“The Centrality of Torah”
(updated and revised from Terumah 5762-2002)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah, G-d speaks to Moses 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 מִשְׁכָּןMishkan–the Tabernacle, are quite specific and detailed. In fact, the building plans and the description of the construction actually cover four of the final five parashiot of the book of Exodus, and even play a minor role in the fifth parasha, Kee Tisah.

The most significant of the Tabernacle’s furnishings is the אָרוֹן –the Ah’ron, the Holy Ark, and the Ark cover. The Ark housed the Tablets of the Law, upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. The description of the Holy Ark is the most extensive and lengthy of all the descriptions of the Tabernacle furnishings, and its details are very precise. The Ark is to be constructed of acacia wood covered with gold. It is to have three wooden compartments, housed one within the other. Its exact length, height, and depth are specified. There is to be an Ark cover known as the כַפֹּרֶתKaporet,  כְרוּבִיםKeruvim, cherubs, made of one solid piece of gold, were to be hammered out as part of the Ark cover.

Like all the furnishings of the Tabernacle, the Holy Ark was transportable, since it needed to be taken from place to place during the forty years that the people wandered in the wilderness. When the Israelites stopped to encamp, the Tabernacle was erected, and the Ark was placed inside 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 to facilitate the carrying.

In Exodus 25:13 the Torah instructs the architects of the Tabernacle: וְעָשִׂיתָ בַדֵּי עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתָם זָהָב , 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. Exodus 25:15 states explicitly, בְּטַבְּעֹת, הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַּדִּים,  לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ , The staves shall remain in the rings of the Ark, 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 once they were inserted, they could not be removed. 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. That is why the staves, the means of its transport, are always attached to the Ark.

The Jerusalem Talmud, (Shekalim 6:1) reports that these staves played an important part, not only in the temporary portable Tabernacle, but also in the permanent Temple that Solomon built, as well. According to tradition, the Ark staves were positioned in such a manner in the sanctuary that the two ends of the staves rested against the פָּרֹכֶתparochet, the curtain dividing the front chamber of the Tabernacle—the Holy, from the Holy of Holies, causing two protrusions to be seen on the curtain. In fact, R. Shimon b. Lakish, refers to these protrusions as “breasts”–a symbol of nourishment and nurturing.

According to tradition, (Rambam Laws of the Temple 4:1) when he was building the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon saw in a prophecy that the Temple would ultimately be destroyed. In anticipation, he built an underground chamber to serve as a future hiding place for the holy furnishings.

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 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 one tradition, they remain to this day.

These accounts underscore 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.

It was this ancient portrayal of the Ark and Torah as the center of Jewish life, that fostered the Jewish people’s early commitment to study and education, and quite likely set the tone for generations that followed, leading our people to become 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, which established their exalted stature, and created the passionate reverence for learning. Although Jewish law was always extraordinarily sensitive to unfair business practices, there was no such thing as unfair or ruthless competition in Torah education. Declares the Talmud in Tractate Baba Batra 21a, קִנְאַת סוֹפְרִים תַּרְבֶּה חָכְמָה the more competition, the better. In fact, Torah study is considered so essential that the Midrash, based on the verse in Isaiah 55:1, Rashi, often compares it to water, maintaining that, like water, without Torah learning, the Jewish people cannot endure.

There is a quaint custom common among the Jewish people that has long been a source of fascination for me. When a sacred book or text falls to the ground, it is immediately lifted and kissed. Jews kiss their books, because they love their books. They love them as they love life itself. This is why Jews declare in the second blessing of the evening שְׁמַעSh’ma, כִּי הֵם חַיֵּינוּ וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֵינוּ וּבָהֶם נֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה , 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.