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D'var Torah: Terumah

Last week Moses was given the first set of statutes that the people were to obey, laws that built upon and amplified those contained in the Decalogue (there are plenty more to come). In this week’s sidra, Moses begins to receive the instructions for building the mishkan (“dwelling”) and its accouterments. In addition to God giving Moses a detailed verbal description of each component, God tells him that he would be shown “the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings” (Ex. 25:9).

The importance of the mishkan, which is also called “the Tent of Meeting,” was significant to the Israelites during their years of traveling in the wilderness. It functioned as the site of the cult’s sacrificial practices, as the people’s seat of justice, and, most important, as the locus for the indwelling divine presence, the Shekhinah (same root), where Moses communed with God. The first item that God orders to be fabricated is, significantly, the Aron, the Ark. As the mishkan served as the center of the entire community, the Ark served as the very heart of the mishkan. According to the Ramban,

The two related functions of the Ark—containing the Testimony and serving as a point of meeting—are reflected in the two names of the mishkan: “ohel mo’ed” [Tent of Meeting] and “mishkan ha-edut” [Dwelling-place of the Pact]. (Terumah, Commentary)

It is these two functions that the Ark itself embodied. The Ramban points out that the mention of the Ark first is indicative of its importance. But its use, as we learn as we read through the rest of the Torah, is very limited—unlike the other accessories of the mishkan, nothing is done with the Ark; it has no direct ritual or ceremonial function. Its purpose is described by the two names given to the mishkan: “Tent of Meeting” and “Dwelling-place of the Pact.” The “Pact” is ha-edut and refers to the Tablets Moses will later receive. The “meeting” is not for the Israelite people; it’s between Moses and God:

Have them make a chest of acacia wood…. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the edut—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people. (25:10, 22)

The other name, “Dwelling-place of the Pact,” is likewise alluded to in these same verses.

… deposit in the Ark the edut which I will give you.... Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the edut that I will give you. (25:16, 21)

Thus the Ark’s only functions were to hold the “edut,” the tablets containing the laws, and to serve as the locus from which God addressed Moses.

The next items that are described are a rimmed table for the bread loaves and a set of “bowls, ladles, jars, and jugs.” Then follows the lampstand, described in detail, with its tongs and firepans. Apparently the verbal description was not sufficient to fully describe its construction, because God told Moses he would be shown a model to be followed:

Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain. (25:40)

It’s interesting that the items are listed in order of decreasing sanctity. First, the Ark, which rested in the “Holy of Holies,” then the table and lamp, to be located in the outer chamber of the mishkan, were described. Then the construction of the mishkan itself is described, with its interior Tabernacle and an outer tent. Next a screen is mentioned which is to block the view into the mishkan, and then the altar and its accessories are described. The entire site is surrounded by an enclosure of linen hangings.

Three of the items in the mishkan are described as being constructed with carrying poles: the Ark, the table, and the altar. Curiously, while we are told that the poles are to be used for carrying these items, the poles in the ark are not to be removed:

The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it. (25:15)

This negative commandment is one of the 613 mitzvot according to Maimonides (Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash 2:13). The reasoning behind this prohibition provoked some lively discussion in the Talmud. The most widely accepted reasoning was that they were not to be removed since there was no reason to do so. The only person who ever went into the Holy of Holies was the high priest, and then only once a year. But leaving the poles in the altar and table would constitute bumping hazards to the passing priests. Since the Torah is said to never waste words on things that may seem obvious, an explanation given by Maimonides in Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash 2:12–13 makes sense. He points out that the prohibition links this negative commandment to the positive commandment found in Numbers (7:9) that requires the Ark to be carried on the shoulders and not on an animal or wagon.

In fact, there is a gemara in Mishnah Sota 35a that connects the requirement of carrying the Ark on the shoulders to the death of the priest Uzzah who died when he touched the Ark to keep it from falling while it was being carried on a cart. David acknowledged this error when he spoke to the Levites after this incident:

“… Because you did not carry it at the first, the Lord our God made an outburst on us, for we did not seek Him according to the ordinance.” ... The sons of the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles thereon, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord. [1 Chron. 15:13–15]

A midrash in Sota 35a reads,

...when the priests that bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord were come up [crossing the Jordan]... the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up ... On that account was Uzzah punished, as it is said: “And when they came unto the threshing-floor of Chidon, Uzzah put forth his hand to hold the ark. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘Uzzah, [the ark] carried its bearers; must it not all the more [be able to carry] itself!’”

According to this midrash, the Ark had the power to carry its porters, the Levites. This must be the origin of the word “levitate.”

It seems, then, that the removable poles of the Ark, which were never intended to be removed, are meant to be a reminder that the Ark must be carried by people and not as cargo. So this mitzvah of carrying the Law may be thought of as a metaphor for observing the Covenant that the Ark represented as well as contained.

February 2013

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