There is an interesting, and perhaps even strange, verse that concludes this week’s Torah portion. Its meaning, and understanding, is dependent on how we translate its words. “But let them not go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.” (Numbers 4:20)
In ancient times the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, carrying with them the portable tabernacle and its sacred objects. Their sanctuary was portable. It was the job of certain members of the Levites to dismantle this tent of meeting as they journeyed from place to place. In essence they had to break down camp and pack it up. Apparently no one else could witness this task. This could diminish the power of the sanctuary in their eyes. To see it as it was dismantled could lesson its holiness.
All of us have attended concerts, shows, or even weddings and b’nai mitzvah. There is a certain majesty that is of course absent when you see the empty room before it is set up for the ceremony or performance. The magic is not yet there. It is even more disheartening to see all of the trappings of the pomp and circumstance dismantled, or (and I find this especially disquieting) the leftover food discarded in trash cans. The excitement and enthusiasm of the celebration are now behind us. They linger only in our memories. The Torah suggests that to see the sanctuary taken apart diminishes these memories.
Perhaps this is the message that Jackson Browne sings about. Sing it with me! “Now the seats are all empty/ Let the roadies take the stage/ Pack it up and tear it down/ They're the first to come and last to leave…” Such appears the plain meaning of the text.
But the literal translation of the verse offers another interpretation. The verse is literally rendered: “Let them not come and look at the sacred objects even for a moment, lest they die.” Here it is not the dismantling that causes problems but instead just looking at these sacred objects. How could looking at an object lead to death? There must be spiritual message that we can uncover. How we look at objects and the meaning we invest in them is now our question.
In our basement are piles of forgotten things. There can be found old toys, discarded furniture, even computer hard drives. Over the years we have accumulated too many things. To wander in our basement is to tour our family’s history, from cribs to toddler beds to now (and years behind schedule) a new queen size bed. Shira’s bunk bed was only just given away to our neighbor’s young daughter. (May she enjoy many happy sleepovers underneath its covers!) We seem to find it difficult to discard these once precious objects.
We should take counsel from our tradition. Judaism views objects as tools. They do not have meaning in and of themselves. We invest meaning in them. An ordinary piece of jewelry becomes a wedding band, a silver goblet a kiddush cup. How are these ordinary objects transformed and invested with holiness? It is by our use. It is how we use them day in and day out that gives them meaning. It is also of course how they were used by generations prior to us. In fact our most precious kiddush cup is rather plain. It is treasured because it was given to us by Susie’s grandparents who in turn received it from their grandparents. It is for this reason that many couples use a grandparent’s wedding band at their wedding ceremonies.
Other times we invest too much meaning in objects. Our children believe that they must have the latest iPhone or iPad, the best sneakers or lacrosse stick. Is your computer running Windows 8 or perhaps Mountain Lion? Are you playing basketball in the sneakers that Lebron James recommends? We are led to believe that our gadgets and clothing must be the most up to date and contain the latest innovations. Advertisements prod us with suggestions that we can buy greater meaning, and of course better athletic prowess, by purchasing ever-newer products. We come to believe that meaning is immediately seized as soon as we take hold of these objects. In truth it is always how we use them. We grant meaning to them.
And here we discover the greater lesson contained in the Torah portion. When we look at objects, and fail to see the people grasping them, when we invest life saving or life altering qualities in this gadget or another, then a spiritual death creeps into our souls.
We invest meaning in the objects we hold. They can never confer meaning to our lives.