Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week, we start reading from the book of Bamidbar, Numbers. The book deals with the travels and tribulations of the Children of Israel during their forty years of wandering in the desert on their way to the Land of Israel. Our parasha, Bamidbar, tells of the census that took place after the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle – the temporary temple that the nation had until the permanent one was built, of the tribes’ order of encampment around the Tabernacle, and the order in which they traveled during their journey.
The book begins with the following sentence:
The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting…
(Numbers 1, 1)
Already in Parashat Teruma in the book of Exodus, when the commandment to build the Mishkan was given, it was declared a place for meetings of G-d with Moses. This is the reason for the Mishkan being called “Tent of Meeting.”
The sages of midrash focused on the conversations with Moses taking place in the Tent of the Meeting.
“’The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert.’ Until the Tent of Meeting stood… He spoke to him at the bush… and spoke to him in Midyan… and spoke to him in Sinai. And now that the Tent of Meeting stood, He said, ‘Concealment is beautiful! As it says: ‘And you shall walk discreetly with your G-d’ – Since He speaks with him in the Tent of Meeting… the Blessed be He said: This is respectful of me, that I will speak inside, as it says: ‘When Moses would come into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him.’”
(Numbers Rabbah 1, 3)
Until the establishment of the Mishkan, the place where G-d could reveal Himself, He spoke to Moses anywhere Moses was and wherever it was necessary, even if that was in a public place. But from the time the Mishkan was built, respect for G-d demanded that speaking with Moses take place in the Tent of Meeting, in a concealed place.
At the end of the parasha, we again see the topic of modesty in the Mishkan: The Torah commands that whenever the Israelites travel from one place to another, the Levite sons of Kohath are in charge of carrying the sacred utensils – the ark, the table, the menorah, and the altar. But even before they approach the utensils, Aaron and his sons are commanded to cover them, “They shall not come in to see when the holy [vessels] are being wrapped up, lest they die.”
What is this concealment described in the midrash, and how does it relate to G-d’s speaking to Moses? Why is this need for modesty arising only after the building of the Mishkan? And why is it so necessary to wrap the holy vessels?
In Judaism, we often find the need to cover objects and symbols that are holy. For example, other than the High Priest on Yom Kippur, no one is allowed entry into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. There is also a prohibition we abide by to this day not to say G-d’s explicit name. We are used to attributing this concealment to the awe that stems from holiness. Meaning, the Holy of Holies and G-d’s name are so lofty that we must hide them. But by delving into the words of the midrash, we reveal a completely different reason: the intimacy that exists in holiness.
The Mishkan is where G-d’s presence in the world is expressed. G-d’s speaking to Moses – more than reflecting holiness, reflects the intimacy of direct communication and connection with the Creator. Even today, the synagogues to which we attribute a sense of holiness are places for intimate communication with G-d. This intimacy requires discretion. Just as we find in the world of relationships: as the intimacy and closeness between a couple increase, so does the virtue of discretion. As the relationship becomes closer and more special, the couple shares less of themselves with others. We hide parts of our bodies not because they are unattractive, but because they symbolize closeness; a closeness so great that it should be concealed. Closeness and modesty go hand in hand, since discretion is that which allows for intimacy. If we share that experience in a place where there are other people, it is no longer intimate. Real closeness can only be attained in a private space.
Likewise, before the Mishkan was built, the connection between G-d and His nation was not as special. Therefore, G-d spoke with Moses even in public places. But from the time a special place was created for the connection between G-d and His nation, the connection became more intimate, and from then on, G-d spoke to Moses only in the Tent of Meeting.
The need for modesty in communication between G-d and Moses was derived by the sages of the midrash from the verse in the book of Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your G-d.” The sages learn from this verse that we are told to do justice, and feel such an intimate connection with G-d that demands that we walk discreetly with Him.