It’s easy not to be able to see what’s so holy about certain things. Like the Sabbath day. Or a Torah scroll. Or a certain prayer from the Siddur. Or a certain holiday.
But think about what holiness means. It means setting something apart as special.
You have things in your life that you want other people to set apart as special. You hope that your loved ones will set apart your birthday as special. You hope that your friends will regard some of the time that you spend together as special. You hope that your spouse regards your entire marriage as holy and pure and special and wants to keep it that way.
But imagine how you feel when people don’t. When they forget about the things that are important to you. When they don’t regard them as special. When they don’t consider them holy or important.
Have you ever thought about what God considers special? Have you ever considered what God regards as holy, sacred, pure, and what it must be like to him if we ignore it? And what or apathy must feel like to him, “There’s nothing special about that, it’s just arbitrary. It’s silly for some people to think of that as holy.”
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What is the holy really about? Consider the things that you help you experience moments of holiness. Maybe for you it’s lighting candles Friday night and having your family around the table. Maybe it’s sharing time with your friends at synagogue on Shabbat. Or maybe you get goosebumps when you’re standing in the congregation and everyone is reciting the Shema.
How does God feel in those holy moments? How important are they to him? What if God is actually an emotional God? What if he wants to guard and protect the sacred things because they are part of his sacred relationship with us? What if he wants to guard them as very holy and important?
The JPS translation of Numbers 3:6 is well-written: “Advance the tribe of Levi and place them in attendance upon Aaron the priest to serve him.”
A group of people are put forward for a task. They are brought near. They have a clearly defined role in the worship of God at the Tabernacle.
Something wonderful happens at the Tabernacle. People are brought into close contact with God. The spiritual and psychological needs of men and women are met here.
God is hidden, invisible. We have a need in our spirit to experience him. In their day people feared that life was demonic, that human beings were as insignificant as cattle. That supernatural beings regarded us as pawns and slaves. The powerful beings, they feared, were in the heavens taking pleasure in our misery.
God is hidden, invisible. In our day people are more likely to fear the universe is random. Our sufferings are irrelevant. Our greatest achievements are meaningless. Our lives will be forgotten and everything about our existence is futile.
There is a place we draw near to. We gather strength from the others who gather with us. We learn and discover ways of keeping in touch with the holy in between gatherings.
The Levites at first were servants of the priests. They did manual labor and guard duty. Their role was to protect the holy. They ensured that there would be a place set apart for people to draw near to God.
Because of their service people felt the holy. The experienced the awe of the sublime and knew that God is more real than our daily work, that he is more solid than the ground beneath our feet, that he is more enduring than our long wait for redemption.
“They shall perform duties for him and for the whole community before the Tent of Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacle” (vs. 7).
Some are entrusted with duties for the community. They are there to make some small piece of life holy. They are there to enable people to have something special. Their part may be small or it may be large, but without them the experience would be a little bit less.
“They shall take charge of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting — a duty on behalf of the Israelites — doing the work of the Tabernacle” (vs. 8).
It is often ordinary things that matter. Someone sets up coffee. Someone puts out serving spoons. Someone leads a prayer. Someone plays an instrument.
You don’t miss it, perhaps, or appreciate it, until it doesn’t happen. A group of people take charge of the ordinary things that make holy moments.
“You shall assign the Levites to Aaron and to his sons: they are formally assigned to him from among the Israelites” (vs. 9).
There is an order among the people who fulfill these roles. People have their assigned places in the community.
The boundaries of this are always changing in a dynamic community. When one is going to be away they ask another to fill in. New people come and find new roles. New needs arise and people look for someone to fill the need. Things happen to people and they look to the community for help.
But don’t miss the fact that it works because the community exists and is organized and is filled with people who care about what matters to God.
“You shall make Aaron and his sons responsible for observing their priestly duties; and any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death” (vs. 10).
The Tabernacle had something no synagogue on earth can claim to possess. We sense God here among the people. God is experienced here in our being together and sharing a common purpose. But in the Tabernacle a greater manifestation of God was near. And God’s presence was a lesson about the world to come. The specific assigned function of the Tabernacle was to be a lesson about the abode of God set in the midst of human beings.
God showed them that things in our world will have no place in God’s. We have filled our world with violence and the selfish struggle to dominate and acquire things. Our world is out of resonance with God’s. They clash.
And when we carelessly bring such things into a place as holy as the Tabernacle, we may die.
But God has assigned Levites in the Tabernacle to keep people from accidentally violating the holy things or even from willfully doing it.
This is not God’s ultimate solution. It is a step along the way. It is an inadequate but important beginning. Ultimately God will do something more than dwell among us and keep us shut out from him.
We and our world are out of resonance with God and his world. But God will ultimately change that.
As we know, he did take redemption to the next level and he did it with something greater than the Tabernacle. Instead of a tent with the Presence hidden inside he sent a man with the Glory indwelling him. God took up humanity and resided among us. He personally took charge of our cure.
In the meantime, we wait. We keep some things holy. We are servants of the things that are special to God. We have duties to God and our fellow believers. There is a deep meaning in the rhythm of Torah life that we preserve.