“Being Transported by Torah”
(updated and revised from Terumah 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, the Al-mighty reveals His plans for the מִשְׁכָּן, Mishkan, His glorious Tabernacle.  This temporary house of worship, that is to be built by Moses and the People of Israel, is to serve as a place for the people to focus their spiritual ardor during the years of wandering in the wilderness and the early years in the Promised Land.

The central furnishing of the Tabernacle, of course, is the אָרוֹן , 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 with special coverings, 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 records the materials that may be used to manufacture both the Ark and the staves (Exodus 25:13): וְעָשִׂיתָ בַדֵּי עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתָם זָהָב, 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 declares (Exodus 25:15) that the staves of the Ark must remain in the rings of the Ark, לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, They shall not be removed from it [the Ark]. Rashi adds the word לְעוֹלָם, underscoring that the staves may never, ever be removed. In fact, the Talmud in Yoma 72a, states that a person 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.”

The commentators explain that these non-removable staves underscore the fact that the Torah must always be transportable. Jews may be able to live without the imminent presence of 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 preserve 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 portability 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 few accomplished Jewish pianists. He responded that it is very difficult to carry a piano when fleeing from a village pogrom! No matter the circumstances, the Torah must be ready to accompany the Jewish people wherever they go.

The late great Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer asks the question: If the Torah is supposed to be transported with the Jewish people wherever they 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 just as the other staves are in the other vessels and furnishings? Rabbi Firer points out that in parashat Pekudei where the Mishkan is finally assembled, scripture states, Exodus 40:20: וַיִּקַּח וַיִּתֵּן אֶת הָעֵדֻת אֶל הָאָרֹן, וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת הַבַּדִּים עַל הָאָרֹן, 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 itself 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 6:6). Uzza should have known that the Ark carries itself, and that mortals do not carry the Ark.

The message of the Ark is profound. Unfortunately, human beings are frequently filled with hubris, thinking that they are masters of their fate and captains of their souls. The incredible scientific advances of the recent centuries and years have given mortals even more reason 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.