“Being Transported by Torah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, the Al-mighty reveals His plans for His glorious Tabernacle, the Mishkan, that is to be built by Moses and the People of Israel and is to serve as a place for the people to focus their spiritual ardor.

The central furnishing of the Tabernacle, of course, is the Aron–the Ark–which contains the Tablets of Law known colloquially as the “Ten Commandments.” Because of the holiness of the furnishings of the Tabernacle, it was forbidden to transport them on the wagons that the Levites used to transport some of the other parts of the Tabernacle structure–the pillars, columns, and curtains. Instead, the holy furnishings of the Tabernacle were to be covered by the priests, and then transported on the shoulders of the Levites, utilizing staves that were inserted into rings that were attached to the various vessels. Thus were the holy furnishings–the table of show-bread, the golden altar, the menorah, and even the huge altar of copper, transported on the Levites’ shoulders.

The Torah informs us that the Ark as well had staves (Exodus 25:13): “V’ah’see’tah va’day ah’tzay shee’tim, v’tzee’pee’tah oh’tahm za’hav,” And you shall make staves of acacia wood and cover them with gold. In order to transport the Ark, the staves were to be inserted into rings that were affixed to the sides of the Ark. However, due to the special sanctity of the Ark, the Torah tells us (Exodus 2 5:15) that the staves of the Ark must remain in the rings of the Ark, “Lo yah’soo’roo mee’meh’noo,” They shall not be removed from it [the Ark]. Rashi adds the word “L’oh’lohm,” underscoring that the staves may never, ever be removed. In fact, the Talmud in Yoma 72a states that one who removes the staves of the Ark is subject to the punishment of lashes, for it is a violation of the negative commandment of “They shall not be removed.”

Our commentators explain that these non-removable staves underscore the fact that the Torah must always be transportable. Jews may be able to live without a menorah, without a table of show-bread, without an altar, but the Jewish people cannot survive without the Torah accompanying them wherever they go. One need not look further than to the Babylonian exile to see the power of Torah and its ability to perpetuate our People despite the fact that they had been exiled from their land and had suffered so greatly under the Babylonian persecutors. It was the living Torah, in this instance, the Oral Code–the Talmud, that enabled the Jewish people to survive at that time, and indeed flourish.

The transportability of the Torah brings to mind the bittersweet anecdote related in the name of the famous Russian-Jewish pianist, Vladimir Horowitz (1904-1989), who was once asked why there are so many famous Jewish violinists and so many fewer accomplished Jewish pianists. He responded that it is very difficult to carry a piano when fleeing from the pogrom that breaks out in your village! While we certainly don’t wish that future Jewish history will be a repeat of the pogroms and exiles of the Jewish people, the Torah nevertheless has to be on the ready to accompany us wherever we go.

The late great Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer asks the question: If the Torah is supposed to be transported with us wherever we go, why are the staves not constructed of one piece with the Ark? Why are they inserted into rings on the side of the Ark as is done with the other vessels and furnishings? Rabbi Firer points out that in parashat Pekudei where the Mishkan is finally assembled, scripture notes, Exodus 40:20: “Va’yee’kach va’yee’tayn et hah’ay’doot el hah’ah’ron, vah’yah’sem et hah’bah’dim al hah’ah’ron,” Moses took and placed the tablets into the Ark and inserted the staves on the Ark. The verse indicates that before the poles may be inserted into the rings of the Ark, it is first necessary for the Torah to be deposited in the Ark. Had the poles been made of one piece together with the Ark, that order of placement would have been impossible.

Why was it so important that the poles be inserted only after the Torah was placed in the Ark? Our Rabbis in Sotah 35a teach that the Ark is not carried by its bearers. To the contrary, it is the Ark that carries those who carry it, which is why the tablets had to be placed in the Ark first. It is for this reason that Uzza was punished when he tried to save the Ark from falling off the wagon when it was being returned from Philistine captivity in the time of David (I Chron. 13:9, II Samuel 7:7). Uzza should have known that the Ark carries itself, and that mortals do not carry the Ark.

The message of the Ark is profound. It is not infrequent that human beings are filled with hubris, thinking that we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls. The incredible scientific advances of the past recent centuries have given mortals even more reasons to fathom that they shall soon master the entire universe. The Tabernacle, our Mishkan, and the Ark, teach us that the Al-mighty still governs the world, and that only by being closely attached and subservient to His Torah will we mortals be able to make significant contributions to His world.

May you be blessed.