“וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי:”
“ HaShem spoke to Moshe to say. Speak to the children of Israel let them take for Me a portion; from every man whose heart motivates him take My portion.”
So begins the process of building the Tabernacle, the modular, portable Sanctuary, which accompanied the Jewish people throughout their wilderness sojourn. For the next 440 years, until King Solomon built the permanent Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 832 BCE, the Tabernacle received, and was maintained by, the Jewish people’s deeply heartfelt voluntary donations. The materials that would go into the Tabernacle were not to be given out of obligation; they had to come from deep within one’s heart. The heart represents the repository for a person’s deepest desires and aspirations and had to be the motivating source for the peoples’ generous and holy contributions.
Building of the Tabernacle included creating the various vessels that were used in the daily ritual service. They were the “ארון קדש” (Holy Ark ) the “מנורה” (Menorah), the Altars for the animal sacrifices —”מזבח הנחשת”) and incense (“מזבח הזהב”) and the “שלחן” (Table for the show bread).
The Kohen lit the Menorah every evening, and its candles burned throughout the night until morning, while the Incense Altar was used morning and evening for the incense offering. The day’s first offering on the Sacrifice Altar was the daily lamb (“עולה תמיד”, or Olah offering), and the day’s last offering was the daily afternoon lamb sacrifice. After the morning sacrifice, people would bring their private sacrifices for offering. When there were no personal sacrifices to bring, the Kohanim (Kohens) would keep the Altar busy with sacrifices from extra animals that were kept on hand for this purpose. The Table was used 24/7 to hold the Show Bread, which was brought fresh every Shabbat. Because at no time was the Table permitted to be empty of its bread, they would take the freshly baked loaves to push the old loaves off their shelves, thus continuously keeping bread on the Table.
HaShem designed the Tabernacle and all of its vessels, and, after telling Moshe to build the Tabernacle and informing him as to the requisite materials for its construction, He immediately instructed Moshe how to build the Holy Ark (Exodus 25:10):
“וְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי קֹמָתו”ֹ
“And they shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high.”
Constructed of three “boxes,” the Ark comprised a wooden inner box nestled between two gold boxes. (See the picture below on the left.)
This commandment’s wording is unusual among the commandments to make the other vessels. All the other commandments are said in singular, “וְעָשִׂיתָ“—and you ]Moshe] shall make, whereas this commandment is said in the plural, “וְעָשׂוּ“—and they shall make. Why the different command regarding the Ark?
Our Sages teach us that there are 600,000 interpretations to every verse in the Torah. The number 600,000 is the ballpark figure of the number of men who left Egypt and received the Torah on Sinai. What this means is that each one of the 600,000 people has a unique way of understanding the Torah. Since no two people are alike, the Torah will refract differently through the prism of each person’s mind, that will place a different understanding on it. This hints to us that every Jew has his own unique portion in the Torah. The Torah is not only the domain of the very learned or the great rabbis. The Torah is for every Jew at whatever level he is at.
Once, when a wealthy person wanted to give the Chofetz Chaim his Yeshiva’s entire budget, the Chofetz Chaim surprisingly refused. He said, “The Torah belongs to the whole Jewish people, and they need the opportunity to support it also. It cannot be done by one man only.”
The Holy Ark , which resided in the Holy of Holies, was the focal point of the entire Tabernacle yet was not used in any daily service. It contained the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments, the broken pieces of the first tablets, and a small Torah scroll, written on parchment with ink and a quill, which sat on a small shelf.
The “שכינה” (HaShem’s Presence) rested above the Ark, and it was from between the two Cherubim (see the two middle pictures above) that HaShem’s voice—so-to-speak—emanated when He spoke to Moshe. The Holy Ark was the source of the law.
No one was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies except the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur. The holiest man on earth was permitted into the holiest place on earth only on the holiest day of the year. The Holy Ark contained HaShem’s written word to man—the Ten Commandments, and a Torah scroll written by Moshe Rabbeinu. The Ark resided in its own section of the Sanctuary and represented the essence of our relationship with HaShem. HaShem made three covenants (“בריתות”) with the Jewish nation over the Torah.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties each of whom must fulfill his side. At Sinai, the Jewish nation agreed to their part of the covenant, viz, to keep the Torah’s laws, to enter into the covenant with HaShem. In return, HaShem promised to protect them, to give them a perfect and idyllic life in this world, and to provide indescribable reward in the world to come.
This special relationship between HaShem and His special people, the Jewish nation, was miraculously mirrored in the two gold cherubs that sat on the Ark’s cover. They had the faces of children, one male and one female. One represented HaShem and the other the Jewish nation. When the relationship was proper, and the Jewish people kept their part of the covenant, the two cherubs would directly face one another. But when the Jews strayed from their responsibilities and their commitment to keep the Torah’s commandments, and they were not, so to speak, seeing eye-to-eye with HaShem, the cherubs would similarly look away from each other.
The Talmud (Yoma 54a) tells us:
“אמר רב קטינא: בשעה שהיו ישראל עולין לרגל מגללין להם את הפרוכת ומראין להם את הכרובים שהיו מעורים זה בזה ואומרים להן, ראו חבתכם לפני המקום כחבת זכר ונקבה”
“Rav Katina said: When the Jewish people would make their pilgrimage to the Holy Temple on the Festivals, the Kohanim would part the curtain of the Holy of Holies and show the people the cherubs who were in an embrace. They would say, “Look at how beloved you are to HaShem, like the love of a couple embracing.”
The Ark, representing and holding the Torah, was the place that the love between HaShem and His people was most clearly manifest. The greatest indication of HaShem’s love for His people lies in the Torah that He gave us. In giving it to us, HaShem gave us the medium through which we could have the deepest connection to Him. The Torah is like HaShem’s soul, and the more we know of it, the more we know HaShem. The Torah is also the manual for the human being, who, if he follows it properly, will have a perfect life in this world and in the next.
The Torah is also the medium through which a human being shows his love for HaShem. The more we love someone, the more we want to please them and find favor in their eyes. By meticulously following HaShem’s Torah, we express our love to Him.
There is an important lesson here. When the cherub representing the Jewish people turns away from HaShem, HaShem’s cherub, in turn, turns away from us. HaShem’s cherub could have remained the same and not turn away from us, even though we have turned away from Him. Alas, when we turn away from HaShem, He will also turn away from us.
Our Sages teach us that, in reality, at no time does HaShem ever turn away from His people. He is always completely absorbed with our needs and issues. He occasionally does make it look as though He has abandoned us. He acts as if He is not watching out for us, and then all kinds of terrible things begin to happen. HaShem’s hope is that after we experience the problems and see how difficult things are without Him, we will return to Him. This is what the cherubs are telling us: When we return to Him, He returns to us, and the cherubs return to their original state, looking at each other.
Betzalel was chosen to be the craftsman to build the Tabernacle and its vessels. The instructions were to make the Ark of acacia wood, and to cover it inside and outside with gold. As explained above, Betzalel made three boxes: A large gold box with a crown around its lip, which extended above the cover to create a sort of crown around the Ark, a slightly smaller wooden box that snugly fit into the large gold box, and a slightly smaller box of gold that fit into the middle wooden box.
The Talmud (Yoma 72b) teaches us that Ark’s crown represented the crown of Torah.
“אמר רבי יוחנן, שלשה זירים הן של מזבח ושל ארון ושל שלחן. של מזבח זכה אהרן ונטלו; של שלחן זכה דוד ונטלו; של ארון עדיין מונח; הוא כל הרוצה ליקח יבא ויקח”
“Rabbi Yochanan said. There are three crowns (on three vessels), on the Incense Altar, on the Ark, and on the Table. Aharon “took” the crown of the Incense Altar, David “took” the crown of the Table, but the crown of the Ark is still waiting to be claimed. Whoever wishes to wear it may come and take it.”
The crown on the incense altar represented the crown of Kehuna, while the table’s crown represented the crown of royalty. The Ark’s crown represents the crown of the Torah, which could be worn by anyone who was a “תלמיד חכם” —Talmid Chacham—a Torah scholar. Anyone can become a Torah scholar! All he needs to do is study the Torah diligently and consistently, and he will become a scholar. A Torah scholar is one who embodies the Torah’s morals and values and is essentially a living Sefer Torah.
In the sense that the Ark represents a Torah scholar, its properties convey important guidance to a Talmid Chacham—Torah scholar, on what he must be.
The Talmud says (Yoma 72b)
“מבית ומחוץ תצפנו אמר רבא כל תלמיד חכם שאין תוכו כברו אינו תלמיד חכם”
The Ark was a wooden box covered with gold inside and outside. Rava learns from this that a Torah scholar must be the same on the inside as he is on the outside, which means that he must be sincere; he should not appear to be one thing, but in reality, be something completely different inside.
Interestingly, the Ark’s measurements (1.5 X 1.5 X 2.5 cubits) were not whole numbers, symbolizing that a Talmid Chacham should not see himself as complete and finished. Rather, he should always see himself as a work in progress, needing more work to complete himself. There is always more Torah to learn and a higher level of holiness to achieve.
Also, the reason all the measurements are not full numbers is to teach us that a Talmid Chacham must be “broken,” that is, humble and not haughty. Additionally, he should not seek to indulge himself and make sure that everything is perfect (whole) before he learns Torah; rather, he should minimize the materialistic aspect of things, live with less, and concentrate on life’s spiritual components.
The Holy Ark was carried with the four poles that were inserted through four rings on its sides. The table and two altars were also carried with poles that were inserted through rings on their sides. The Ark’s poles were unique in that once inserted into the rings they were never allowed to be removed. To prevent that from inadvertently occurring, their ends had balls of gold. The other vessels’ poles would be inserted when they traveled and removed when they were in their respective places in the Tabernacle. Why was the Ark different than the other vessels?
The poles of the Holy Ark , which housed the Torah, represent the supporters of the Torah, those who through their financial support uphold it and keep it alive and vibrant. The supporters of the Torah are eternally connected to the Torah and, together, they comprise one unit.
This has two important ramifications. When a business man supports a Torah scholar, allowing him to dedicate his time to the study of Torah: He will (1) be connected to that holy scholar in the World To Come, since he afforded him the ability to study his Torah, and (2) In the World To Come he will also know the Torah that the other scholar learned! One will derive these same benefits when he supports a Torah institution, such as a Yeshiva.
When the Jewish people were ready to enter the Land of Israel, they needed to cross the Jordan river. HaShem told Yehoshua that through the miraculous way that they would cross the Jordan River, the Jewish people will see that He will be with Yehoshua just as He was with Moshe and that they would be able to easily rout the indigenous nations living in the land of Israel (Joshua, Chapters 3-4).
Four Kohanim carrying the Holy Ark led the entire nation to the edge of the Jordan River. They stepped into the river with the Ark, and as soon as their feet touched the water, it stopped flowing downstream and turned upwards and was deflected towards the sky in a column, higher and higher, until the column and could be seen for miles around. The river bed on the other side of the Holy Ark was dry, allowing the Jewish people to cross over. When the foot of the last Jew reached the river’s opposite bank, the Kohanim stepped back onto the river bank, and the waters began flowing downstream again.
The Talmud (Sotah 35a) relates:
“נמצא ארון ונושאיו וכהנים מצד אחד וישראל מצד אחד נשא ארון את נושאיו ועבר”
“It comes out, that the Ark and the Kohanim were on one side of the river, and the Jewish people were on the other! [How did the Kohanim and the Ark get to the other side of the river?] The Ark carried those who carried it, and they crossed (floated) over the river.”
This was the reality: the Ark carried those who carried it. Those seemingly carrying it went through the motions making it look as if they were carrying it, but in reality, it was carrying them.
Our Sages teach us that this reality is true today as well. When we carry the Ark—Torah—and keep its laws, the Torah carries us, that is, it guards us and keeps us safe. As far as the Torah supporters are concerned as well, while it looks like the “carriers“—those who donate money to support Torah, are keeping the Torah alive and well, the reality is that the Torah is carrying its supporters, keeping them alive and well and their business endeavors prosperous so that they can continue supporting the Torah.
There is yet another peculiarity about the Ark’s poles but they share this peculiarity with the sacrifice alter. The Torah instructs Betzalel to pass the poles through the rings, thus connecting the poles to the vessels. (Exodus 25:14):
“וְהֵבֵאתָ אֶת הַבַּדִּים בַּטַּבָּעֹת עַל צַלְעֹת הָאָרֹן לָשֵׂאת אֶת הָאָרֹן בָּהֶם”
“ And you shall bring the poles into the rings on the sides of the Ark, to carry the Ark with them.”
As far as the Altar it says (27:7):
“וְהוּבָא אֶת בַּדָּיו בַּטַּבָּעֹת וְהָיוּ הַבַּדִּים עַל שְׁתֵּי צַלְעֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ בִּשְׂאֵת אֹתו”ֹ
“The poles shall be brought into the rings, and the poles should be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried.”
Indeed, when the Torah describes the construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels, it again makes a point of saying how they “brought the poles through their rings” in these two instances, but not in the others. Why would they need instructions on such an obvious matter? The rings were made for the poles! And why would the Torah need to report that they did it? Wouldn’t that be obvious?
The נצי”ב (Rabbi Naftali Yehudah Tzvi Berlin צז”ל) explains that this was to symbolize that these two vessels were designed to travel. Portability was an integral part of their purpose.
The Ark represents the Torah, and the sacrifice altar represents “עבודה”—service to HaShem —prayer. The daily morning and evening prayers correspond to the daily Morning and Afternoon sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle and then in the Holy Temple. The evening service corresponds to the parts of the sacrifices that burned on the Altar throughout the night.
The Ark is represented today by the Yeshivot, the places that people gather to study the Torah, and the Altar is represented by the synagogues where people gather to engage in service to HaShem through prayer. These two institutions have traveled with the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora and held them close to HaShem.
The Torah institutions have kept the study of Torah alive and have prepared the Torah leaders for the next generation. Strong Torah leaders keep the people connected to the Torah, the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Without it, we do not know how to be Jewish, and we lose our connection to HaShem.
The synagogues, where people come together to pray on a daily basis, keep the community together and provide a fountain of knowledge and inspiration to make Judaism vibrant and relevant.
Without these two “vessels,” the Jewish people would not have the medium through which to stay connected to HaShem and would have vanished from the earth long ago. This is why being portable was essential to these two vessels. From their inception, they were destined for travel with the Jewish people, forever.
There is one more feature of the Ark, which is a real mind-bender. The Talmud says (Bava Batra 99a):
“דאמר ר’ לוי ואיתימא רבי יוחנן, דבר זה מסורת בידינו מאבותינו מקום ארון וכרובים אינו מן המדה! תניא נמי הכי, ארון שעשה משה יש לו ריוח עשר אמות לכל רוח ורוח”
“Rabbi Levi, and some say it was Rabbi Yochanan, said, “We have a tradition that the Ark and its cherubs took up no space.” A related text supports this because it says, “The Ark that Moshe made measured ten cubits to the wall, from each of its edges.” [The Holy of Holies was twenty cubits square, and the Ark was in the center.]”
The Ark which represents the Torah, transcended space. The Torah is so spiritual, that it is not subject to the physical limitations of space. What is the significance of this?
Perhaps the miraculous salvation of the Mir Yeshiva in Europe is an example of this. When the Holocaust began, most Yeshivot disbanded, telling their students to do the best for themselves that they could to escape. Chances of survival for an individual are greater than those of a large group. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz (1902-1979) and the Rosh Yeshivas of the Mir Yeshiva felt the opposite. Their only chance for survival was to remain together as a Yeshiva and continue their Torah studies. Over 300 people, the students of the Yeshiva, their teachers and their families, traveled from Lithuania through Russia, Siberia, Japan and, finally, to Shanghai, China, safely by train. They together experienced miracle after miracle, providing them what they needed for the next leg of their trip. Contrary to the logic, that a conspicuous group of over 300 people would attract attention to itself and do them in, because the Torah that they learned so diligently “took up no space,” they were invisible to the German eyes that sought to catch them to exterminate them. (The book, Escape to Shanghai by Nachman Seltzer chronicles the miracles of their journey.)
We all have to feel the special love that HaShem has shown us, in that we are among the few who have the privilege to study His Holy Torah.