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Parashat Bemidbar

May 9, 2013

By Rabbi Isaac Mann

I often wondered when I was in a doctor’s examining room and he had to see my private parts that he told me to undress in private and only then would he come back in to examine me. Wasn’t he going to look at those erogenous zones anyway? If he was going to see me in my birthday suit in any case, why did I have to shed my clothes when he wasn’t looking? Was he some kind of fetishist or did he get sexual pleasure from watching someone disrobe – and thus, as an honorable man, told me to do so in private?

Actually, the doctor, perhaps unknowingly, was in sync with a very interesting Torah teaching that springs forth from a passage at the very end of the parashah of Bemidbar (Numbers 4:17-20), this week’s Torah reading.

In this passage God tells Moshe and Aaron to instruct Aaron and his offspring to ensure that the Kehat line of Levites not be destroyed. The Kehatites were one of three Levite families, each of whom was assigned different tasks in the transport of the Tabernacle from place to place. The descendants of Kehat, one of Levi’s sons, had the most prestigious responsibility – the carrying on their shoulders of the holy vessels from the Tabernacle. To ensure that these Levites not die, Aaron and his descendants were told to assign each of the Kehat members who approach the Holy of Holies (to carry out the Holy Ark and the other vessels contained in the Tabernacle) his specific task — in order that they not come to see ke’vala et ha-kodesh and thereby die.

The latter phrase in italics has been interpreted differently by various Bible commentators. The most widely known interpretation is that of Rashi and Onkelos, who understand ke’vala to mean “when it’s being covered.” They relate the word to the Hebrew bala (swallow), for something that is being swallowed is being covered. Apparently, every vessel in the Tabernacle had its own cover or sheath, and it was the task of the priests to cover the vessels and prepare them for transport by the Levites. The Levites would then not see them (according to Ibn Ezra, the Holy Ark) in their uncovered state.

The Torah does not give a reason for banning the Levites from seeing the vessels being sheathed. Perhaps the real concern is that they would see or gaze upon the holy objects of the Tabernacle at a time when they are exposed, for they ordinarily remain in the Tabernacle unseen by any but the kohanim (priests). However, if this were the major reason for this ban, why did the Torah not explicitly state that the Levites may not see the vessels without their sheaths rather than “while being sheathed”? It would thus appear that the sheathing or covering process itself should not be subject to viewing by those outside of the priestly class.

Could it be that the very act of covering – and by extension uncovering – a holy object can lead to a diminution of respect for its holiness? Perhaps some of the vessels had to be taken apart partially in order to be moved properly or to be sheathed. Just seeing the dismemberment of the holy vessel or its being squeezed into a fitted cover could have left the viewer with a diminished sense of awe for the sacred object. To prevent such, the Torah insists that the Levites, who would be transporting those objects, not behold them in anything less than a covered state – and not even during the process of being covered (or uncovered).

Back to my doctor’s examination. The human body is no less an object of holiness on some level than the sacred vessels of the Tabernacle, for the body is the repository of the divine soul. If viewing the vessels when they were not properly covered caused a lowering of regard for their holiness, then by extension one can say the same about the human body. Of course, the physician may at times have to view the body in its nakedness for the sake of preserving it, but he need not do so when it’s being unsheathed or sheathed. As the Torah insists on preserving the respect that we must show towards holy objects, how much more so should we show respect for the house in which God’s soul resides. Thank you, doctor, for reinforcing this lesson.

Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.