The Alter Rebbe speaks about the significance of of the traveling of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert on both a physical and spiritual level. The Alter Rebbe explains that the desert represents the realm of negativity and ego (which is why nothing grows in the desert). The Tabernacle on the other hand is the expression of Godliness and spirituality within the physical and emotional reals of existence.
“Count [literally, ‘raise’] the head[s] of the sons of Gershon as well.” The phrase “as well” refers back to the command in the previous Torah portion, Bamidbar, to count the sons of Kehos (Numbers 4:2). A later verse (Numbers 4:27) goes on to stipulate that the tasks for which the sons of Gershon were responsible were to be performed at the express direction of Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim (priests). By examining the reason the Gershuni (Gershonites) were singled out to be counted “as well,” together with the reason their task in particular had to be directed by the priests, we can come to understand important fundamentals about the protocol for approaching G-d.
The directives concerning the Gershuni are found in the context of the division of labor among the Levites generally for transporting the Mishkan, or Tabernacle – the traveling Sanctuary that accompanied the Jews during their travels in the desert. The “family tree” of the descendants of Levi consisted of the Kohanim – the priestly branch of the family, i.e., Aaron the High Priest and his sons – and the Levites, who were further divisible by their descent from Levi’s three sons, Gershon, Kehos and Merari.
Each of these three family groups of Levites had a specific function in the transport of the Mishkan.
The Tabernacle was constructed with an infrastructure of wooden posts; the Merari were responsible for carrying these. Over this infrastructure, the walls and roof consisted of specific types of animal hides; the Gershuni would carry these. Finally, the contents of the Tabernacle – the holy implements with which the Divine service was conducted – were carried by the Kehosi.
The above is by way of background. Now, let us begin our exploration of its symbolism by considering a known phenomenon: most things are easier the second time around. Whether one is reviewing a subject one has previously studied, or engaging upon a course of action which some trailblazing individual has already pioneered, it seems that the first time paves the way for whatever comes after. The later repetitions are easier because of the first; in fact, sometimes they are only possible because of what was accomplished initially.
The Jews’ sojourn in the desert played a similar role for the future course of Jewish history. On the way to the Promised Land, the Jews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, bearing with them the Tabernacle and all its implements, including the Holy Ark containing the Ten Commandments. This scenario was highly symbolic.
The desert represented a condition absolutely devoid of spirituality, completely barren of holiness. That is the mystical reason a desert is in fact barren: all productivity and beneficial growth flow from G-d’s goodness and the forces of holiness, while, by contrast, the forces of evil have nothing to give. Thus, a desert, which represents lack of G-dly influence (as it is written of the desert (Jeremiah 2:6), “where no man dwelt”; a verse that is mystically interpreted as a reference to the Heavenly “Man,” so to speak – G-d), is characterized by utter lack of growth and bounty. The Jews’ passage through this barren wasteland carrying with them the Ten Commandments and the rest of G-d’s Tabernacle symbolized their overall mission in the universe: to “light up” the world with G-dliness, and bring the spiritual into even the most desolate reaches of the “desert.”
The people who made this journey were not simple folk: the Jews who left Egypt were the progenitors, in a spiritual as well as physical sense, of the entire Jewish nation, and their souls actually included within themselves the souls of all the Jews to come. (See the synopsis of the discourse “V’Hinei Anachnu M’Almim Alumim” on the Torah portion Vayeishev.) What they accomplished in the desert was the subjugation of the unG-dly (in a non-literal sense, of course, since everything that exists ultimately derives from G-d) to the G-dly. This “blazed the trail,” “paved the way,” for all such activities later to be performed by us, their descendants. And this is true not only with respect to our bringing the outside world under the dominion of G-d, but also in terms of our own selves: our ability to subjugate our physical bodies and our base instincts to holy and spiritual concerns is made easier, in a sense even possible, due to the pioneering efforts of our predecessors. Their lighting up the way in the desert subjugated the spiritual source of the material and the profane; as a result, it is now – and, in the Messianic era, will be even more so – easier for us to bring out and reveal the G-dliness underlying all existence.
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