The Israelites’ camp is organized in preparation for the people’s journey from Sinai to the Land of Israel. The lifting of the cloud would indicate that the camp should travel. Then the Kohanim, in accordance with Hashem’s instructions, would set about covering the holiest parts of the Mishkan so that the Kehat division of the Leviim could then carry them: And Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp travels, and they shall take down the partition and cover the Ark of Testimony with it. And they shall place a tachash-skin covering over it, and they shall spread cloth of pure sky-blue above that. Then they shall adjust its poles (Bamidbar 4:5-6).
The Mishkan is, by definition, portable. Nevertheless, the method of disassembling it was not included in the original description at the end of Shemot. Rather, the Torah waited until now, at the beginning of Bamidbar, the book of travel, to give these instructions.
In addition to providing protection from the elements, covering of the holy vessels of the Mishkan during transport shows how precious and special they are. This is similar to the concept of tzniut, modesty and inwardness, in which the concealment of the body indicates the uniqueness and kedushah of the soul which is within (Tehillim 45:14; Micha 6:8; Tanchuma Ki Tissa 31; Rut Rabba 4:8).
The Kohanim then continue to prepare the Table, the Menorah, the Inner Altar, as well as all their utensils, for transport (verses 7-12). Then, And they shall remove the ashes from the Altar, and they shall spread a crimson cover over it. And they shall place on it all its utensils with which they serve: the fire pans, the forks, the shovels and the basins, all the utensils of the Altar. And they shall spread a tachash-skin covering on it, and they shall adjust its poles (verses 13-14).
Rashi is bothered by the suggestion that if they shall remove the ashes from the Altar they might snuff out the fire, although the fire that had come down from heaven (Vayikra 9:24) was never extinguished (see Rashi on Vayikra 1:7). Therefore, he explains: “But the fire that descended from heaven crouched under the garment like a lion during the travels; but it would not burn it [the garment] because they would invert a copper PSYKTER (pot) over it.” The various uses of the PSYKTER (a Greek word meaning a large pot) in the Sanctuary are discussed in Tamid 5:5 and Eiruvin 104b.
It is clear that covering the fire with a PSYKTER is not to prevent it from smothering by the two covers; it was afterall a Divine fire! Rather, the PSYKTER protects the covers from being burnt. As explained by Gur Aryeh (commentary on Rashi by Maharal of Prague, R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, c. 1525-1609), Rashi’s point is that the fire remained in the shape of a crouching lion, and did not dance around, even during traveling. The Sages (Yoma 21b) enumerate the five exceptional qualities of this fire: It was as clear as the sun, it had substance, it consumed both wet and dry, it did not produce smoke, and it had the form of a crouching lion. This was so when the First Temple stood; during the time of the Second Temple, however, the fire assumed the shape of a crouching dog.
The contrast between the lion and the dog is a familiar one: For a living dog is better than a dead lion (Kohelet 9:4). In this world a dog may become a lion and a lion a dog, but not so in the next world (Rut Rabba 3:2). Ideally, the Temple is symbolized by a lion: O, Ariel (lion of G-d)! Ariel! (Yesha’ya 29:1; see Shemot Rabba 29:9).
Furthermore, says Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eliezer ben Judah HaLevi Eidels, 1555-1631), the lion represents the tribe of Yehuda, the tribe of King Shlomo who built the First Temple. The Second Temple was built under the auspices of the Persians, who are compared to a dog (see Rosh Hashanah 4a). Along these lines, Abravanel (Don Yitzchak Abravanel, 1437-1508) quotes a story from Josephus: As a child, Koresh was abandoned in a forest by order of his grandfather King Astyages. A dog found and nursed the child, who was given the name Koresh, which means “dog” in Persian. He became king of Persia by defeating his grandfather, and soon granted the Jews permission to build the Second Temple.
Maharal explains that the Divine Presence was more fixed, more permanent, in the First Temple than in the Second (see further in Netzach Yisrael, Ch. 4, Chiddushei Agadot to Gittin 52b, and Derech HaChayim 5:4). This is reflected in the difference between the stronger lion and the weaker dog. The lion is the king of beasts, as compared with the dog, which Maharal calls “the lowest of living creatures, the extremity of reality.” But a dog is still a worthy creature: its devotion to its master (see Horayot 13a) is a result of its having a soul (nefesh), that gives it the power of recognition. The Hebrew for dog, KELEV, means KULO LEV, “it is all heart.”
We might add an additional observation: when a dog crouches, it is doing no more than resting, whereas a lion crouches to show its mastery: He kneels (crouches), he lies down like a lion or like a lioness: who can raise him? (Bamidbar 24:9).
In the Mishkan and the First Temple, and then to a more fleeting – though no less devoted – sense in the Second Temple, the fire of Hashem’s Presence has accompanied the Jewish People throughout the vicissitudes of our history. That intense, spiritual fire has always been carefully concealed, with a PSYKTER-like protection that enables the spiritual to coexist with the physical, deep in the soul of every Jew. That fire is the secret of our existence.