Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, email@example.com
Dr. Devorah Ushpizai
Dept. of Talmud
Several questions arise regarding the Ark. It was the first of the items in the Sanctuary that the Israelites were commanded to make. What made it deserve such precedence?
The imperative used to command making the Ark is different from the imperatives used in connection with the other items. With regard to the Ark it says, "They shall make an Ark" (Ex. 25:10), in the third person plural, whereas with regard to the other items it says, "You shall make a table" (v. 23), and "You shall make a lampstand of pure gold" (v. 31), the command being in the second person singular. Why?
Considerably more verses are devoted to the Ark than to other items--thirteen verses in all. The table and all its implements have a total of eight verses; the lampstand and its implements, ten; the copper altar, eight; the altar of gold, six. Why did the Ark deserve so many more verses?
All the dimensions for the Ark involve fractions: "two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high" (Ex. 25:10). Why is not a single dimension whole?
The poles of the Ark alone are not to be removed: "The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark: they shall not be removed from it" (Ex. 25:15). The poles of the other items were removable and were used only for carrying the items during the Israelites' journey through the wilderness. What does this signify?
All these questions are asked by the midrash (Exodus Rabbah 34:1), which provides the following answer:
The first part of the homily is clear, since the Torah is said to be primal. The Torah existed before the world, according to a homily in Genesis Rabbah (1:1): "The Holy One, blessed be He, looked in the Torah and created the world." So, clearly, first place is reserved for the Torah, and therefore also the Ark in which the scroll of the Torah is placed. The second part of the homily is somewhat surprising, since it might seem more fitting for the lampstand, the Menorah, to represent light. The reference was apparently to the spiritual light that the Torah provides the world and without which the world would be in darkness. (Note, incidentally, that the Hebrew for Ark, aron, contains the letters of light, or).
As for the use of the plural, "They shall make," the homily explains: "Everyone will come and help make the Ark so that they all have a share in the Torah" (Exodus Rabbah 34:1). Midrash Tanhuma (Va-Yak'hel 8) provides a different explanation:
Nahmanides offers the following explanation, based on the midrash: "G-d commanded that all Israel take part in making the Ark since it is the sacred dwelling of the Almighty, so that they all merit the Torah ... each person donating one golden implement to the Ark, or helping Bezalel in some way." In other words, the intention was that all Israel take part in the actual making of the Ark.
A different approach is taken by R. Hayyim Ben Atar in his commentary, Or Ha-Hayyim. He says that the Torah can only be maintained by the generality of the Jewish people. No single individual can uphold the entire Torah. There are commandments that are directed at specific segments of the population, such as priests, levites, judges, owners of agricultural fields or of city homes, etc. "The entire body of the Torah cannot be upheld except by all of Israel together, ... hence it says 'They shall make an Ark,' in the plural." Only all the Jews together can accomplish this mission. No wonder more verses are devoted to this subject, for the Ark is directed at the entire body of the Jewish people.
Many approaches have been suggested to explain the prohibition against removing the poles. We shall only cite those that pertain to the symbolic aspect of this command. Kli Yakar sees the fact that the poles are not to be removed under any circumstances as symbolizing the constant bond between Israel and the Torah, for a covenant was made with Israel with the promise that it "not be absent from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your children, nor from the mouth of your children's children--said the Lord--from now on, for all time" (Is. 59:21). In Ha'amek Davar, the Netziv (Rabbi N.Z.Y. Berlin) says that the Ark with its poles symbolizes the mobility of the Torah, which traveled everywhere that Israel went when exiled from their land, in contrast to the table, which symbolizes kingship, and the lampstand, which symbolizes the priesthood, which existed only as long as the children of Israel lived in their land. "The might of the Ark, which is the Torah, was carried from place to place in every generation, wherever the Jews were exiled." Prof. Isaiah Leibowitz expressed a similar idea: "The Ark, which symbolizes the Torah, is essentially made to be carried from place to place. Therefore the poles remained fixed to it. The Torah is not bound to any particular place. It is the "Torah of Man" (zot torat ha-adam) wherever he may be. Therefore the Ark is made in such a way as to show that by its very nature it can be carried from place to place" (He'arot le-Parshat Ha-Shavua, Hebrew University Press, Jerusalem, 1988, p. 56).
Interestingly, the non-removable poles are what indicate the removable quality of the Torah because they could transport the Ark at a moment's notice, without inserting rods through rings as the other implements of the Tabernacle required. The Ark is always ready to set out on the road; thus it was in the time of Solomon's Temple, as well (cf. I Kings, 8:8).
Regarding the dimensions being fractional numbers, this is interpreted as alluding to those who study the Torah. They must always be aware of their deficiencies and lack of wholeness; they must always aspire to improve themselves and enhance their knowledge, as is implied by the phrase Talmid hakham, a scholar, but literally one who learns from, a student of, wise men. Another idea is also hinted at by the Ark: we should all be true inside to what we appear to be on the outside, just as the Ark was covered inside and out with pure gold.