By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
May 11, 2002
The impression one receives from the opening section of the Book of Bamidbar is of a thoroughly structured society. The entire camp surrounding the Mishkan is numbered and ordered by tribes. Every tribe knows its place.
The tribe of Levi, too, is given its particular assignments. Moshe is instructed:
And you shall appoint the Levites over the Mishkan of the Testimony and over all its vessels and over all that belongs to it; they shall carry the Mishkan and all its vessels, and they shall minister to it; and they shall encamp around the Mishkan. And when the Mishkan travels, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Mishkan is pitched the Levites shall set it up; and the stranger (ZAR) that comes near shall be put to death (Bamidbar 1:50-51).
Rashi emphasizes that a non-Levite is a ZAR, relative to the sacred assignment of transporting the Mishkan.
As is more fully discussed later in Bamidbar (Ch 18), a ZAR, stranger, is anyone who is not appointed for a particular task. In Sanhedrin 84a, the Gemara informs us that a stranger who intrudes upon an unsuitable area of service is punished with death from Heaven.
This strict warning is repeated twice more in this portion. Once, with regard to the Kohanim (priests):
And Aharon and his sons shall you invest that they keep their priest's office; and the stranger (ZAR) that comes near shall be put to death (3:10).
The second time is in the context of instructing the three family divisions within the tribe of Levi regarding their tasks in transporting the Mishkan:
And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the Tent of Meeting is the Mishkan and the tent, its covering and the screen of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and the hangings of the courtyard and the screen of the entrance of the courtyard which is around the Mishkan and the Altar, and its ropes for all its service. . . . And the charge [of the Kehatites]: the Ark and the Table and the Menorah and the Altars and the holy vessels with which they minister and the screen and all its service. . . . And the appointment of the charge of the sons of Merari: the boards of the Mishkan and its bars and its pillars and its sockets and all its vessels and all its service, and the pillars around the courtyard and their sockets and their pegs and their cords. . . . and the stranger (ZAR) that comes near shall be put to death (3:25-26, 31, 36-38).
ZAR is clearly a relative term, depending on the activity concerned. For example, the anointing oil may not be placed on a ZAR (Shemot 30:33); but, this prohibition does not refer to the kings of the house of David, since they are anointed (Keritot 6b). However, in terms of the appointments of the tribe of Levi, a king would be classified as a ZAR, as illustrated in this story (Shabbat 31a):
A non-Jew once passed behind a synagogue and heard the voice of a scribe reciting the verse,
And these are the garments that they shall make: the breastplate and the ephod . . . (Shemot 28:4).
He asked, "For whom are these garments?" and they told him, "For the high priest."
[It is clear that the non-Jew did not even wait to hear the end of this verse, where it says clearly: and they shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother and for his sons.]
So, the non-Jew decided, "I will go and convert so that they will appoint me high priest." He came before Shammai and said to him, "Convert me in order that you will appoint me high priest," but Shammai pushed him away with the measuring stick in his hand.
He came before Hillel who converted him and said, "Do we appoint someone as king unless he knows the protocols of the court? Go and learn the protocols of court."
So he went and read the Torah. When he came to the verse,
and the stranger who comes near shall be put to death,
he asked him: "Regarding whom is this verse said?"
Hillel responded: "Even regarding David, king of Israel."
So this convert reasoned by kal vachomer (a fortiori): "If regarding Israel who are called children of the Omnipresent - for out of His love for them He calls them "My son, My firstborn is Israel (Shemot 4:22) - it is written,
and the stranger who comes near shall be put to death,
then, the simple convert who came with nothing but his staff and his pack, how much more so?"
He came before Shammai and said to him, "Am I then fit to be high priest? Is it not written in the Torah and the stranger who comes near shall be put to death?"
Then he came before Hillel and said: "Patient Hillel, may blessings rest upon your head! For you drew me under the wings of the Divine Presence."
When it comes to the task chosen for him by the Torah, David, king of Israel is perfectly suited, but in the world of the priesthood he is considered an intruder, a ZAR.
A Levite may not perform the tasks assigned to a Kohen. Moreover, a Kohen may not perform the tasks assigned to a Levite. When the Temple stood, the Levites who sang in the choir were warned not to assist those Levites who locked the Temple doors, and vice versa (Arachin 11b; Rambam, Laws of the Sanctuary Vessels 3:10).
In the ordered society projected by the Torah, every member is uplifted by the sacred task entrusted to him or her. As we prepare for Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, we should willingly and lovingly embrace our Divine missions so that, in harmonious union, we can create a place on earth for Hashem to dwell.