Chapter four of the Book of Numbers includes a curious law. None of the sons of Kohat – the Levites assigned the task of transporting the sanctuary – may witness the dismantling of the sanctuary under the penalty of death (Numbers 4:20). The third century Talmudic authority Rav Yehudah understands this verse in a non-literal way, suggesting that this verse is the source for the rule against stealing any holy object from the Temple precincts (Babylonia Talmud, Sanhedrin 81b). Indeed, it is difficult to understand why the Torah prescribes the death penalty for just looking at something; something designed to be seen. So Rav Yehudah applies the verse to a situation that makes sense.
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, however, understands the verse in its context. He argues that the death penalty is appropriate in this circumstance. When the sanctuary is dismantled, the contents of the Holy of Holies would be exposed. Viewing that which reserved only for the High Priest would be sacrilegious. Similarly, Rav Nahman (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a) considers the viewing of the dismantled sanctuary by the Levites as an act of impropriety.
But to the classical Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Seforno (1470–1550), the death penalty is appropriate not because of what the Levites see, but because of what they do not see! All the while the sanctuary is in position, the Levites would naturally behave with respect and dignity. They would officiate with the decorum their office demanded. But when the sanctuary was dismantled, they might reason that the standard of conduct required when the completed sanctuary was in view does not apply when the completed sanctuary is not in view. The resultant levity – while appearing acceptable to the Levites under the circumstances – was deemed unacceptable by God. The concern is serious and the death penalty reflects it. Just because the structures of the sanctuary were out of sight, there is no reason to behave with any less respect.
For us today the same truth applies. When in the synagogue or at the Western Wall most Jews behave respectfully. But when outside the presence of a holy place, Jewish behavior tends to be less than holy. This should not be the case. Jews ought to be as respectful in their conduct outside the synagogue as inside the synagogue just as the Levites were to be as careful about their conduct when the completed sanctary was not in view.