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Torah Commentary
T'rumah (February 16, 2013)


Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

T’RUMAH BEGINS A NARRATIVE that lasts 16 chapters and completes the Book of Exodus. Starting with a precise and meticulous set of instructions for constructing the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary that will accompany the Israelites in their desert wandering), its fittings, appurtenances and sanctified furniture, the parashah continues, after a brief albeit momentous excursus recounting the episode of the Golden Calf, with an account of their construction — blueprint and execution.

The first item on the agenda is the Ark. The Rabbis, in fact, underscore the hierarchical prominence of the Ark: “Just as the Torah preceded everything [at the Creation], so also did He give precedence to the Ark over all the other vessels in the construction of the Tabernacle.” (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 34:2) They elaborate further on the Ark’s significance by noting that the divine instructions are directed to the people — “They shall make” — where the instructions for each other item begins, “You [Moses] shall make.” This distinction, they explain, is intended by God to convey an inclusiveness, indicating that all Israelites have a share in the Ark’s construction: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Let all come and occupy themselves with the Ark in order that they may all merit the Torah.’”

We are given the exact dimensions of this sacred container that is to be constructed of acacia wood, and we may be somewhat surprised at its diminutive size — nearly four feet long and slightly more than two feet wide and two feet high. There follows instructions concerning the gold covering of the case, the attachment of four gold rings on the corners and the gold encrusted wooden staves, which will be inserted through the rings and used to transport the Ark.

The attention lavished on this chest is a result of its contents: “And deposit in the Ark [the tablets of] the Pact [Covenant] which I will give you.” This was to be the repository for the most sacred artifact the Israelites possessed — the word of God, communicated by God, incised in stone tablets — an object of supreme holiness. Tradition tells us that the Ark also contained a golden jar of manna (Exodus 16:33) and Aaron’s staff (Numbers 17:25), and some sources also suggest it held the Torah scroll composed by Moses. Interestingly, the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, from the late first century C.E., also attests to the presence in the Ark of the manna and the rod along with the tablets. (Hebrews 9:4)

Beyond serving as a container for revered objects, the Ark itself functioned as a platform for divine communication. Moses is instructed to drape a gold covering — the kapporet — over the Ark and to make and place two gold cherubim at both ends of the Ark. This ensemble constituted the throne [wings of the cherubim] and the footstool [the Ark] of God. It became the medium for the mystical encounter with the divine spirit: “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:22, cf. Numbers 7:89) Noteworthy is that the text emphasizes that God does not speak through the cherubic forms; rather his voice emerges from the void between them.

Later, in the time of Solomon’s Temple, when the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies of the Sanctuary, it continued to serve as a transmitter for human-Divine interaction. The High Priest would approach the Ark, the seat of the Divine Presence, on Yom Kippur to appeal directly for the atonement of the people’s sins.

The Ark represents righteous relationship. Martin Buber posited that our sense of Being is actualized in relationship. Thus, the Ark is as much the objective correlative of such a relationship as it is the medium through which it is accomplished. The experience of standing in its presence resonates with the deeply felt human yearning for a meeting place with God, the quest to hear the Voice of God. For the generation of Sinai the Ark was the instrument for encountering the Divine one on One, and such was the case in the era of the Temple, even with the Second Temple when the Ark was a palpable absence.

For us today, the ark in our synagogues is the closest equivalent. But simply standing in its presence may not produce the sought-for intimacy with God. Many synagogues have an inscription in the vicinity of their ark that exhorts the worshiper to “Know before whom you stand.” We need to “know,” to remind ourselves, that our presence in the synagogue as we engage in communal prayer is replete with the potential for encountering the numinous existence of the Most High.

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