundantly clear that there will be no democratization of the service and no wider participation of the people of Israel.  The Kohanim and the Kohanim alone shall offer sacrifices or enter the Mishkan proper while the Levites shall assist them in their duties from the outside, but no Israelites, firstborn or otherwise, shall officiate.


The priestly and levitical dues that were placed upon the people of Israel, concerning which the subsequent passages speak (18:8-32), leave no room for doubt about the order of things.  The Kohanim were to receive from the people an honorary share of the sacrifices that they presented, a percentage of the crops that they raised, the first fruits of their fields and the firstborn animals of their flocks.  The Levites, in comparison, were to receive a tithe (1/10) of the people's produce but were then expected in turn to share a tithe of that tithe with their priestly brethren.  Significantly, both groups were not to possess any tribal portion in the new land, for it was to be divided only among the Israelites.  The overall effect of the legislation was to foster the creation of a priestly and Levitical hierarchy that would be physically sustained by the people, while the people themselves were to be effectively excluded from the ritual aspects of the service.  It is not difficult to see why such an arrangement may not have been enthusiastically embraced by the people of Israel at large.  Though many of them may not have identified with Korach's methods, they certainly did identify with his message.  Why then was Israel barred from participating in the service of the Mishkan?




The Sefer Ha-Chinukh, a 14th century anonymous work probably authored by the Spanish sage Rabbi Aharon HaLevi, discusses the mitzvot of the Torah according to the Torah portion, and addresses the issue a number of times in our Parasha.  For him, the starting point for explaining many of the features of the Mishkan is the need for the House of God and its service to be revered and respected by the people of Israel at large.  A number of early sources preserve interesting traditions relating to Temple ritual that tend to reinforce this fundamental point.  One of the most striking for our purposes concerns the directive to "guard" the Mishkan.  Recall that in the passage quoted earlier, God spoke emphatically about "guarding": "They shall keep your charge and guard the entire tent, but they shall not come near to the holy vessels or to the altar lest they and you both perish.  They shall join you and guard the charge of the Tent of Meeting according to all of its service, but an Israelite shall not draw near to you.  You shall guard the charge of the holy place and the charge of the altar, and there shall not be any anger against the people of Israel".  In the Mishna Tractate Middot this guarding was understood to imply not the need for the Kohanim and Levi'im to maintain a state of propriety or proper frame of mind while in the holy spaces, but rather the formation of an actual priestly and Levitical gendarmie that was expected to stand sentry at the entrances to the Mishkan as well as to patrol its perimeter at all times.  As the Sefer Ha-Chinukh relates:


As for the rational of this mitzva, it is as I have already stated a number of times.  If the House (of God) is honored, then people will revere and respect it and when they then come there to ask forgiveness or to supplicate the Master of All then their hearts will quickly become receptive to perform Teshuva…It is also honor for the House to have guards arrayed around it, after the manner of great earthly monarchs who do just that…(commentary to Mitzva #388 – the Command to Guard the Temple).




The Sefer Ha-Chinukh argues that it is essential for the House of God to be revered by the masses.  After all, the purpose of approaching and entering God's House is not simply to be impressed by its architecture and its appurtenances or else to while away a pleasant few hours far from the bustle of the madding crowds and shielded from the heat and noise in its cool and silent spaces.  The purpose of entering the Temple is to be sufficiently inspired, as a result of the encounter with the Master of All, to desire to transform one's life in a meaningful way.  Of necessity, this requires an experience that is characterized by overwhelming feelings of both reverence as well as adoration.  But in order to instill that reverence and love in the hearts of Israel it is essential that the framework in which that encounter takes place be conducive to those goals.  Therefore, God's House cannot be less impressive or emotionally moving than the court of an earthly monarch or mortal ruler and in fact must borrow from the trappings of those more temporal places. 


Of course, as the Sefer Ha-Chinukh related earlier, the soul of the supplicant who enters must be receptive to the call of Teshuva – we are all only too aware that witnessing the ceremony of the "changing of the guard" in and of itself will not transform the recalcitrant human heart.  But on the other hand, if the service performed in the Holy Temple is unimpressive or pedantic, mundane or prosaic, then life-altering inspiration is more difficult to summon forth and nurture.  The critical difference, then, between the House of God and the palace of the president is that a stopover at the latter is an end unto itself and no further demands are placed upon the visitor once he or she has been overwhelmingly impressed for the hour.  A pilgrimage to God's Temple, on the other hand, is here understood to be only part (albeit a critical part) of a much more involved process of spiritual growth.  One enters the Temple only after a lengthy series of physical and mental preparations and one leaves it having become a different person.




It is therefore clear why the ministrations at the Mishkan and Temple were effectively barred to the Israelites, Korach's impassioned outcries notwithstanding.  If the service was freely opened up to any and all who so desired to perform it, then that service would become less impressive and inspiring as a result.  The reasons for this are twofold.  First of all, to quote the old adage, familiarity breeds contempt.  If Israelites could enter the Temple at will as often as they wished, then their visits would of necessity become routine and less dramatic.  The Rambam (12th century, Egypt) in fact argues along the same lines that the numerous laws of "Tuma" (ritual unfitness for lack of a better translation) that underlie Sefer Vayikra are simply legislated as impediments to Temple entry.  Writing in the Guide to the Perplexed (3:37) he remarks:


We have already explained that the purpose of the Temple was to inspire the visitor with feelings of reverence and awe (of God).  It is well known that any encounter, no matter how exalted or noble, loses its efficacy when it is experienced regularly, and its effect on the human soul and personality correspondingly decreases.  Therefore our Sages have suggested that it is not preferable to visit the Temple too regularly…This being the case, the Torah legislated such a multitude of forms of Tuma and barred those individuals in a state of Tuma from entering the Temple, in order to limit the possibility of being in a state of Tahara and therefore the opportunity of entry…All of these regulations are a means of limiting one's access to the Temple and discouraging habitual entry to its precincts…thus preserving the reverential character of the place and safeguarding the purpose of instilling humility before God.


Returning to our context, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (who was, by the way, a great admirer of the Rambam) simply applies the same thesis in a more comprehensive fashion: in order to ensure that the service remains a transformative experience it must be limited to a select few who will be charged with the difficult task of maintaining its uniqueness.  Israelites will have to experience the service from the outside as it were, but the effects will be more pronounced as a result. 


But there is a second aspect as well.  Recall that Korach had passionately argued that "All of the community, all of them are holy!  Why then do you lord it over God's congregation?"  His intent was to "democratize" the service of the Mishkan so that any and all who wanted to officiate (including himself!) could do so at will.  But what sort of a service would that become?  In order to either accommodate or else suppress everyone's special needs, idiosyncrasies and personal interests, the service would in turn have to be either quirky, unpredictable and impulsive or else utterly egalitarian, mediocre and populist, both possibilities constituting unbearable outcomes for what was intended to be life's most sublime spiritual experience.




Of course for the Sefer Ha-Chinukh, the guarding of the Temple is not only for the sake of impressing the Israelites.  It has an important collateral effect: to impress upon those that minister at the Temple, the Kohanim and Levi'im, the gravity of their service.  Thus, the Mishna in Tractate Middot (1:2) relates that


The Captain of the Temple Mount would patrol each one of the sentry positions with a lighted torch.  This Captain would beat any sentry who was found to be asleep and who had failed to rise when he would call out "peace be upon you!"  In fact, the Captain even had the authority to set his clothes alight.  Thus, it would sometimes happen that people would say: what is that outcry in the Temple forecourt?  They would respond: it is the sound of a Levite being beaten and his clothes being set on fire for having fallen asleep during his watch!  Rabbi Eli'ezer ben Ya'akov related: they once found my own brother asleep and burned his clothes!


Taken together, then, the exclusivity of the Temple service creates a unique potential for that service to be transformative, for Israelites and Kohanim/Levi'im alike.  Korach appealed to the masses' desire for direct involvement but the Torah appeals to their souls.  Ultimately, the efficacy of the God-man encounter depends upon many factors but inspiration is surely one of them. 


Shabbat Shalom