by Rabbi Avi Billet
The conclusion of Parshat Bamidbar leads into Parshat Naso with the description of the specific and detailed jobs of each family of Levi. Kehat’s job was to carry the most important vessels of the Mishkan. Gershon’s job was to carry the curtains, hangings, drapes, tapestries. Merari’s job was to carry all of the beams, poles, stakes, sockets, rings.
How did they all do this?
The end of Parshat Bamidbar indicates that the holiest and most important vessels somehow carried themselves, and the families of Kehat were meant to symbolically walk alongside/under the vessels to indicate to others that they were carrying, even though in reality they were not.
As far as the Gershonites and Merarites, the text inform us in our parsha that “The princes of Israel, who were the heads of their paternal lines, then came forward. They were the leaders of the tribes and the ones who had directed the census. The offering that they presented to God consisted of six covered wagons and twelve oxen. There was one wagon for each two princes, and one ox for each one. They presented them in front of the Tabernacle…Moses took the wagons and oxen, and gave them to the Levites. He gave two wagons and four oxen to the descendants of Gershon, as appropriate for their service. To the descendants of Merari, he gave four wagons and eight oxen. [Both were] under the direction of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest.” (7:2-8)
The Torah continues, informing us why the Kehatites did not need wagons, as explained above.
As the Kehatites’s job is described as being largely symbolic, and relatively easy to accomplish because of the nature of the items they were responsible for, I don’t have a question as to whether the supplies they were given – or, more accurately, were not given – was sufficient. They didn’t need help!
But for the others, the number of wagons seems insufficient for the amount of material that needs to be carried. Once we add the fact that they were not likely traveling on a paved road, and didn’t have modern wheels and tires, how could the weight of the beams not cause the wagons to be unable to move?
It certainly is possible that in that era the area on which they traveled was not sandy. “Midbar,” after all, means “wilderness” more than it means “desert.” Nevertheless, the fact remains that items of that volume and weight will not be a cinch to shlep. So how could they possible manage it with the materials described here?
Very few of the classic commentaries address this question in this way. This may suggest that I am a man of little faith. It may also suggest that they just didn’t think about this.
Seforno says Moshe needed to be told to accept the wagons because he originally thought all families of Levi would get the same gift Kehat got, that their role would be largely symbolic because the items would carry themselves.
Rashi, Chizkuni, Rabbenu Bachaye and others note that the Gershonites were granted fewer wagons because their jobs were lighter and easier (carrying curtains) than that of the Merarites, who carried beams and poles.
It still seems insufficient.
Comes Chizkuni with the saving insight. “If they needed to add they’d add (wagons and oxen) because 12 cattle could not possibly pull 48 beams, and all of the sockets and poles and pillars that comprised the other structure components of the Mishkan."
It almost sounds like any construction project. How often do we hear the phrase “Construction finished early and under budget?” Never.
There are plans and then there is reality. In the case of the Mishkan, it could be that the princes thought 6 wagons would suffice. And then they actually had to take down the Mishkan and see how transport would work. And perhaps they discovered that it wouldn’t work.
It’s the classic case of “Man plans and God laughs.” You thought transfer would be easy. Think again.
The Chizkuni’s simple comment is a reminder that we need not go with the flow, but we need to be cognizant of the flow. Nothing is perfect, nothing will be perfect, and when we need to adjust to circumstances, we should do what is necessary (legally and appropriately, of course) to get the job done.
May we be blessed with nachas and success!