Terumah: The Ark and Its Poles

Terumah: The Ark and Its Poles

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

The ark is the first article of furniture in the Tabernacle.
This point is the theme of the following Midrash:

“They shall make an ark of shittim (wood).”
What is written above?
“Bring me an offering”.
Forthwith: “They shall make an ark of shittim (wood).”

Just as the Torah came first before everything else, so in the making of the Tabernacle the Ark came first before all the other article of furniture. Just as the light came first before all other objects of creation, as it is written (Genesis 1:3):

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’, so too in the case of the Tabernacle. The Torah which is called “light”, as it is written (Proverbs 6:23): “For the commandment is a lamp and the Torah a light” – its component preceded all the other articles of furniture.

The ark is one of the most prominent articles of furniture in the Tabernacle. More verses are devoted to it than any other (13 verses). The Sages of the Midrash too, pointed to the unusual wording of the opening command:

An alternative explanation: Why is the third person plural – they shall make – used here instead of the usual second person singular: you? R. Judah stated in the name of R. Shalom: Let all come and occupy themselves with the ark so that they should all qualify for the Torah.

Rambam explains R. Judah’s statement to imply that all the Israelites should participate in the construction of the ark because of its supremely sacred role in housing the tablets of the Law, by donating articles of gold for it or helping Bezalel a little or directing their minds to it.

Or Ha-hayyim gives amore elaborate explanation stressing the concept of the division of labor and the sharing of all Israel in all that is necessary for the implementation of the whole Torah. The Torah was given not merely for private inspiration but for the public weal. All have a part to play, each in accordance with his capacity and role.

The change in the wording from the second person singular to the third person plural is top illustrate that the essence of the Torah can only be fulfilled by Israel as a whole. No single individual can perform all the precepts of the Torah. For instance, a priest cannot fulfill the bestowing of the 24 priestly gifts, the redemption of the firstborn etc., while an Israelite cannot fulfill the positive commands of the sacrifices and the same applies to the Levite. But, taken as a whole, the Israelite people can keep the entire gamut of Jewish observances. For this reason the Torah states: “they shall make the ark.”

As we have often noted the slavish adherence to the literal wording of the text can often blind one to its real inner meaning. This, for instance, is what Ibn Ezra has to observe on the text:

Since the text originally stated: “they shall make Me a sanctuary”, it begins here with the wording; “they shall make an ark.”

Cassuto similarly observes in his commentary to Exodus (p. 328):

The reversion to the third person plural instead of the 2nd person singular is meant here to link up with the phrase: “the children of Israel shall make me a sanctuary,” and, first of all, they shall make me an ark.

We may justifiably wonder at these literalists as to whether they really imagined that their noting of the correspondence between the person of the verb here and in verse 8 actually provides an answer to the question. Surely verse 8 is the conclusion of the first section which contains the general order to bring the offering, and construct the Tabernacle. There the section begins in the plural, asking the children of Israel to bring God an offering: “they shall bring Me an offering…they shall make Me a sanctuary … and so they shall do.”

Our text, on the other hand, starts a new section containing all the details of the making of the furniture, followed by the details of the making of the Tabernacle, in all of which the second person singular; “you shall make” is repeatedly used. The only place where there is a deviation from this usage is the ark. Does not the very most faithful interpretation of the text, the plainest sense in its profoundest connotation, imply that here we have the singling out of the ark for a special role, the enlisting, in contrast to all the other appurtenances, of all Israel in its making? Must we not admit that the Midrash has plumbed the depths of the text’s plainest and literal sense?

Regarding the details of the moving of the ark the following is said:

And you shall make poles of acacia wood
And overlay them with gold
And insert poles into the rings on the sides of the ark with
which to carry the ark.
The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark;
They shall not be removed …

The above passage explains how the ark was to be carried and contains the prohibition against removing the rings from the ark. Here we cite the final Halakhic ruling as formulated by Rambam in his Code (Klei Ha-Mikdash 2:12-13):

When the ark is moved from place to place it is not moved on a beast or a wagon but it must be carried on the shoulder. Because David forgot and had it moved on a wagon, the breach broke out against Uzzah. This duty of carrying it on the shoulder is distinctly stated: “for the services of the holy things belonged to them: they bore them upon their shoulders” (Numbers 7:9). The porters carried it facing each other, their backs to the outside, their faces inwards, taking care that the poles should not slip out of the rings, since he who removes one of the poles from the rings is liable to the penalty of lashes, as it is stated; “the poles shall remain in the rings of the ark, they shall not be removed therefrom.”

The prohibition against the removal of the poles from the ark is puzzling. No such prohibition applies to the poles of the table or those of two altars. This prohibition which in all the enumerations of the 613 Divine precepts seems purely a technical matter. What is its point? Admittedly, it would seem sufficient that the Torah has so commanded. We are not to probe the reasons. But though we must never make the reason the be-all and end-all of the precept, we may certainly study it from all angles, and look for reasons, but not the reason – the raison d’etre, which can be no other than the fact that God ordained it.

Rambam strongly objects to those who imagine that the difference between mortal and Divine ordinances is that the former are motivated and the latter unmotivated and reasonless:

God forbid, but the contrary is the case. The purpose of them all (i.e. the commandments, statutes and judgments) are to promote our wellbeing, as Moses pointed out (Deuteronomy 4:6): “this is your wisdom in the sight of the peoples who when they hear these statuses will say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people”. Even the hukkim (the name given to the decrees and statutes of God and seem arbitrary and not founded on reason) convince the nations of their wisdom and understanding? If they are reasonless, neither bringing advantage nor removing evil, why should those who observe them come to be viewed by others as wise and understanding? But we must conclude that every one of the 613 commandments is designed to inculcate some truth or remove some erroneous opinion or to establish proper social relations or combat injustice or train the character.

In the conviction that every precept possessed its own inner reason, our Sages and commentators, ancient and modern suggested many and various reasons for them. Some like the Sefer Ha-hinukh were satisfied with attributing a purely technical role to the prohibition of: “thou shalt not remove them”:

The ark is the dwelling place of the Torah, our foundation and glory, and we have to show it the greatest reverence and respect. We are bidden not to remove its poles, since we might be called upon to go forth with the ark in haste, and in the hurry of the moment forget to examine whether the poles are properly secured and, God forbid, the ark might slip from our hold. If the poles are always secured in their place such a thing could never happen, since the ark would always be ready for transportation.

Hizkuni makes a similar point. The Almighty wanted to minimize the handling of the ark on account of its holiness. He also suggests that the text indicates that the poles fitted very tightly into the rings, and could not easily be removed, so that the ark would be securely carried however difficult the terrain. An alternative suggestion of his is that the poles did not need to be removed, since they were in no one’s way, because the ark stood in the Holy of holies, which only the high priest entered once a year. The poles, however, had to be removed from the other articles of furniture such as the altar, since people brushed past them frequently, and they would be in the way. They were only inserted during transportation; “and the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is being carried” (27:7).

But this type of explanation does not satisfy the mind that searches for the ethical and intellectual inspiration. Those who accordingly interpreted the Tabernacle symbolically and allegorically include such outstanding Jewish scholars as Ralbag, Abarvanel, Malbim, S.R Hirsch. Here we shall quote several such views.

Kli Yakar regards the permanent attachment of the poles to the ark as symbolic of the unbreakable links between Israel and the Torah. The poles perpetually fixed in the rings of the holy ark embodies the principle formulated by Isaiah (59:21) that: “My spirit…and My words shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants…from henceforth and forever” or by Joshua (1, 8): “this book of the law shall not move from your mouth”.

Others, however, regarded the prohibition to remove the poles as symbolic of the mobility of the Torah, not tied to any locality, confined to no particular country or state. This is Hirsch’s contribution:

The poles of the ark symbolize, on the physical [plane, the ubiquitous mission of the ark and what it housed-to be carried beyond its place to wherever circumstances demanded. The commandment: “The poles shall not be removed” embodied the eternal message that the Torah is not parochial, restricted to the particular country where the temple is situated. Independence of place is an essential characteristic of the Torah. This is reflected in the fact that this prohibition of removing the poles from the ark applies only to the ark, but not to the other appurtenances, to the table, the lamp stand, etc. The latter symbolizing Israel’s material and spiritual fulfillment are inextricable linked to the land of Israel. But this is not the case with the Torah.

The Gemara in Yoma (72a) states that the poles can be wrenched free but cannot be slid out easily. In other words, the prohibition of removal is based on the assumption that removal is possible. We may not remove them, but they may be wrenched out by force. But even then the ark remains intact and waits for new bearers.

Ha’amek Davar shares a similar approach but takes into consideration not only our text but a number of other verse which indicate a striking similarity between the poles of the ark and those of the outer altar of gold, on the other:

Bezalel was commanded during the actual construction of the ark to insert the poles ready for carrying. The same thing is written regarding the outer altar (27:7): “its poles shall be inserted in the rings”. This does not apply to the table and inner altar (the altar of gold for instance) where the making of the poles and rings is recorded, but not their insertion in position.

The same is true of the description of the execution, in Vayak’hel of the commands transmitted in Terumah. Regarding the ark it is stated: “And he brought the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry thereby the ark”; the altar: “And he inserted the poles into the rings on the sides of the altar wherewith to carry it”. This is not stated with regard to the table and inner altar. For this reason in Pekudei, on the occasion of the moving of the Tabernacle, it is recorded (39:35): “the ark of the testimony and it’s poles … the altar of bronze and its poles”. But with regard to the table and inner altar, the poles are not mentioned as being brought, since with the two former articles of furniture (the ark and outer altar) the poles went together with the appurtenances to which the belonged.

The message this conveys would seem to be that the Jewish people have throughout their wanderings undertaken the twin commitment of Torah and Avodah (prayer which now fills the role of the Temple service symbolized in the Ark and Outer Altar respectively. The table and Inner Altar, on the other hand, symbolize Jewish Sovereignty and Priesthood, respectively. These two concepts become relevant only when the Jewish people live in their own land, in Eretz Yisrael.

Like all the reasons advanced for the various commandments we can never know if this is the one intended by their giver. We cannot be sure that either Hirsch or the Neziv (Ha’amek Davar) were in harmony with the plain sense of the text. But the Torah’s transcendence of spatial limitations, the spread of its message to every corner of the globe are irrefutable facts, to the furtherance of this process the prophet surely referred when he foretold that:

From Zion shall the Torah go forth. And from the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3).