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    A rachmonus on Uzzah – Sh’mini

    The Haftarah tells a story of a good deed that went wrong and brought disaster.

    There was a dramatic procession led by David to bring the Ark of the Lord to a new resting place. But instead of being carried on the shoulder as in the wilderness, the Ark was transported in a cart made for the purpose.

    Uzzah and Achyo, the sons of Avinadav, “drove the new cart” (II Sam. 6:3); this means, according to Kimchi, that they guided the oxen that pulled the cart along, with Uzzah walking by the side of the Ark and Achyo walking in front.

    However, when they reached the threshing floor of Nachon the oxen stumbled and Uzzah “put forth his hand” to steady the Ark.

    There was no vote of thanks. Instead, “The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God smote him there for his error, and there he died by the Ark of God” (verse 7; cf. I Chron. 13:10-11). As they would say in Yiddish, A rachmonus oif Uzzah – “what a pity for Uzzah!”

    What did he do wrong?

    One view is that as a non-Levite he should not have touched the Ark. Another is that he lacked faith that, as the sages put it, “The Ark sustained those who carried it” – literally, “The Ark carried its carriers”.

    We do know that after Uzzah’s death the previous practice was restored with the Ark borne on the shoulders of the Levites (I Chron. 15:15).

    David was indignant at the incident, in all probability because insufficient instructions had been given to those who handled the Ark (I Chron. 13:11) who should have been warned that incorrect handling of holy things could result in death (Num. 4:15).

    Nonetheless, we feel sorry for Uzzah. He really meant to do a good deed: did he deserve such a terrible fate?

    The Biblical text must be telling us that all one’s actions, even the good ones, have to be weighed in advance. Instinct isn’t always the best guide.

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