Parshat Bamidbar: The Cost of Watching

What is the difference between an experience and witnessing an experience? The latter is obviously one step removed from the latter. Instead of dining at a popular restaurant, one watches another enjoy that meal; instead of sharing a bond of love, one views that relationship develop. The distinction is between the actor and the observer — one does and the other sees said doing. But beyond definitional differences, are the two roles so far removed?

In his famous essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace identifies where the actor-observer binary is seemingly bypassed. TV, he writes, is “an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” Wallace continues expanding the entertainment’s appeal: “For the television screen affords access only one way. A psychic ball-check valve. We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle.”

What Wallace seems to describe is exploitation of another’s experience. The observer—the watcher—appropriates the actor’s experience as their own. This model is superior in every front. Emotions from sadness and heartbreak to exuberance and love become accessible without the need to find them in one’s own life. The cost is low, the reward high.

In theory, that model should be successful. There is no shortage of TV shows offering a wide palate of human experiences. Why, then, is that not the case? Parshat Bamidbar seems to suggest an answer.

Speaking in context of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), Hashem instructs Moshe and Aharon, “Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Leviim.  Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aharon and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary,witness the dismantling of the sanctuary Others “look at the sacred objects even for a moment.” lest they die” (Bamidbar 2:18-20). The last pasuk is of particular importance for our question, and it caught the attention of commentaries.

HaKtav VeHaKabbalah explains that the kohanim would cover the holy vessels in the Mishkan as a preemptive measure. Through witnessing them more mundanely, people could be more susceptible to inappropriate or reckless behavior. The causal connection drawn between looking at the vessels and acting poorly is not immediately clear. Why would one reasonably lead to the other? For Rabbeinu Bahya, the two actions are, in fact, a description of one act. When the Mishkan is disassembled, onlookers are exploiting the Mishkan’s vulnerability. Its vessels preserve a certain status and significance when they are within its normal function. By necessity, they cannot remain within the Miskhan indefinitely, as the entire structure moved with the people across the desert. The holiness of those objects was meant to find expression in its proper setting, not at the behest of random spectators.

TV is but one example where we find experience through another. Regardless of medium, Parshat Bamidbar (and David Foster Wallace) recognize it to be problematic. Whether that’s because the experience is counterfeit or devalued, the reality stands. There is a cost to solely watching, to fortifying ourselves on the outskirts of life. Experiencing life with all its rugged terrains is the role of actor. A role that comes without the same cost. One that comes priceless.

About the Author
Sruli Fruchter is a senior at Yeshiva University studying International and Global Affairs. He is passionate about Torah, self-growth, and bringing Hashem into every aspect of our lives. Sruli has vast experience in international relations, is the Editor in Chief of The Commentator, and the Host of the Soul Life Podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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