“The Centrality of Torah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah, G-d speaks to Moshe and instructs him to build for Him a sanctuary, so that He (G-d) may dwell among the People of Israel.

The details of the architecture of the Mishkan–the Tabernacle, are quite specific and lengthy. In fact, the building plans actually cover four of the final five parashiot of the book of Exodus, and even plays a minor role in the fifth parasha, Ki Tisah. The most significant of the Tabernacle’s furnishings was the Holy Ark and the Ark cover. The Ark housed the Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments. Its description is the most extensive and lengthy of all the descriptions of the furnishings in the Tabernacle, and its details very specific. The Ark is to be constructed of acacia wood covered with gold. It is to have three compartments housed one within the other. Its exact length, height, and depth are specified. There is to be an Ark cover made of one solid piece of gold, with cherubs hammered out as part of the Ark cover.

Like all the furnishings of the Tabernacle, the Holy Ark was transportable, so it could be taken from place to place during the forty years that the people wandered in the wilderness. When the Israelites encamped, the Tabernacle was erected, and the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies. Like most of the other sacred furnishings of the Tabernacle, in order to facilitate its transport, the Ark had staves, or poles attached to its sides. Exodus 25:13: Va’ah’see’tah va’day ah’tzay shee’tim, v’tzee’pee’tah o’tam zah’hav.” The Torah instructs the architects of the Tabernacle to make two staves of acacia wood and cover them with gold. The staves with which the Ark is to be carried are to be inserted into rings, that were located on the sides of the Ark. Verse 15 states explicitly, “The staves shall remain in the rings of the Ark,” “Lo yah’soo’roo mee’meh’noo,” they may not be removed from it!

While all the sacred furnishings had staves, only the Holy Ark had non-removable staves. According to tradition, the staves themselves were designed to be wider at the ends so that they could not be removed from the rings once they were inserted. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the eternal presence of the staves symbolized the concept that the Torah is not tied to any one place. Indeed, wherever Jews go, willingly or otherwise, their Torah is to go with them, for the staves, the means of its transport, are always attached to the Ark.

The Midrash tells us that these staves played an important part not only in the temporary Tabernacle, but in the permanent Temple that Solomon built as well. According to tradition, the staves were positioned in such a manner in the sanctuary that the two ends of the staves rested against the parochet, causing two protrusions to be seen on that curtain, which served as the doorway to the Holy of Holies. In fact, the Midrash refers to these protrusions as “breasts”–a symbol of nourishment and nurturing. According to tradition, when he was building the Temple, King Solomon received a prophesy that the Temple would ultimately be destroyed. In anticipation, he built an underground chamber to serve as a future hiding place for the holy implements. Many centuries later, in the time of King Josiah, the priests reported to the King that the “breasts” had disappeared from the curtain. Josiah understood this to be a sign that the Temple would soon be destroyed, and that all the the furnishings were in imminent danger. King Josiah had the furnishings removed and placed in the underground chambers, the secret tunnels under Mt. Moriah, where, according to tradition, they remain to this day.

This Midrash underscores the critical role that Torah plays in the delicate balance of our lives. Once the outline of the staves of the Ark disappear, the Temple can no longer stand. Once the Torah is compromised, the Temple can no longer endure.

The ancient portrayal of the Ark and Torah as the center of Jewish life, and the Jewish people’s early commitment to study and education, is quite likely what set the tone for generations that followed, and resulted in our people becoming known as the “People of the Book.” The central focus of Jewish living became Torah study, and Torah became the elixir of life for the Jewish people.

This led to many important developments in Jewish life–the primacy of the scholar, the teacher and the rabbi, and established their exalted stature and reverence for learning. Although the Torah was always extraordinarily sensitive to unfair business practices, there was no such thing as unfair or ruthless competition in Torah education. “Kin’at sof’rim tar’beh choch’mah”--the more competition the better. In fact, Torah study is considered so essential that the Midrash often compares it to water, maintaining that without Torah learning, the Jewish people cannot endure.

There is a quaint custom common among the Jewish people that has always fascinated me. When a sacred book or text falls to the floor, it is picked up and kissed. Jews kiss their books, because they love their books. They love them as much as they love life itself. As we say in the second blessing of the evening Sh’ma, “Kee haym cha’yay’nu, v’oh’rech yah’may’nu, ooh’va’hem neh’geh yo’mam va’lai’lah,” For they [the commandments of the Torah] are our life and the length of our days, and on them shall we meditate day and night.

May you be blessed.