Parshat Terumah – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
An article appeared recently in the Jerusalem Post which discussed modern forms of idol worship. In a rather scathing attack on the Orthodox world, the writer claimed that idolatry manifests itself today in the attitude towards rabbinical figures both past and present. It was also suggested that the manner in which the Sefer Torah is treated as it is carried from the Ark to the center of the shul, kissed and idolized by the congregants who line its path is also tantamount to the worshipping of something other than the Almighty. Whilst the claim regarding the attitude to rabbis deserves due discussion, we will limit this shiur to an attempt to refute the latter argument about the Sefer Torah.
This week’s parsha begins a series of parshiot which deal with the building and construction of the Mishkan. Numerous details are recounted, often more than once, and the reader tends to lose the ability to see the meaning or significance of the various parts of the Mishkan. We will take a closer look at one aspect of the Aron.
In discussing the dimensions and structure of the Ark, the Torah states:
“Betabeot ha’aron yiheyu habadim, lo yasuru mimenu – The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it.” (Shemot 25:15)
What is the reason for this commandment not to remove the poles from their place in the rings of the Aron? All the other vessels were equipped with poles, yet no such prohibition is stated in relation to any of them.
Commentaries have dealt with this commandment in a number of ways. Rambam seems to view the prohibition to remove the poles as something technical. In Hilchot Klei Hamikdash (Chapter 2, Halacha 12), Rambam describes the fact that the Aron was always to be carried on the shoulders of the Levi’im. It was never to be transported on a wagon or other vehicle. This allows us to understand the mistake made at the time of David Hamelech, when taking the Aron to Yerushalayim. (See Shemuel Bet, Chapter 6) In the next halacha, Rambam discusses the issue of not removing the poles. It would appear that the two halachot are connected. If the poles were ever removed the requirement to carry the Aron on the shoulders might be overlooked. The two commandments are interdependent.
The Sefer Hachinuch comments, in a similar vein, that if Am Yisrael were to suddenly need to move and the poles of the Aron were not sufficiently well placed in their holders, then the Aron might slip and fall. In order to avoid such a possibility, the poles were never removed but rather tightly connected to the Aron itself.
These two opinions allow us to understand the need for this prohibition but not necessarily its symbolism. Though technically we can understand why the poles were not to be removed, we wonder as to whether there is not added significance to the statement of the Torah which is specific to the Aron. We may also ask: Why was it so important for the Aron to be transported on the shoulders of man? Surely, all of the concerns outlined by the Chinuch could have been alleviated by building a suitable wagon or other mode of transport for the Ark.
Kli Yakar weaves a connection between the prohibition to remove the Ark’s poles and the relationship Am Yisrael has with the Torah. In the same way as the poles are constantly in their right place, so the Torah always remains within and part of Am Yisrael as the passuk in Yehoshua states “lo yomush sefer hatorah hateh mipicha, this Torah should not leave your lips”. (Yehoshua 1:8). However, whereas Kli Yakar sees this passuk and a similar verse from Yeshayahu as signifying a covenant with God, this could also be viewed as a challenge to Am Yisrael. We are mandated to ensure that the Torah is always “on our lips” as is stated in the parsha found in the tefillin. (Shemot 13:9) If this is the case, the obligation to ensure that the poles of the Aron remain in place at all times serves as a reminder to us that the Torah should permanently be part of our being and existence.
This idea allows us to answer our other question. Why should the Aron be carried by man? As we have seen, we are to relate the Torah as something connected to us on a continuous basis and so, as we would treat a child, we do not send the Aron in a vehicle but rather hold it close and dear to us. We carry it ourselves. Perhaps this leads us to another reason as to why the poles were never to be removed. The Aron houses the “luchot haberit” the document testifying to our covenant with God. The Aron symbolizes the Torah, the essence of our relationship with Hashem. Whilst all the other kelim in the Mishkan serve a functional role in the daily service performed therein, the Aron is kept in the Kodesh Hakodoshim and is seen only once a year by one man, the Kohen Gadol. It is clear that the entire function of the Aron is one of symbolism. And that which it symbolizes cannot be confined to the Mishkan alone. It must be taken with us wherever we go, whether it be within the Mishkan or without, in the wilderness, exile or Eretz Yisrael. Although the Aron itself remains in the Mishkan, that which it symbolizes, the Torah and our covenant with Hashem, cannot be confined to time or place. It is for this reason that the poles remain firmly in place; to convey this notion that the Torah travels with us. Am Yisrael and the Torah can never be separated wherever we may be geographically or idealogically.
Let us return to the article we quoted at the outset. The Sefer Torah too is carried through the shul, much like the Aron which is ready to be transported and which is moved by the Levi’im themselves. However,, those charged with the ominous task of shouldering the Aron were not allowed to touch the Aron itself, just the poles. (See again Shmuel Bet, Chapter 6) According to many of the commentaries in Bamidbar, they were also not permitted to look at the Aron. They were very close to the Aron but were still required to keep a certain distance. The same applies to the Sefer Torah. We can carry it, kiss the outside and dance with it on Simchat Torah. But we are proscribed from touching the actual parchment and we are to act with a certain reverence whenever the Torah is revealed or even the Aron Kodesh open. It should therefore be clear to all who have witnessed our attitude towards a Sefer Torah that it is used as a mere vehicle, a method through which we enhance our connection to Hashem.
These acts of closeness and love on the one hand, but awe and distance on the other enable us to appreciate the Aron of the Mishkan and the Sefer Torah for what they truly are; mirrors of our relationship with God. And this is a relationship which has stood the test of time and is defined by these two factors, awe and love, or, in other words, yira and ahava.
Shabbat shalom, Rav Yonatan