Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sacred Schleppers

היום ארבעים יומים שהם חמשה שבועות וחמשה יומים לעמר
Today is the fortieth
day of the omer - five weeks and five days
הוד שביסוד

A day of humility in a week of foundation

At the end of this week's Torah parasha, Bamidbar, the Kohathites--descendents of Kohath son of Levi--are given the task of transporting the sacred objects surrounding the Tabernacle--the Mishkan--as the Israelites travel through the wilderness. These objects are so sacred that only the priests are allowed to dismantle them, wrap them up, and take them outside the Tent of Meeting. Only then can the Kohathites lift them up and carry them to their next destination. Twice Moses and Aaron are told to make sure the Kohathites do not come in any sort of contact--physical or visual--with those objects. If they do, they will die. (Bamidbar 4:15-20)

The Etz Hayim Chumash offers two commentaries on this. One, from the 15th century scholar Isaac ben Judah Abravanel, who interpreted this to "express concern lest the clans of Kohath become so fascinated by staring at the sacred objects that they would fall into a mystic trance, unable to do their work." A more modern commentator, the 19th century sage Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch presents the flip side of that--"for him, the Torah's concern is that the Kohathites might become too accustomed to the routine of seeing the sacred objects packed and unpacked: "lest they die" spiritually, losing their capacity to see the tabernacle as holy."

These two opposite concerns represent the balancing act of a spiritual seeker's existence. The structure of our practice keeps our connection to the world, grounding us in a way that lets us work with the sacred and not get swallowed up by it. The joy of the practice keeps our connection to the sacred fresh, reminding us not to take the beauty of the world around us for granted. We strive to live our lives between the two.

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