Yossi Feintuch: The Ark – a truly unique item in the Tabernacle

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[For articles on the “Sabbath of Terumah" in Hebrew, click here]

Updated on February 20, 2023

Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University.

Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem (JCCO).

He now serves as rabbi at the Jewish Center in central Oregon. (JCCO).

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This weekly portion of Torah uses a significantly different verb -- "And they shall make" (a single Hebrew word) --  in its instruction regarding the making of an Ark that would house the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. In all other cases of the accessories to be made for the Sanctuary -- a centralized venue for the service of God that the Israelites are to build -- like the cover for the Ark, or the two cherubim to be affixed at the two ends of the ark-cover, or like the table and its crown, or the candle-stick, or the altar, God's instruction is addressed to Moses alone -- "And you shall make -- as the one overseer of this whole enterprise. The reason for the "exclusive inclusivity" when it comes to the Ark alone is to internalize the idea that the learning and observance of the Torah is not limited to a certain "class" in Israel, like the priestly family of Aaron, or to the Judahites from whose tribe future kings shall come forth.

[Bible paintings; Theme: The cherubim above the atonement; Painted by Ahuva Klein. Presented with the author's permission]

And since the Torah belongs equally to the whole people it is the people as such who were instructed concerning the making of Ark. It was a given that some of the people would dedicate time to learning it daily, and some would dedicate significantly from their material possessions for the construction of this mobile edifice, but their joint commitment to the cause of Torah would still be equal and complement each other, lest any person would be brazen enough to claim more ownership in the Ark of the Covenant. And even more so, the whole reason for God's giving of the Torah in the no-man wilderness of Sinai, rather than waiting to do so in the land of Israel, was to invite all folks of the human race to share in the learning of Torah as no nation could claim exclusive rights over the desert.
Similarly, there is great meaning in the dimensions of the Ark and the kind of tree chosen for the task: "And they shall make an ark of acacia wood; two cubits and a half the height thereof." Why Acacia? God would not "waste" on constructing a tabernacle to honor Him a fruit tree such as a palm tree that produces food.  And why dimensions that are broken into cubit halves, rather than whole ones? Even here the Rabbis found reasons for that; the literal Torah, symbolized by the two Tablets of the Covenant that were to dwell in the Ark, was only a half of the Torah with the other half conveyed orally by God to Moses. Also, even an accomplished scholar of the Torah knows that he only knows a fraction of it -- at the most one half of it -- and is far from possessing a perfect command of it. Learning the Torah is a lifetime commitment that does not reach completion. Indeed, this is the whole reason why the Torah is read in annual cycles in recognition of the fact that even upon reaching the conclusion of the cycle on Simhat Torah we must at once return to its beginning to gain new insights and remind ourselves of what we already have forgotten. Yes, even the teacher knows that to be wise he must learn even from his student for his own knowledge is far from whole, not unlike the half cubit dimension of the Ark.
Last but not least, unlike the other vessels of the Tabernacle whose carrying staves were detachable, like in the case of the table or the altar, the hauling staves of the Ark were the only ones that were permanently secured to it -- "they may not be removed from it."  The point being that no matter where the people go or travel, even when their departure must be immediate, the Ark's means of transport are always attached to it so that it will go with the people under all circumstances.  Again, the idea herein is that learning Torah is not tied to a specific place but to everywhere and at all times. Why the Torah is not the Torah of the Land of Israel, but it is the Torah of the people of Israel wherever they may be. While all other accessories may be in an "off" mode, when they are not carried and, therefore, are not constantly in use, the Ark is always in an "on" mode, ready to be engaged with.  The Rabbis thus infused liveliness and meaning in otherwise technical and seemingly uninspiring architectural details.

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Yossi Feintuch: The Ark – a truly unique item in the Tabernacle

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