Korach: Guarding the Sanctuary

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Good afternoon!

Most readers of this or other Torah commentaries know the basic story of Korach, the rebellious prince who raised up a gang to challenge Moshe and Aharon for the leadership of the Israelites. Well, that didn’t work out so well for him, but what is less well known is the set of laws that comes after the rebellion, laws which mostly spell out the responsibilities of the priests and Levites (the tribe dedicated to religious service) as well as their rights to a portion of the contributions coming into the ancient Sanctuary.

Both the priests and the larger group of Levites had a particular commandment to guard the Mishkan, both from the inside and the outside: (Cf. chapter 18: 1-4) As the Sefer HaChinuch explains, the commandment to guard the Mishkan meant that Levites acted like sentries around the outside, while Kohanim [priests] stayed alert at a few stations within its boundaries.

So far, so good: the tribe set apart for carrying, assembling, and serving in the the ancient Sanctuary had to also guard it, staying up all night on their rotating watches. Yet Sefer HaChinuch goes on to say that this was not a guarding against external enemies; after all, the entire Israelite nation was already encamped around the Mishkan, so what could one little tribe of Levites do if the larger military defenses were already breached?

Rather, the priests and Levites had to guard the Sanctuary because doing so increased the honor of the Mishkan and the reverence and awe they would feel in its presence. The analogy is given to a palace with sentries (think of Buckingham Palace with those guys in the big hats) versus, say, the Poughkeepsie City Hall. (Which is not such a bad place, it just suffers in comparison.) In other words, the priests and Levites were told to guard the “palace” (another word for the later Sanctuary in Jerusalem) not against some external threat, but the internal problem of apathy, boredom, routines, and cynicism. They were told to guard theMiskhan  to be reminded that the Miskhan was worth guarding!

Now it makes sense: our reverent deeds are not for the object of our respect, they are for the cultivation of a sensitive heart. The Mishkan was the place were our ancient ancestors felt the Sacred Presence, and where they went to celebrate, give thanks, and atone. Yet what really mattered was the openness of the individual to experiencing the Holy; that came from within, not from geography. Sacred places are important- they open us up and bind us together, but let’s not confuse the place with the experience it evokes. We can’t come into a synagogue, or stand on a mountain, or gaze at the stars, or be moved by the sight of the sea, and expect to have a “spiritual” experience without nurturing from within the possibility of such- or, to put it more bluntly, wherever you go, you bring yourself there.

On the other hand, the image of the Levites “guarding the palace”- so they would know it was a holy place- reminds us that we have a choice as we move through the world: to see only buildings and earth, or to open ourselves to the possibility that the palace is, in fact, right where we’re standing.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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