A Traitor’s Clothes – Bamidbar


זֹאת עֲבֹדַת בְּנֵי קְהָת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים (במדבר ד, ד).

At the end of the parsha we read about the duties of the family of Kehat in the Mishkan – to carry the klei hakodesh – the Aron, Shulchan, Menorah, Mizbach HaKetoret, and the Mizbach Ha’Olah. Although Gershon was the bechor, Kehat are mentioned first since their task was the most important.

Kehat's job was extremely difficult and hazardous. Unlike Gershon and Merari who transported their loads by wagon, Kehat had to carry theirs by hand. It was also extremely hazardous because, if done incorrectly (for example carrying the Aron), could result in their death. For this reason Moshe is commanded (Bamidbar 4, 17-20) to take special steps to ensure their safety. 

Before Kehat transported their cargo, all the keilim were first “packaged”, wrapped in a very specific way with different coverings, by Aharon and his sons and only when they were fully covered, did Kehat come in, lift them up and transport them. 

The Torah goes into great detail about the different types of coverings used for each kli and in which order they were placed. We know that the Torah is very concise, for example we learn all the halachot of shechita from one word - וזבחת (Devarim 12, 21). It seems strange that the Torah should go into such detail about such a brief episode in our history that was never to be repeated (the klei ha’Mikdash were never again carried around as they were in the Midbar). If the Torah devotes ten whole psukkim to this subject of the coverings, it must be for a good reason.

The Torah specifically mentions the order of the stopovers during the 40 years in the desert, but I have not managed to find any source that details how many days journey it was from one place to the next.

We know that some of the travels were accomplished by “kefitzat haderech” (“teleporting”, for want of a better word). For example from Ra’amses to Sukkot, which was normally a three day journey by foot, took place instantaneously  (Sforno, Shmot 12,17), which is why the dough they carried with them from Egypt did not become chametz. It is doubtful however that all the journeys took place in this manner, and if so why would it have been necessary to dismantle and pack up the Mishkan each time and reassemble it when they arrived at their destination. If Am Yisrael were being “teleported” from place to place, then why couldn’t the Mishkan also be “teleported”, as-is to the next place without all the bother of dismantling and re-assembling. According to the pshat of the psukkim, it took days, perhaps even weeks, from one place to another.

During this time the dismantled Mishkan was “in-transit” and not “operational”. The Menorah was not lit, Ketoret was not brought on the Mizbach HaKetoret and Korbanot were not brought on the Mizbach Ha’Olah. There were three noticeable exceptions to this.

The first is the Aron. Even while “on-the-road”, the Aron was “operational” and performing its purpose. The fact that the Luchot Habrit were in the Aron and radiating out the Kedusha of the Torah, did not stop while the Aron was in-transit. In addition, the Aron also performed special functions related to the travelling. According to the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel bet, 5, 142) the Aron, despite being of tremendous weight “carried those who bore it”. The Aron led the way during their travels and “flattened” any danger in its path (Rabeinu Bachyei, Bamidbar 10, 35).

The second kli which was “operational” while in-transit was the Shulchan Lechem Hapanim. According to the Ramban (Bamidbar 4, 7), while being transported, the Lechem Hapanim were arranged on the Shulchan exactly as they normally were in the Heichal. Similar to the Aron, the Shulchan, despite being of tremendous weight, also bore its bearers (Meir Panim, chap. 4, pg 138).

The third is the Mizbach Ha’Olah. The psukkim above describe that the Mizbeach was covered with a בגד ארגמן and over that, a covering made from תחש skin. Even though Korbanot were not brought on the Mizbeach while in-transit, the אש תמיד that was on the Mizbeach never went out. The Heavenly fire that was constantly on the Mizbeach miraculously burned under the coverings and was רבוצה תחת הבגד כארי (Yerushalmi, Yoma 4, 6), it flickered under the coverings like a lion. According to one opinion in the Gemara (R’ Yehuda), they covered the fire with a special copper cover פסכתר, but even that does not explain how the coverings were not burned by the heat (copper conducts heat), or how the lack of air under the coverings did not douse the flames.

Before discussing the coverings of the various keilim and what they teach us, a short introduction.

When Adam and Chava were in Gan Eden before the sin, they were unclothed ולא יתבששו. Only after the sin of the eitz hada’at, did they acquire knowledge and became conscious of and embarrassed by this fact. For this purpose Hashem created כתנות עור to clothe them.

Therefore the concept of clothing was not the original plan of the בריאה, but only came about because of Adam and Chava’s “betrayal” of HKB”H by sinning with the eitz hada’at. This is hinted at by the double meaning of the word בגד – “clothing” or “betrayed”. The purpose of “clothing” is to atone for the “betrayal”.

This is a fundamental principle underlying the בגדי כהונה worn by the Kohanim. Each element of the various garments has the purpose of atoning for a specific sin, for example the ציץ on the forehead to atone for עזות מצח, the כתונת for lack of צניעות, etc.

The coverings of the various keilim while being transported in the Midbar serve a similar purpose. As we will soon see, the coverings of the keilim echoed the essence of the kli itself. As long as the kli was in its “natural” environment (in the Mishkan/Mikdash) it could be uncovered, but when removed from its natural habitat, it had to be covered, just like when Adam and Chava exited their “natural environment” by sinning, they had to be covered.

The common denominator amongst all the coverings of the keilim is the כיסוי עור תחש.  All the keilim are covered with a tachash skin covering. What animal exactly was the tachash? There are numerous opinions in Chazal ranging from a “unicorn” (Midrash Tanchuma, Truma, 6) to a special animal with multicolored fur that only existed in the Midbar for this purpose called a ססגונא (Masechet Shabbat 28a). One of the coverings of the Mishkan was made from this animal’s skin and it had to have been a very large animal, since the Mishkan covering was a single skin and not many skins sown together. With the exception of the Aron, the tachash was the outer covering. Perhaps this hints at its purpose on a practical level – a protection against the elements, rain, dust, etc. On a symbolic level, the tachash covering epitomizes the lowest spiritual level, an animalistic level.

The lesson we learn from the tachash covering is that in this world, גשמיות is inescapable. Our physical bodies and everything in the world around us is גשמיות. Our purpose in this world is not to pretend that גשמיות does not exist, seclude ourselves from the world and people, like other religions do, but to elevate the גשמיות to a higher spiritual level.

The Aron was firstly and directly covered with the Parochet - the same Parochet that divided the Kodesh from the Kodesh Hakodashim. The Parochet was weaved together from different cloths dyed תכלת, ארגמן, תולעת שני. Sown onto the Parochet were two Kruvim images (one with the head of a lion and the other with the head of an eagle) made from cloth. Over the Parochet covering was the tachash covering and on top of all that was a בגד תכלת, a cloth covering dyed blue/purple/turquoise with the blood of the חילזון, some kind of sea urchin.

The Parochet was a spiritually elevated cloth with elements that reflect those in the כסא הכבוד. Similarly, the תכלת covering was a spiritually elevated cloth. Chazal say that techelet is the color of the sea, the color of the sky and the color of the כסא הכבוד. According to תורת הסוד, the color techelet symbolizes מידת הרחמים. Sandwiched between these two spiritually elevated cloths you have the tachash covering which symbolizes a low, animalistic spiritual level.

The coverings and their order reflect the essence of the Aron Habrit itself, which was made from cedar wood, laminated both inside and outside with gold. The gold symbolizes beauty and elevated spirituality, while the inner layer of wood symbolizes גשמיות. The inner layer closest to the Luchot Habrit and the outer layer that transmitted the kedusha of the Aron outwards - were gold.

On a practical level, Chazal say that if it began to rain, the techelet covering was temporarily removed and the tachash covering prevented the Parochet and the Aron from becoming wet. As long as it was not raining the Aron had to be carried with the outer layer and the inner layer reflecting the כסא הכבוד.

The lesson of the coverings of the Aron is that each of us, who are meant to be repositories of the Torah, even though we inhabit a low, material, physical body - must be תוכו כברו. We must be true, both inside and out and reflect an elevated level of the כסא הכבוד and loyalty to HKB”H. The spirituality of the Torah radiates constantly, even when Am Yisrael are in-transit (in galut) and not encamped in their natural habitat (Eretz Yisrael), the Torah should always be the beacon out in front leading the way. However, the Aron in-transit is not the ideal situation. When in-transit and exposed, to the elements, such as rain, the techelet covering must be temporarily removed. The highest level of spirituality can only be achieved when we are encamped in Eretz Yisrael and the Beit Hamikdash and the Aron is in its rightful place, the Kodesh Hakodashim, radiating its light and spirituality outwards via the Menorah and the Mizbach HaKetoret

The Shulchan and the Lechem Hapanim were first covered by a cloth dyed techelet. On top of this techelet cloth all the accessories of the Shulchan were placed (baking pans, etc.). In Meir Panim I prove that these accessories were not stacked on top of the Lechem Hapanim as the Ramban says, since they are very heavy and would break the bread if stacked above it. They were instead located on a shelf underneath the Shulchan, above the Misgeret (Meir Panim, chap 10, pg. 105).

Above the techelet cloth was a cloth dyed תולעת שני, crimson/scarlet from the blood of the “shani” worm (Kermes echinatus), that infests oak trees (according to research done by Prof. Zohar Amar from Bar-Ilan University). According to תורת הסוד the color tola’at shani symbolizes מידת הדין.

Finally on top, above these two cloth coverings, was a tachash covering.

The purpose of the Shulchan was to atone for the sin of the eitz hada’at which was a chametz bread made from wheat, the fruit of the tree (Meir Panim, chap. 15). The outermost tachash covering symbolizes גשמיות, the lowest spiritual level which can and often does result in sin and invokes the מידת הדין upon us, reflected by the tola’at shani covering. The innermost layer closest to the Shulchan was techelet, which represents מידת הרחמים and serves להמתיק את הדין – to lessen the severity of our judgment.  These coverings reflect the elements of the Shulchan itself (the Shulchan – מידת הגבורה/דין and the Lechem Hapanim – מידת החסד/רחמים).

The lesson of the coverings of the Shulchan relate to parnasa. Parnasa is a chessed that HKB”H does with us. By all accounts, due to our reduced spiritual level, we should incur מידת הדין, but using His attribute of chessed, HKB”H is ממתיק את הדין, He invokes His attribute of mercy and provides us with the sustenance we need to survive. Parnasa is not something we get because we work hard, are smart or because we deserve it – it is a chessed that HKB”H gives us. The Lechem Hapanim are on the Shulchan even in-transit, because HKB”H provides parnasa for Am Yisrael not only when we are encamped, but also when we are out of our natural habitat and in galut.

The coverings of both the Menorah and the Mizbach HaKetoret are identical. First they are covered with a techelet cloth and then by the outermost tachash covering.

The essence of both the Menorah and the Mizbach HaKetoret is spiritual. They are surrounded by and exude pure spirituality. The Menorah symbolizes the light of the Torah and the Ketoret is the highest spiritual sense, the sense of smell. Of all the Korbanot, HKB”H’s favorite is the Ketoret.

The Menorah transfers the light of the Torah from the Aron, out from the Kodesh Hakodashim to Am Yisrael and through us, to the rest of the world. The Ketoret’s purpose is to eliminate evil influences and protect Am Yisrael.  This is their function when Am Yisrael is encamped. When they are travelling however, they are not functioning, the Menorah is not being lit, the Ketoret is not being offered – because that function is performed by the Aron. When Am Yisrael are in-transit and out of their natural habitat, the more powerful Aron leads the way and directly radiates the light of the Torah with no intermediaries. It flattens anything in its way and eliminates all evil influences in its path.

The Menorah and the Mizbach HaKetoret are active and operational when Am Yisrael are encamped – in-situ and not in-transit. While in-transit, these keilim are dormant and inactive. They have an entirely spiritual purpose that can only be realized when Am Yisrael is in-situ. In-transit they are hidden behind the tachash covering.

The lesson of the coverings of the Menorah and Mizbeach HaKetoret is that Am Yisrael can only achieve their true purpose and the highest level of spirituality when in-situ, encamped in Eretz Yisrael and in the Beit Hamikdash.

Finally - the coverings of the Mizbach Ha’Olah. The first covering is a בגד ארגמן, a cloth dyed purple/blood-red. The source of argaman is also from some kind of sea urchin (like techelet). Also like techelet, there is no consensus as to the etymology of this creature. On top of the argaman covering is a tachash covering.

These coverings reflect the essence of the Mizbach Ha’Olah, blood-red reflecting the the blood of the Korbanot.  While in-transit, Korbanot are not being offered on the Mizbeach, however the fire is not allowed to be doused. It constantly and miraculously burns under the coverings.

The lesson we learn from the coverings of the Mizbach Ha’Olah is that Am Yisrael can only attain perfection in their connection with HKB”H when in their natural habitat, Eretz Yisrael and doing the avodah in the Beit Hamikdash. While in-transit, no Korbanot are offered, but the “flame” of the Korbanot, our tefilot are still there, miraculously burning, hidden, under the covers, surviving the oppression of galut and fervently waiting for the day when the covers will once again be removed.

The Torah devotes ten psukkim and great detail to the coverings of the keilim, to teach us important lessons about our connection and interaction with HKB”H.

It teaches us that the coverings are only temporary, needed only when the Mishkan is in-transit and only for a brief period in our history. They are needed to rectify an unnatural situation brought about by sin, by our betrayal of Hashem. They teach us how to rectify that wrong.

Once rectified however, no coverings will be necessary. Am Yisrael will be encamped in their natural habitat, serving HKB”H the way originally intended in the בריאה and the world will revert to the way it was in Gan Eden before the sin.

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