Tabernacle: Laden with Treasures

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

On more than one occasion, I have heard sermons addressing the Tabernacle, where the Rabbi apologizes for its “dry nature” or his difficulty in presenting exciting ideas.  The Jerusalem Talmud (Shviyis 2b) says: “It [Torah] is not a vain matter from you (Deut. 32:47), and if it is, then ‘from you’ it is vain.”  The Talmud addresses the usage of “from you” to mean this: Moses taught, if you view any part of Torah as vain or empty, it is due to your own shortcomings; you are the cause for not seeing the gems within the verses. 

In his opening chapter of Hilchos Bais Habechira, Maimonides says one of the essential principles governing the Temple’s construction is a room called the “Holy of Holies.” Yet, in the very next law when listing the various vessels, the Ark—the centerpiece of this Holy of Holies—is glaringly absent from the list! How can the room called an “essential principle” take precedence over its content, it centerpiece?

Even in chapter 4 when Maimonides addresses the Ark, he focusses on the chambers in which it was to be hidden upon the prophesied destruction of the Temple. He does not focus on the Ark’s measurements as he did regarding the other vessels. How do we explain this second omission? And why was the Ark—and no other vessel—hidden?  What is this unique character of the Ark?

Hilchos Klay Hamikdash (chap. 2) addresses the incense. After formulating 11 laws governing this incense, Maimonides includes 2 final laws concerning the carrying of the Ark restricting transporting the Ark via wagon or animal, and that it must me carried by man, with their faces towards the Ark, and not to remove its poles. Why are these 2 laws grouped with the incense? 

What is the meaning of the medrash that the Ark did not occupy any measurement? The Holy of Holies was 20 cubits square. Yet, if one measured from any side of the Ark to the wall, he measured 10 cubits. This means the Ark did not diminish space. What is the need for such a miracle, and what is the lesson?

Maimonides states that the Ark rested upon the Evven Shesiyah (a stone) from which the formation of the Earth took place. Of what relevance is this stone to the Ark? 

Exodus 30:36 concerning the incense: “…and you shall place of it in front of the Testimony (the Ark containing the Tablets of Testimony) in the Tabernacle where I meet you there…”  The problem is that the incense altar is not in front of the Ark. It is furthest removed from it, and also, the Ark is behind the Parochess curtain. In what manner is the incense burned “in front” of the Ark? I believe one answer addresses all of our questions…

Sforno teaches God command man to build the Tabernacle as a response to the sin of the Gold Calf; a concession to man's nature. The Jews expressed an inability to relate to God purely abstractly. They said,  “Moshe, the man who took us out of Egypt, we know not what has happened to him” (Exod. 32:1). They were crippled by the loss of Moshe; a tangible relationship with God. Thus, they created the Gold Calf as a replacement. God's response to this sin was to offer man a highly structured approach to his religious life, intended to prevent another Gold Calf catastrophe. The Temple is replete with laws governing each move made by the priests. Good allowed tangible religious practice, but inhibited man’s outlet of his religious emotions, as expressed when creating the Calf. He must conform to God's will and not imagine he knows how to approach God, as sinfully expressed in the Gold Calf. 

Thus, the centerpiece of Tabernacle is the Ark; an object housing the Law, which reflects God's wisdom, and His angels that deliver knowledge to man. But this law is in a room—the Holy of Holies—a room “off-limits.” No one may enter, lest he suffer death, except the high priest on Yom Kippur. The purpose of this restriction parallels the restriction on the Jews to ascend Mount Sinai at Revelation. Man must demonstrate that God is “unapproachable,” or unknowable. Man forfeits his life if he feels he can approach God, or thinks there is something tangible about the Creator, as seen in Aaron’s two sons who were killed for approaching God without being commanded, and seen in the Jews during the Gold Calf event, and the Jews who opened the Ark upon its return from the Philistines. And when Moses first erected the Tabernacle, Sforno says he first suspended the curtain, and only afterwards erected the beams under the curtain. That’s counterintuitive, but it teaches Tabernacle’s primary lesson: a veil exists between man and God. Gold Calf sinners imagined they grasped how to relate to God. Tabernacle and Temple correct error this by imposing a veil over our thoughts. We cannot know what God is or how to relate to Him, without His instruction. We must always view this curtain that hides God. 

In addition to this room's restriction, God commanded us in the daily incense. When the priest enters the Tabernacle, he is first confronted with the incense altar. Although spatially distanced from the Ark and separated by a curtain, the incense created a cloud, between the priest and the Ark, a veil between us and God. In this sense, the incense is “in front” of the Ark. It is amazing how the verse indicates this central concept.

Although the design of the Tabernacle indicates a veil between man and God, simultaneously, we must never lose focus of a life of searching out God; a life pursuing wisdom. Therefore, the carrying of the Ark on man's shoulders while facing it, and not placing it on wagons or animals, all target one idea: we must never lose focus of our primary objective: the pursuit of God's wisdom.  These two ideas—God's unapproachable nature and life's focus on wisdom—are two sides of one coin, and appropriately joined in Maimonides' laws of Klay Hamikdash. The philosophy of incense—the veil between God and man—and carrying the Ark, belong together. For it is in the transport of the Ark that one might view it as luggage or dormant. Not so. Wisdom is to be engaged at all times. The Ark is to be viewed and cared for always. We must never lose focus of God's wisdom or treat it lightly, as in transporting the Ark on wagons or animals.

This also explains why King Solomon commanded the Ark be concealed. It is not something that man can approach. No other vessel was meant to teach this lesson, so no others were hidden upon the Temple's destruction. Perhaps also the Holy of Holies is formulated as primary to the Tabernacle, and not the Ark. For it is the concept of “restricted area” that conveys our ignorance of God's nature. In that law (Bais Habechira 1:5) Maimonides also includes the laws of creating a courtyard around the Tabernacle, for this too intends to limit one's approach. It is the approach that is the central lesson, not the object we approach. 

What is the meaning of the medrash that the Ark did not occupy any measurement? The Holy of Holies was 20 cubits square. Yet, if one measured from any side of the Ark towards any wall, he measured 10 cubits. The Ark did not diminish space on this room! What is the need for such a miracle? What is the lesson? Perhaps this teaches that wisdom is not of this world. Yes, it is reflected in all of God's creations, but the physical world is a "result" of that metaphysical wisdom, and not a "location" of wisdom. The fact the Ark did not take up measurable space makes it akin to wisdom, directing us to this further realization or a world of wisdom "outside" earthly confines.

Maimonides omits the Ark in his list of the Tabernacle’s vessels, as the Ark is not utilitarian. A vessel on the other hand is used, as were the altars, the Table, and the Menorah. Ark does not “service” the Tabernacle. Unlike other objects, the Ark’s poles were never removed (Exod. 25:15). And unlike all other objects whose length ran parallel to the Tabernacle’s length to compliment the Tabernacle, the Ark was positioned within its length running perpendicular to the Tabernacle’s length (Bais Habechira 3:12). These laws express that the Ark was not subordinate to the Tabernacle; it found no greater purpose in the Tabernacle, as if it “arrived at its destination.” Retaining the poles in the Ark rejected this error. So essential is this lesson of the Ark’s poles, that the Prophets refer to them (Kings I 8:7, 8). Nor was the Ark subordinate, to enhance the Tabernacle, which would be expressed had it copied the Tabernacle’s length. No. The opposite is true: Tabernacle existed for the Ark which housed Torah. Ark, which is synonymous with God’s wisdom, is the ultimate objective of human life. The Ark cannot find any greater purpose in the Tabernacle, just as wisdom finds no ulterior purpose than itself. This is man’s purpose, to learn for the sake of learning: “Torah Lishma.” This is the culminating lesson of Pirkei Avos. This is human perfection.

Finally, the Ark rested upon the Evven Shesiyah—Earth's formation stone. This relationship teaches the purpose of the Earth. Without man's pursuit of wisdom—what Ark represents—the Earth fails to realize its purpose. The Earth's very formation, is to foster the existence of the one physical creature capable of perceiving God.