(Dvar Torah on Parashat Bemidbar, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

[I’m currently serving on the Board of Directors of my professional association, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Earlier this month I was invited to give the dvar torah for our Board meeting in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. Here’s what I shared with my colleagues]

            As you all surely know, the Israel and Diaspora Torah reading cycles are currently divergent because of 8th day of Passover having fallen on Shabbat this year.  In my congregation we are following the Israel cycle so we did Parshat Bemidbar last Shabbat and will do Parashat Naso this coming Shabbat.  But since Parashat Bemidbar is the official Diaspora reading for this week I’m hoping it will be okay for me to share some of what I wrote about for last Shabbat.

            When Parashat Bemidbar comes around each year I think of the singer Jackson Browne. In his classic album from 1978 entitled “Running on Empty” (and chas vechalilah[1] that any of us at the moment should feel that we are running on empty…)  --- in that album Jackson Browne has a song called  “The Load Out”.

            And what does “The Load Out” have to do with Parashat Bemidbar? Well, when I recite the lyrics to you right now, wherever Jackson Browne refers to “roadies” just substitute in your mind the word “Levites” and you’ll see what I mean[2]:

Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They're the first to come and last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They'll set it up in another town
Tonight the people were so fine
They waited there in line
And when they got up on their feet they made the show
And that was sweet,
But I can hear the sound
Of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that's a sound they'll never know

Now roll them cases out and lift them amps
Haul them trusses down and ge t'em up them ramps
'Cause when it comes to moving me
You know you guys are the champs
But when that last guitar's been packed away
You know that I still want to play
So just make sure you got it all set to go
Before you come for my piano

But the band's on the bus
And they're waiting to go
We've got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
Or Detroit, I don't know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander 'round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came

Now we got country and western on the bus
R&B, we got disco in eight tracks and cassettes in stereo
We've got rural scenes and magazines
And We've got truckers on the cb
We've got Richard Pryor on the video
We got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play

People you've got the power over what we do
You can sit there and wait
Or you can pull us through
Come along, sing the song
You know you can't go wrong
'Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You're going to wake up in your town
But we'll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here


So that’s Jackson Browne’s ode to the Roadies.

And here’s Parashat Bemidbar’s ode to the Levites: 

וְאַתָּה הַפְקֵד אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם עַל-מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְעַל כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְעַל כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ--הֵמָּה יִשְׂאוּ אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת-כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְהֵם יְשָׁרְתֻהוּ; וְסָבִיב לַמִּשְׁכָּן, יַחֲנוּ. 

And you shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall tend it; and they shall camp around the Tabernacle.


            That’s what it says in Numbers 1:50.  

            Later in the parasha we have descriptions of the specific porterage duties of the three Levite clans – the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merrarites.  

            The description of the duties of the Kohathite clan has a prominent place, since it forms the conclusion of Parashat Bemidbar.   

            Here’s what the Torah says about the particular job of the Kohathite clan within the tribe of Levi:  Their job is to carry on their shoulders all of the holiest objects in the Israelite camp whenever the camp would journey onwards (or, to use Jackson Brownian metaphors – whenever the band would be taking its show to the next town on its tour).  For Jackson Browne’s band that would include the amps, the guitars, the lights, the chairs and that holy of holies – the piano.  For the Israelites it would include the ark, and the tablets within the ark, and the furniture and utensils used in the rituals of the Tabernacle.

            Earlier in the parasha, the text had specified that the Kohathites don’t start transporting those holy objects until after Aaron and his sons have dismantled them and wrapped them up.

And now, in the very last verses of the parasha, Numbers 4: 17-20--- we get a couple of portentous warnings:

יז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-ה-וָ-ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר.  יח אַל-תַּכְרִיתוּ, אֶת-שֵׁבֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַקְּהָתִי, מִתּוֹךְ, הַלְוִיִּם.  יט וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם, וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ, בְּגִשְׁתָּם, אֶת-קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים:  אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, יָבֹאוּ, וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל-עֲבֹדָתוֹ, וְאֶל-מַשָּׂאוֹ.  כ וְלֹא-יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, וָמֵתוּ.  {פ}

Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from among [the rest of] the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.


            We should first note here that the Hebrew phrase in Numbers 4:20 --- כְּבַלַּע אֶת-הַקֹּדֶשׁ (“kevala et hakodesh”) – translated in Plaut/JPS as “the dismantling of the sanctuary” could more literally be translated as “the swallowing up of the Holy.”  Others translate the verb in this context as “cover up” or “wrap up.”

What’s going on here?  Why can’t the Kohathites look at the holy objects while they are being dismantled or covered or wrapped or swallowed up?  Why is it critical that Moses and Aaron take special care to make sure that the Kohathites don’t get “cut off” from the rest of their fellow Levites?

            Traditional and contemporary commentators offer various explanations.  However, for me, the view of the 19th century German commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch resonates most strongly.

            Hirsch offers this explanation:


“If we are not in error, the intent of this prohibition is that the sacred things should remain to their bearers ideational concepts, not objects of physical perception, so that these individuals should be inspired all the more by the ideals the objects represent.  The spiritual contemplation of the sacred objects entrusted to the care of the Kehathites would seem to be an essential aspect of their duties, and a physical perception of these objects while they are being covered would distract the Kehathites from their spiritual contemplation and thereby in effect desecrate the objects themselves.”  [4]


            If I might put this into my own words, I think what the Torah and Rabbi Hirsch are talking about is the danger of cynicism when one is too much of an “insider.”

            The Kohathites might metaphorically “die” in the sense of being spiritually disillusioned by seeing the holy objects swallowed up or in a state of disarray.  Sort of like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ peeking behind the curtain and seeing just an ordinary person playing with sound effects. 

            If your passion is music, maybe you might get disillusioned by getting too much of an insider’s view of the business side of contract negotiations and labor disputes.  (Hopefully, that hasn’t been the case for Jackson Browne’s roadies.)

            If you’re a legislator you might get disillusioned by the messy “sausage making” deals involved in passing laws.

            If you’re a school teacher or academic you might get disillusioned by turf wars and budget battles.                  

            For us as rabbis, and for any of our fellow clergypeople, we might get disillusioned by congregational or agency politics.

            I think what the Torah is saying --- when it warns Moses and Aaron to wrap up the holy objects so that the Kohathites don’t see those objects in their dismantled state is this:  We need to safeguard our idealism through our own conscious efforts to avoid cynicism. In this sense, we are like the Kohathites of old.  We have to consciously work at not being cynical.

            At the same time, we hope to be shielded from cynicism by the support and mentorship of others who can help protect us from disillusionment.  Such was the role of Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons with respect to the Kohathites.  In this sense, we are like Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons for those who look to us for mentorship.  One of our jobs as rabbis is to model idealism and to put up roadblocks against cynicism for those who look to us as mentors.

            Ideals are by definition illusory in the sense that they are not yet reality. 

            The Torah took care that the Kohathites would not suffer the death of being swallowed up in cynicism and disillusionment.  As for us, may we be blessed with the capacity to retain our ideals while guarding ourselves from such a fate. 

For we are a people who are called upon to choose life. 


© Rabbi David Steinberg 5779/2019

[1] Traditional exclamation roughly translated as “Heaven forbid”

[2] To hear the song go to


[4] (The Hirsch Commentary, edited by Ephraim Oratz, translated from the original German by Gertrude Hirschler, New York, The Judaica Press, 1986, p. 526)


Posted on June 10, 2019 .