Bamidbar: Guarding The Mishkan

Holy Work

Why is the punishment so harsh for a non-Levite who approaches the Tabernacle?

Table for Five: Bamidbar

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

When the Tabernacle is set to travel, the Levites shall dismantle it; and when the Tabernacle camps, the Levites shall erect it; any outsider [non Levite] who approaches shall be put to death.

– Num. 1:51

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

For a few years, I was not allowed to push elevator buttons. That was the sole and sacred province of my children. As “big kids,” it was their job. Happily, they grew out of that stage. Are the Levites like my kids? Is their monopoly over disassembling and assembling the mishkan designed simply to zealously protect professional privilege and status?

Levites were also subject to age restrictions. Only those aged 30-50 could serve the mishkan. This too seems intended to limit access to more prestigious roles. Shouldn’t service of God be based on merit, talent, enthusiasm, and not genealogical status or age?

Perhaps we are taking the wrong view of things. Maybe the job of constructing and deconstructing the mishkan was not particularly enviable. The Levitical age restriction was operative only when the mishkan was mobile and needed heavy lifting. It may have been a rather difficult and tedious job. Restrictions on who can do this may seem exclusive, but perhaps they grant status to what otherwise might be less-preferred tasks. Even the Kohanim couldn’t do it!

What modesty and majesty adheres to those who can view their tasks in life as one of absolute privilege. We all must find our best way to serve Hashem, but that includes embracing our unique role, even when it seems less than glorious. Doing the dishes, collecting a paycheck, or finishing your homework can all be holy work. How much more so if we treat them like getting to push the elevator buttons.


Niva Taylor, Freelance Writer

While delineating the boundaries of each tribe among Klal Yisrael for its journeys and encampments through the desert, Hashem singles out one tribe for an elevated role. The Leviim would serve as guardians of the Mishkan, encamping in circle formation around it, safeguarding and carrying all its vessels. Any non-Levite attempting to encroach upon this holy service would perish. “The Levites shall be Mine,” Hashem declares, promoting them to firstborn status, complete with sacred duties and privileges.

While Hashem clearly designates Levi for higher standing, He also goes to lengths to emphasize the preciousness of every Jew, and in turn, every tribe. BaMidbar begins with a census of the entire nation – the third time Hashem issues a command to count us. Why so much counting? Because of His deep love for Israel, says Rashi. Hashem cherishes every single Jew, adds the Ramban. Similarly, each tribe has a unique station in the nation’s encampment and formation, and a flag representing the singular strengths it contributes to Klal Yisrael’s mission as G-d’s emissaries on earth.

Each of us has a unique soul – a singular spark of G-dliness within, and therefore possesses unparalleled potential to improve the world. Each of us is beloved by G-d. There will always be someone out there who outranks me – whether in popularity, prestige, attractiveness, wealth, talent, the list goes on. But if I spend my life pining for someone else’s role instead of fulfilling the unique potential G-d gave me – well, that’s no life at all.


Miriam Mill – Kreisman, President / Tzaddik Foundation

Rashi explains that the phrase “any outsider who approaches (the Tabernacle) shall be put to death” means the death penalty will be imposed by divine intervention, not by a human court. Rabbi Akiva referenced this when he laughed upon seeing a fox emerge from the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount, a sign of the Temple’s destruction and a confirmation of prophecies about the Jews’ eventual return. Rabbi Akiva’s students mourned the loss of the highest level of holiness, evidenced by the fox and the Romans’ revelry in their power. However, Rabbi Akiva found comfort in Zechariah’s prophecy that these “outsiders” would eventually be evicted, and holiness would return to Jerusalem with its people.

A common theme in the Torah is that God does not want the holiness of the Tabernacle, the Temple, or the Jewish people to be defiled. Jews are called to protect this holiness, but God assures them that He will punish any unauthorized person who enters these sacred spaces.

It’s been over 2000 years since Rabbi Akiva laughed. Throughout history, Jews have hoped for the coming of the Messiah, yet it has not happened. Today, Jews cannot access the Temple Mount because “outsiders” control it. The outside world continually tries to dictate the ownership of the holy Land of Israel. Now would be an opportune time for God to protect the land’s holiness and its people, demonstrating divine retribution. We sure could use His help. And we sure could use a good laugh.


Denise Berger, Freelance Writer, Miracles in the Minutia columnist

This week’s parsha opens with a fairly detailed outline of how the tribes will arrange themselves when going into battle. The tribe of Levi however doesn’t go to war; they are in charge of the Mishkan. The instructions to the Levites on its assembly, disassembly, and transport come right after the guidelines for how to enter the battlefield. This juxtaposition tells us how to view military action.

There’s a recognition that fighting wars is not separate from spiritual life. Maintaining space for worship doesn’t suddenly take a back seat with the prospect of battle. The Torah is letting us know that however scary and totalizing the fighting may seem, it’s temporary; we keep that awareness by tending to holiness, which is constant.

The conclusion of our pasuk fuses the military and the spiritual with the admonition that any non-Levi who approaches the Mishkan during the maintenance process above is condemned to death. People might read this and wince at the harshness, specially in 2024. After all, what’s so terrible about wanting to be near a holy space? Shouldn’t this be lauded?

Anyone in the army knows that disobeying orders is a cardinal sin; coming close to the Mishkan at the wrong time is a direct violation. Doing so under the pretense of religion is the utmost duplicity, and I think this is what raises the offense to the level of death penalty. Hashem articulates throughout the Torah, the value He places on sincerity — this is our ultimate battle.


Rabbi Chanan Gordon, International Renowned Inspirational Speaker

Hashem chose the Tribe of Levi to serve in the Mishkan which, during the sojourn in the desert, included carrying the Mishkan. Regarding Bamidbar Chapter 1, Verse 51, the Baal Shem Tov comments that when the Torah describes the role of the Leviim, it says, “when you travel, they shall dismantle it.” On a simple level, the primary role of the Tribe of Levi was to show the people how to take down and deconstruct.

On a deeper level, the lesson is more profound. Throughout life, we spend time and energy building a life edifice. Then one day we look at it and realize that it is not as it should be. I am not living the way I need to be living.

We are faced with fear knowing that we have invested time and resources into “building” this life and are overwhelmed by the thought of knocking it down and starting again. At such times we need to remember the eternal words of this verse – “when the Tabernacle is set to travel,” when I know I need to make changes and start living the life I should be living, “the Levites shall dismantle it,” you must find the courage to knock down what you have built. The life lesson is clear – there are times in life when we must uproot what we have planted because it is no longer the right fit. It is then, after we dismantle, like the tribe of Levi, we must rebuild.

With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Niva Taylor, Miriam Mill – Kreisman, Denise Berger and Rabbi Chanan Gordon

Image: “Consecration of the Tabernacle” from the Dua Europos synagogue in Syria, c. 3rd century CE

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