This week’s Torah reading begins with a detailed census of Israel’s tribes. However, the Levites are not included in the census; they are listed separately afterwards.
The Torah says that there were three main clans of Levites: the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites. (These are referred to by the word mishpaḥah in this week’s reading, a word that came to mean “family” in later Hebrew; but in biblical Hebrew mishpaḥah generally refers to a larger unit, a clan or sub-tribe.) Each of these clans was assigned specific duties with regard to the moveable sanctuary (mishkan) that accompanied the Israelites on their wanderings in the wilderness. The Gershonites were charged with taking care of the lower coverings of the mishkan, the tent and its coverings, and much more. The Kohathites had charge of the ark, the table, the menorah, the altars, and so forth. The Merarites were given authority over the planks of the mishkan and various other appurtenances.
The three clans’ duties were not exactly equal. The things entrusted to the Kohathites’ care were by far the holiest of all. The ark contained the Ten Commandments, written “by the finger of God” (Deut 9:10, 10:5). The table, the menorah, and the altars were of similar holiness. In fact, these things were so sacred that the Kohathites themselves were not permitted to fetch them out of their places whenever the mishkan had to be disassembled and moved to a new locale. Instead, the kohanim (priests) first had to cover these sacred objects with special coverings. Only then could the Kohathites (who, as Levites, were of a lesser degree of sanctity than the kohanim) “come and lift them” (Num 4:15).
In next week’s Torah reading, we are given one additional detail about the process of taking down the mishkan to transport it to a new location. Moses gave the Levites six wagons in which to put the various parts of the mishkan when it had to be moved. Since, as we have seen, there were three main clans of Levites, each clan ought to have gotten two wagons to transport the various parts of the mishkan that they had been assigned.
But that isn’t what happened. The Gershonites got two wagons, the Merarites got four, and the Kohathites, who were charged with transporting the holiest objects, got…none! “Let them [that is, the sacred objects] be carried on the shoulder,” the Torah says (Num 7:9).
This seems completely counter-intuitive. If the objects assigned to the Kohathites were so sacred that the kohanim had to cover them lest the Kohathites touch them directly, how on earth were these objects now going to be carried by hand, “on the shoulder” of the Kohathites? After all, when the mishkan was moved, it was not to some place a few yards away: these were long-distance moves, as the Torah later enumerates. Would it not make sense to give the wagons first and foremost to the Kohathites, so as to make sure that nothing violated the objects’ sanctity?
And just think of those poor Kohathites trooping through the wilderness with the ark, the table, and the altars on their shoulders, mile after mile. Yet the Torah says, as if everyone would understand why, that “To the Kohathites he [Moses] did not give any wagons; since the job of [transporting] the holiest objects was entrusted to them, these [objects] would be carried on the shoulder.”
What apparently was easily understood in biblical times has largely been lost in our own. The things that are holiest must be accorded special treatment, whatever the cost in time and effort, precisely because they are the holiest. I can’t think of any other way of understanding this passage. Indeed, the Rabbis connected this phenomenon with a certain verse from the book of Proverbs (reading it quite out of context): “If you merely glance at it, it disappears” (Prov 23:5). That is the risk with whatever is holy, and why it demands our greatest respect: “Let them be carried on the shoulder.”