Seeing and Being Seen / Parashat Bemidbar

If it is a capital sin to see the articles and utensils as they are being placed inside their covers, how could the pilgrims see the Holy of Holies three times a year?

“Rabbi Katina stated: When the Children of Israel came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the parokhet [veil] covering the Ark of the Scroll was unrolled so they could see the cherubs embracing each other in sexual union, and the pilgrims would be told, ‘Here you can see how much God loves you, just as a man and a woman love each other’” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, p. 54a‏).

According to the sages, the cherubs − two gold-plated figures that were positioned on top of the Holy Ark of the Covenant − were in the form of a man and woman engaged in sexual union. In Rabbi Katina’s commentary, this radical picture of the cherubs becomes the focus of the traditional pilgrimage experience in Jerusalem.

In Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah commands, “Three times in the year all thy males shall appear [yera’eh] before the Lord God” ‏(Exodus 23:17‏). Three times a year, that is, on each of the three festivals ‏(Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot‏), every Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and go to the Temple. The verb yera’eh in this verse can be interpreted either as passive ‏(in accordance with the above translation‏) or as active ‏(that is, “will see”‏). Thus, the sages conclude, “Just as the pilgrims came to see, they also came to be seen” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagiga, p. 2a‏). The commandment to make the journey is a “double one,” and includes both the act of being seen by God and the act of seeing. According to Rabbi Katina, the act of seeing consists of catching a glimpse of the Holy of Holies, plus the figures of the cherubs that the pilgrim sees are an allegorical reflection of God’s love for his people. The pilgrim is privileged to get a glimpse of a mirror image of his relationship with God − in other words, a mirror image of the very act of catching a glimpse. The pilgrim comes to perform the act of seeing and, in the process, finds himself being seen.

Rabbi Hisda, however, challenges Rabbi Katina’s incredible description of this scene: “Rabbi Hisda retorted: So did they not come and see ‘the holiness being swallowed up’? And Rabbi Judah, quoting Rav, said, ‘That is, when the articles and utensils of the Portable Sanctuary were being placed inside their covers’” ‏(Yoma, p. 54a‏). Citing a line from this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Bemidbar, Rabbi Hisda thus questions Rabbi Katina’s interpretation.

In order to pack up the articles and utensils of the Portable Tabernacle when the Israelites had to decamp and continue their journey toward the Promised Land, Aaron and his sons first placed the articles and utensils inside their respective covers. Only after this procedure was completed could the sons of Kehath − who were responsible for carrying the Ark of the Covenant − take up their positions and carry all those items.

The reason for that protocol is given in the last verse of this week’s Torah portion: “but they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered [lit., they shall not go in to see the holiness being swallowed up], lest they die” ‏(Numbers 4:20‏). Rabbi Judah, quoting Rav, interprets the poetic phrase, “the holiness being swallowed up,” as the moment when the articles and utensils are placed inside their respective covers. It is as if the cover “swallows up” the article or utensil, and this moment must not be witnessed.

If it is a capital sin to see the articles and utensils when they are being placed inside their covers, how could the pilgrims see the Holy of Holies three times a year?

Rabbi Nachman supplies a surprising answer to Rabbi Hisda’s query: “Rabbi Nachman said, ‘We can understand this point if we think of the parable of a bride. While she is in her father’s home, she must act modestly toward her husband; however, when she moves into her father-in-law’s home, she no longer has to act modestly toward her husband.’”

Rav Nachman points to the axis of historical development connecting the era of the Portable Tabernacle and the Temple period in Jerusalem. The relationship between the people of Israel and the holy articles and utensils is like the relationship between a bridegroom and a bride. During the period of the Portable Tabernacle, when the Israelites were wandering through the desert toward the Promised Land, the relationship was like that existing between a bridegroom and a bride, when the bride is still in her father’s home. At this stage, she “must act modestly toward her husband” and he is not permitted to see her nude body.

The degree of intimacy changes, however, when the bride moves out of her father’s home and into her father-in-law’s home, after the wedding. There, the bride “no longer has to act modestly toward her husband” and he is permitted to see her body. That is why the sons of Kehath, who carry the Tabernacle’s articles and utensils through the desert cannot see the moment of “the holiness being swallowed up.” However, during the Temple period in Jerusalem, all of Israel is commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year to catch a glimpse of holiness.

Rav Nachman portrays the prohibition on the sons of Kehath of seeing the moment of “the holiness being swallowed up” as a prohibition with an erotic dimension − a prohibition intended to postpone the moment of passion until the stage at which it can be realized and thereby augment it. However, if we focus on the description given by Rabbi Katina, we will find an additional layer in Rav Nachman’s parable. The viewing of the cherubs by the pilgrims is compared to the Israelites’ relationship with God. In this respect, the moment of viewing, the climax of the pilgrimage, is also a moment of reflection − a moment of introspection when the pilgrim considers the nature of the relationship existing between God and man.

Delaying the moment of catching a glimpse of holiness in the Tabernacle is not just a postponement and an intensification of eros, it is also postponement of the moment of reflection. Until the Israelites see the figures of the cherubs, they did not know what form God’s love for them takes. Aaron and his sons hide the secret of the nature of God’s love for Israel from the sons of Kehath and from the rest of Israel.

The Children of Israel do not know how strong and stable God’s love for them is. The concealment of this secret enables courtship as well as distancing, rebellion and repentance. In this respect, the verse “but they shall not go in to see the holiness being swallowed up, lest they die” serves as a suitable opening for the Book of Numbers, which portrays the people’s process of maturation. It is a book in which the Israelites seek to return to Egypt; in which they become fed up with God, with Moses and with the vision of the Promised Land; in which they pile up obstacle upon obstacle before God, while God − in the secret hiding place of the Holy of Holies − continues to love them “just as a man and a woman love each other” without the people of Israel being aware of this fact.

Thus, the secret is maintained until the bride moves out of her father’s home and moves into her father-in-law’s home − that is, until all Israel sees the figures of the cherubs.