“The Message of the Holy Ark”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we learn, in great detail, of the building of the Tabernacle.

G-d tells Moses to appeal to the People of Israel to donate materials to the sanctuary to be used in the manufacture of the furnishings of the Tabernacle. The Torah then enumerates, at significant length, all the directions for building the furnishings.

As noted previously in our analysis of Terumah 5762-2002, of all the furnishings of the Tabernacle, the most extensive instructions are given for the building of the Holy Ark, which houses the Ten Commandments and the Torah. Inasmuch as the Holy Ark was the spiritual focal point of the Tabernacle, it is entirely understandable that the Torah would devote its most extensive description to the Ark.

In Exodus 25:10, the Bible states, “V’ah’soo ah’ron ah’tzay shee’tim, ah’ma’ta’yim va’chay’tzee or’ko, v’ah’mah va’chay’tzee rach’bo, v’ah’mah va’chay’tzee ko’mah’toh,” they shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length; a cubit and a half its width; and a cubit and a half its height. The Torah then instructs that the Ark be gilded (Exodus 25:11): “V’tzee’pee’tah oh’toh, zahav ta’hor, mee’bah’yeet oo’mee’chootz t’tza’peh’noo, v’ah’see’tah ah’lahv zayr zahav sah’veev,” you shall cover it with pure gold, from within and without shall you cover it, and you shall make on it a gold crown all around. The instructions for the Ark conclude with the directive that four rings be cast on the corners of the Ark, into which two staves of acacia wood covered with gold are inserted, never to be removed, that will serve to transport the Ark.

The Torah then elaborates on the details of the Ark cover and the cherubs that were made out of one solid block of gold and positioned on top of the Ark.

Rashi expounds on the meaning of the expression (Exodus 25:11) “to cover it with pure gold, from within and without shall you cover it.” He states that the Ark should be fashioned of three concentric boxes. The outer and inner most boxes were to be made of gold, but the central box was to be made of acacia wood. Thus, the main box was covered with gold, inside and out.

As we have explained in our previous analysis, the message of the Ark is that as beautiful and as pure as gold is, it is an inert substance with no ability to grow. Therefore, the inside of the Ark must be made of wood, something that comes from a living substance, which reflects life and growth.

The Talmud, in Yomah 72b, cites the sage Rabbah, who derives from the expression in Exodus 25:11, “You shall cover it with gold from within and without,” the principle that any scholar whose inside is not like his outside, is no scholar, insisting that a true scholar must have the same golden character through and through. The Talmud cites other, more outspoken, scholars than Rabbah who maintain that a so-called scholar who is not of the same golden character inside and out is regarded as an “abomination.”

The Talmud, in Baba Metziah 49a, expands on this very theme. Rabbi Yosi, the son of Rabbi Judah, asks: What is taught by the verse in Leviticus 19:36, “a just Eifah and a just Hin (weight measures) you shall have”? Surely, Hin is included in Eifah (the larger weight measure)? It is to teach that your yes (Hin) should be just, and your no should be just. This play on words shows that even a casual verbal transaction must not be duplicitous. Abaye says further, this means that one must not speak one thing with the mouth and feel otherwise in one’s heart.

Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, in the Book of Knowledge 2:6, details the implications and ramifications of deceptive behavior:

It is forbidden to accustom oneself to smooth speech and flatteries. One must not say one thing and mean another. Inward and outward self must correspond; only what we have in mind, may we utter with the mouth. We must deceive no one, not even an idolater. A man, for example, must not sell to an idolater flesh from a beast that has died naturally, as if it were meat of an animal ritually slaughtered. Nor should one sell a shoe, the leather of which came from the hide of a beast that met a natural death, allowing others to assume that the leather came from the hide of a ritually slaughtered animal.

One must not urge another to join one at a meal when it is known beforehand that the invitation will not be accepted. Nor should one press upon another any marks of friendships which one knows will be declined. So too, casks of wine, which are already open for sale, should not be presented in such a way as to deceive a guest, in order to make the guest believe that they have been opened in his honor, and so forth. Even a single word of flattery or deception is forbidden. A person should always cherish truthful speech, upright spirit and a pure heart free from all forwardness and perversity.

Once again, we see the wonders of the Torah.

The later chapters of parashat Terumah, as well as almost all the final chapters of the Book of Exodus, deal primarily with the building of the Tabernacle. They contain dense and detailed instructions delineating precisely how to build the Tabernacle. Students often see these chapters as having no relevance to them. And yet, we see how particularly relevant these verses are. From a mere biblical reference about covering the acacia wood of the Ark with gold on the inside and outside, our rabbis derive an entire philosophy of life.

That philosophy can be summed up simply and succinctly: Hyperbole must be avoided, as well as exaggerated flattery and misleading others. One must always be genuine and sincere, both inwardly and outwardly. That is the message of the three boxes that are within the Ark.

Who would believe that these vital lessons are all part of the gift of the Mishkan, the ancient Tabernacle of the Israelites?

May you be blessed.