Torah | To find meaning in ark description, look to the details

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Exodus 25:1-27:19

Kings I 5:26-6:13

Here we go again. The first book and a half of the Torah offer rich narrative; the stories found in Bereshit and the beginning of Shemot are among the most famous and deliberated in the world. And then comes the Tabernacle. Five Torah portions in a row detail the design and construction of the portable temple known in Hebrew as the Mishkan, which we carried through 40 years in the Sinai. It was an important structure, serving as the center for religious experience for close to four centuries until King Shlomo built the first Temple in Jerusalem.

But the details seem a bit much, especially when the only break in the technical descriptions comes in the form of a disastrous incident with a calf made of gold. What can we make of the extensive detail offered us about the Mishkan and its vessels? Why record the design specifications in the Torah if we don’t make regular use of them? Just let Moshe build it and be done!

It is classically assumed that besides being a functional spiritual center, the Mishkan and its accoutrements offer symbolic lessons. The key to making more out of these Torah portions is to ask questions, and insight follows.

By way of example, let us examine the most famous of the items described in this week’s Torah portion, the aron kodesh (holy ark of the covenant). It held within it the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and generally symbolizes Torah and wisdom. There are so many questions to use as a springboard for gathering insight — including linguistic, midrashic, educational and philosophical questions and those just triggered by common sense.

Linguistic: With regard to the other vessels constructed for the Mishkan, the Torah gives the command to fashion them in the singular, but for the aron it commands its construction in the plural. Why the shift? The Chafetz Chaim suggests this is because the Torah belongs to all Jews. It is not simply the province of scholars, but beckons to all who would take the time to study. As Maimonides explains (Law of Torah Study 3:1), there are only a few whose lineage entitles them to serve as kings of priests, but the Torah awaits each of us.

Midrashic: The Torah describes the aron as gold-plated — a box of wood layered in gold inside and outside (Exodus 25:10-11). A Midrash in the Talmud offers a symbolic reading (Yoma 72B) that a person should strive to accept the Torah as the ark did; with purity like fine gold inside and out. In this sense, one is meant to study Torah with purity and learn what it teaches us, as opposed to whatever ideas we can superimpose on it. Yet, there is also wood inside. Why not make it a container of pure, solid gold? Perhaps because this joins the metal to something with the capacity for growth. Our study is intended to possess the purity of gold coupled with the treelike ability to grow and change.

Educational: The cover of the aron is adorned with two gold sculptures of keruvim (cherubs) on top. In a religion that eschews images in the spiritual realm, what critical teaching is offered by having this in our holiest place? Rashi explains  that the keruvim had the faces of children. The word “ravya” means “child” in Aramaic, so the term “keruvim” means “like children.” Why have them be like children but not actually children? Perhaps because children approach everything with wonder. This is a fantastic personal quality for us to carry into our study of Torah. But we need to be sophisticated and analytical, as well.

Common sense: After its construction was complete, people were forbidden to touch the aron directly. It was moved by lifting two long poles that fit through rings in its sides. This is an effective means of transporting the ark. But oddly, the law required that the poles never be removed (Exodus 25:15). What’s the purpose in something that is not being moved? Perhaps the message is that the nature of knowledge is such that it is meant to go with each of us wherever we go. What we learn is beautifully portable.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].