In the final verses of Parashat Bamidbar, we read of God’s command to Moshe and Aharon to protect the members of the Kehat family of Leviyim, who were charged to carry the most sacred articles of the Mishkan when the nation traveled. God instructed, “Do not allow the tribe of the families of Kehat to be annihilated… This is what you shall do so that they live and not die when they approach the holy of holies – Aharon and his sons shall come and place each one of them to his work and to his cargo…”
Different approaches have been taken in the Midrash and among the commentators in explaining what precisely the potential risk was, and how this risk was averted by assigning each Kehatite to his individual post. Seforno writes: “Do not allow the transport responsibilities to be such that the first earns [the privilege of transporting the article he chooses], because in such a way, it will happen that they will shove each other and desecrate the sanctuary, and this will be a reason for their annihilation.” According to Seforno, the concern was disorderliness. The kohanim needed to implement a formal system whereby each Kehatite was assigned a particular article to transport, because otherwise, the Kehatites would push and shove their way in an effort to gain rights to carry the articles of their choice. Seforno references the shocking incidents related by the Mishna and Gemara (Yoma 22a, 23a) of kohanim who resorted to violence as they raced up the ramp to the altar. The original system was that the first kohen to reach the altar would earn the privilege of performing the terumat ha-deshen ritual (removing ashes from the altar), until one occasion when, as the Mishna tells, two kohanim were racing to the altar and one shoved the other off the ramp, breaking his leg. Even more shockingly, the Gemara tells that once a kohen pulled out a knife and stabbed the other kohen to death as they raced up the ramp. Seforno points to these unfortunate events as examples of how the absence of an orderly, organized system in the Mikdash could result in tragedy.
It is noteworthy that Seforno speaks not only of the risk of injury, but of the desecration of the sanctuary – “ve-yechalelu et ha-kodesh.” The fear, according to Seforno, was that the Kehatites would act in an inappropriate, undignified manner, thereby defiling the Mishkan such that they would be deserving of death. The Mikdash – and, more generally, all our religious institutions – should lead us to conduct ourselves more respectfully, more courteously, and with greater dignity and refinement. If our sacred institutions lead us to act with less respect and dignity, then we are guilty of desecrating the Mikdash. If God’s presence becomes a cause of unbecoming behavior, then we have transformed the sanctuary from a place that brings honor to God, into a place that brings Him dishonor.