"And it was at the end of three days and the officers passed through the midst of the camp." The Jewish people were given three days in preparation for their historic entry to the promised land. Moreover, they camped by the river bank for one full day before actually crossing. This teaches us an important lesson in spirituality. Preparation time is necessary for any experience to leave its impression upon us. The more preparation we make, the more lasting will be its result. The miraculous crossing of the Jordan was meant to serve as the inspiration for the conquest of the land. The Jewish people's sense of Hashem's present involvement would assure them that He would remain with them throughout. Only after extensive contemplation and focus on the upcoming miracle could the Jews absorb this to its fullest degree. Therefore, after proper preparation for this overwhelming experience, the Jews proceeded with awe and trepidation to their final destination.
"And they instructed the people saying, 'When you see the ark of the covenant of Hashem and the priests from the tribe of Levi carrying it, you should travel from your place and follow it.'" The Scripture here refers to the ark and its carriers as two separate identities. In addition to noticing the lead role of the ark, the people were to notice the role of the priests who carried it. Indeed, our Chazal highlight this phenomenon and sensitize us to this major digression from the normal procedure. Throughout the travels in the desert, the ark was carried by the Levites. However, in preparation for this miracle, the ark was to be carried by the priests. For some reason the Jewish people were instructed to take note of this change in procedure and learn something significant from it.
We can explain this lesson in the following manner. As we will see, the ark played an integral part in the miraculous crossing of the Jordan. Dovid Hamelech in Psalm 117:11 asks, "Why did the Jordan turn backwards?" To which He responds, "From before the presence of the G-d of Jacob." Malbim (ad loc.) comments on this response and explains that the true catalyst for this miracle was the Holy Ark of Hashem. This vessel of the Sanctuary was unique in that the Divine Presence rested upon it. When the ark, reflective of Hashem's presence, appeared at the bank of the Jordan the river rushed backwards to allow for Hashem's people to cross. In essence, why does the Jordan back up? Because of the presence of the G-d of Jacob!
With this we can now appreciate the significance of the priests carrying the Holy Ark. As we know, the normal procedure was for the ark to be carried by the Levites. Although the ark was a vessel of intense sanctity, it was the task of the Levites to carry it. To facilitate this, the Holy Ark was covered by the Priests before ever reaching the hands of the Levites. Through this, its sanctity was preserved and the ark was shown its proper respect. However, before splitting the Jordan it became necessary for the priests to carry the ark. The magnitude of this miracle would reveal Hashem's presence and make it evident that He who rests upon this ark is accompanying His people. This revelation of Hashem - the Ark in its exposed form - was too intense for the Levites and it became necessary for the priests, who constantly served in the presence of Hashem, to fulfil this role.
The Jewish people were informed at the outset of the sanctity of theirupcoming experience. They were told to take note of the ark but, of even greater significance, to take note of the priests who are carrying it. This observation assisted greatly in preparing for the upcoming miracle and in sensitizing the people to the true catalyst of this miracle, the Divine Presence of Hashem revealed from atop the Ark.
"But a distance shall be between you and it for a measure of two thousand cubits. Don't draw near it in order that you shall know the road to go on because you have not travelled this road before." The Jewish people were instructed to stand apart form the ark to facilitate their following its direction. An interesting point to note is the traditional reading of this text. Although the Scriptures say "between you and it", in the singular form, our tradition is to read "between you and them." Chazal comment on this and explain that there were actually two arks which travelled side by side. In addition to the holy Ark which now leads the Jewish people, the ark - coffin - of Yosef also stood at the head. Until this point the ark travelled in the midst of the camp with Yosef's coffin alongside it. Now, however, with the ark in the lead, Yosef's coffin assumed this similar position.
We can appreciate this development based on the following insight. Chazal (see Breishis Rabba 86:4) inform us that Yosef, above all the brothers, enjoyed a unique association with Hashem. Although the Divine Presence was typically limited to the patriarchs in the land of Israel, Yosef's situation in Egypt was the exception. Yosef, a young boy far away from any spiritual environment, required special assistance and protection from Above. Hashem therefore rested His presence with Yosef, a phenomenon which was witnessed by all who entered Yosef's surroundings. This well deserved experience undoubtedly bolstered Yosef's faith and assisted him through his difficult and trying times.
The Jewish people were now beginning a similar experience. They were soon entering a foreign environment and becoming exposed to all the immoralities and atrocities of Canaan. Yet Hashem's presence, normally behind closed doors in the Holy of Holies, was now exposed to and sensed by the Jewish people. This development was, to some degree, due to the merit of Yosef who remained steadfast in his faith and meriting Hashem's Divine Presence. It was now Yosef's opportunity to lead the Jews by his perfect example and remind them to remain perfectly steadfast in their faith in Hashem. And if they would do so, they would also continue to merit that the Divine presence rest amongst them, assisting them in their difficult conquest of the land.
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