Bamidbar, the name of this week's parsha, means, "in the wilderness." What is the difference between the rugged wilderness and the serpentine alleyways of the city? Exposure.
Military doctrine shifts radically owing to the marked contrasts between open spaces and crowded marketplaces. So too, in the war between light and darkness, between sin and salvation, we must be ever conscious of the shifts in spiritual terrain.
This concept of exposure cuts to the very heart of what it means to be holy. The concept of exposure is symbolic of revelation, symbolizing those acts which can be publicly witnessed. While tradition at times valorizes revelation, at other times it valorizes hiddenness.
Shavuot, coming soon, celebrates the public revelation by G*d of this holiness. Ironically, this holiness best becomes manifest on man's part only by discretion and hiddenness. By not looking. By averting one's eyes.
The last verse of the sedrah (NUM 4:21) reads,
"...ve lo yavo'u lirot k'vala et ha qodesh va meitu."
This pasook is very difficult to translate. While the Targum translates "vala" as "packing," this is difficult because in both modern and ancient Hebrew vala means "swallowing." In the Book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur, the text states that "the Lord made a great fish to swallow (li'VLoA) Jonah."
The verse, then, comes to be understood as "(the Kehothites -non-kohanim) will then not come and see the QODESH being packed (swallowed), and they will not die."
Now what was this "QODESH?" Was it holy Tabernacle furniture that was stuffed into special kohanic valises? Or was it some kind of sacred shamanistic ether from the Divine Cloud (QODESH) which the priests were inhaling or somehow swallowing, perhaps to help counteract their withdrawal symptoms induced by their being apart from the euphoric contact with the Shekhina (Divine Presence) in the Tabernacle? The text isn't clear. And while it may be somewhat more faithful to the plain meaning of the text we can't really apply it to our lives today.
I think the deepest meaning is this, however. By linking the notions of swallowing and holiness, the Torah is expressing the idea that true holiness is something internal, not something externalized or put on for a show for others to see. True Divine service is performed under the radar, so to speak, beyond the visual screen.
So to rephrase the question, why would the Qehothite's SEEING it be forbidden? It seems that the priestly duties were viewed as a sacred task. But the *viewing* of this process by *others* would not be a good thing.
This notion of holy discretion applies in many areas that have the potential to infuse holiness into them. For example, lehavdil, the qedusha, or sancity of the marital act is valorized and sanctified by Judaism as a sacred and holy act when performed in the utmost privacy of the nuptial chamber. But when viewed by others it becomes degraded as the unclean depravities of the cult prostitute/priestess- the kedeisha. Its holy nature was removed by the aspect of its public viewing.
We expose neither the marital act nor the deceased to public viewing. We revere their sanctity. Qedusha (holiness) and Qedeisha (cult prostitute/priestess) have almost the same letters. Only their vocalization is different. In fact, the term for nuptials in Judaism is called qiddusheen. Both acts are similar but their contexts are radically different. One is intensely private. The other is intensely public. One is purposely viewed by others. The other can never be.
So too, when giving tzedaka (alms), we could be performing a Qiddush Hashem (sanctification of the Name) or a Chilul Hashem (desecration of the Name) by yet performing the very same act.
When we walk down the street, the halacha (Jewish law) is to walk with our hands in our pockets (unless one talks with one's hands) so as to quickly and surreptitiously give tzedaka in the most private and holy way. But when we have to stop and take out our wallets or fumble through our purses we inevitably make a big show, thereby causing unflattering attention to the holy beggar's (Elijah the Prophet?) dire need for help.
And when we give a large donation, the Rambam teaches that it's much more exemplary to give in a hidden way, not drawing attention to ourselves in the process. And can we swallow a secret and not pass it on? It's the hardest thing in the world to keep it private. But privacy is the key to true holiness.
The holy lamed vavniks, the thirty six righteous people upon whose merit it is taught that the world continues to exist, are considered righteous only by virtue of the utterly secret nature of their sublime status. They have to leave town once their identity becomes known.
And Bilaam blesses Israel upon witnessing the discreet array of their domiciles. Rashi explains that the doors and windows of the homes of the Israelites never faced into those of the neighbors. Privacy and discretion were assured. "Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaaqov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How Goodly are Thy Tents Oh Jacob, Thy dwelling Places Oh Israel," says Bilaam.
Discretion, then, is seen as a path to the Divine. It feels good to have discretionary income, as much as it benefits us to maintain our discretion with respect to our fulfilling our heavenly mandate. Therefore Rechilut and Lashon Harah (talebearing and slander) represent the very opposite of discretion and bring harm to those who indulge in it and cause harm to the entire community. Curses for blessings.
Often those who make the biggest show of their righteousness have the least reward for their efforts.
For in the end,
if not in this world then in the next,
those secret acts of kindness,
will be revealed for all to see,
as much as will our secret sins,
hidden though they be.
© 2000-2012 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua HaKohen Melman
These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen Melman, z"l and in memory of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther bat Baruch z"l.
Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)