A Song Missing a Note1
To the children of Kohos he did not give [wagons], since the service of the holy was upon them. They carried on the shoulder.
We would think that the Torah should have said is that “theirs was the service of the holy.” Emphasizing that the kelim they carried – and carried specifically on their shoulders, as the pasuk concludes – were “upon them” strikes us as unnecessarily weighing down the pasuk.
Uneconomical phraseology always invites derashos. Surely we are to figure out that “upon them” emphasizes some important truth about carrying the mishkan’s kelim. We cannot establish so easily what the Torah is driving at. We can quickly come up with two possible derashsos. Unfortunately for us, those two derashos are mutually exclusive, and point in opposite directions. We could take “upon them” as a limitation, i.e. when it is “them,” the Bnei Kohos who carry the kelim – when the kelim are upon them – then they must be transported on the shoulders of the levi’im. The Torah specifies the way in which the Levi’im are to go about their holy work. These instructions do no tell us, however, how anyone else might carry these kelim if they substitute for Bnei Kohos.
Equally plausible, it would seem, is that “upon them” defines the procedure. In other words, perhaps the Torah wishes to make known to us that we have no other legal option. Only the Bnei Kohos are permitted to transport the kelim. Everyone else is excluded. (Noteworthy is Rambam’s approach in Sefer ha-Mitzvos, that it is kohanim who are supposed to carry the Aron on their shoulders! Even this is consistent with our second derashah option, since all kohanim also descend from Kohos, who was Aharon’s grandfather; when an insufficient number of kohanim are available – as occurred with the generation of the Wilderness – the task passes only to Levi’im who are directly related to Kohos.)
Which derashah, then, conveys the Torah’s intention? Dovid found out by picking the wrong one. He had the Aron brought into Yerushalayim by Uzah and his brothers (none of them Levi’im) on a wagon. Although Rashi says that “Dovid erred in a matter that even schoolchildren know,” this does not mean that he forgot an obvious halacha. “Children know” that halacha today, because the proper derashah took hold in halachic memory. In Dovid’s day, however, there were two halachic roads that opened before him – the two conflicting derashos we mentioned above. Dovid chose the wrong one, the one that permitted non-Levi’im to transport the Aron, using a wagon if they wished. This resulted in tragedy marring what was to be the joyous arrival of the Aron at Yerushalayim.
After three months, Dovid tried again, this time putting Kohanim and Levi’im in charge of transporting the Aron. Dovid explained that at the time of the ill-fated earlier attempt לא דרשניהו כמשפט. This should be translated as “we did not subject the Torah to the proper derashah,” rather than the usual translation of “we did not seek Him out properly.” Dovid understood that a different derashah would have led to an antipodal position to the one he first took, and that this second derashah was in fact the one that should have been applied.
Chazal teach that the spiritual precursor to Dovid’s error was in being too casual regarding the holy Torah, when he wrote, “Your statutes were music to me.” Hashem responds, ” â??Blink your eye, and it is gone:’ You think Torah is a mere song? You will stumble in a matter that even schoolchildren know.”
What is the meaning of the pasuk in Mishlei? We could assume that it means that Torah is so deep and complex that diverting attention from it leads to a lapse of memory. But then how would this follow from calling Torah “songs?” Whey would that diminish Dovid’s powers of retention?
Rather, we should consider chukim in the pasuk in Tehillim as “fixed rules,” rather than “fixed laws,” or “statutes.” These rules are the protocols of derashos, the principles that govern how we extract information from a pasuk beyond the plain sense of the words. HKBH admonishes Dovid for taking the process of making derashos lightly. Blink your eye, Hashem tells Dovid, fail to focus on the pasuk with precise, deep vision and thought, and it is gone. This means that the real intent of the pasuk – the one that should have been uncovered by making the proper derashah – will become obscured or vanish. You will err, says Hashem to Dovid, in a derashah whose proper conclusion even schoolchildren comprehend.
Dovid, it turns out, did not “forget” a known halacha, nor make an obvious error. His choice reflects the complexity and subtlety of Torah She-B’al Peh – something we all need to keep in mind.
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar and Harchev Davar, Bamidbar 7:9
2. Mitzvos Aseh, 34
3. Shmuel2 6:3
4. Sotah 35A
5. Tehillim 119:54
6. Mishlei 23:5
7. Netziv makes use of this understanding of chukim in several places