"And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8).
Since the desert sanctuary was the "mother of all temples," and the sacred ark which housed the tablets of stone was arguably the sanctuary's central feature, details of the ark's construction contain important lessons. To this end, there are a number of questions which need to be asked.
Firstly, whereas the construction of every other aspect of the sanctuary begins with the verb, "You [Moses] shall make," the ark's construction opens with the command, "they [plural] shall make" (Exodus 25:10). Why?
Secondly, the ark was overlaid with gold, but its core was acacia wood. Wasn't the repository of the two tablets engraved by God Himself worthy of solid gold construction, like the menora? Why was the ark only gold-covered? (Ex. 25:13).
Thirdly, what was the significance of the two poles which had to be attached to the ark at all times (25:13,15)? Indeed, Rabbi Eliezer goes so far as to say that whoever dares remove the staves is liable to lashes, as ordained in the Bible (B.T. Yoma 82b). Were simple poles so important to the functioning of the ark that removing them would transgress a biblical command?
And finally, God commands the construction of two cherubs, one at either end of the ark cover, and declares that between them "I shall meet with you there and I shall speak to you... everything that I shall command you" (Exodus 25:22). What do the cherubs symbolize? And why, since God had already given the Ten Commandments, is this passage in the future tense?
Nachmanides (Ramban), in his introduction to our biblical portion, maintains that the Almighty commanded the construction of the sanctuary and revealed the legal code of Mishpatim as a continuation of the divine revelation; "...it was from there [between the cherubs] that God would speak to Moses and command the children of Israel" (Ramban, ad loc). Hence the ark was not merely the repository of the divine word already given; it was the place from where the divine message would continue to be given - even after the sanctuary ceased to function and Moses died.
That is why Moses records the revelation at Sinai as having been given by means of "a great [divine] voice which has never ceased" (Deuteronomy 5:19, see Targum there). That is why the Great Sanhedrin - the body of 71 sages that, with express divine sanction, interpreted and enacted laws in accordance with the exegetical and hermeneutic principles of our Oral Law (Deut. 17:8-11) - was situated in the Chamber of Hewn Stone within the Holy Temple precincts; and that's why our responsa and commentary literature continue to interpret and legislate new laws (like those concerning artificial insemination and brain-stem death, for example). This is the meaning of the blessing we recite over the Torah, praising God who "has chosen us from all the nations and has given us the Torah. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who gives [now, in the present tense, in every generation, through the Torah leaders of the generation] the Torah."
With this understanding, it becomes clear that the divine Torah Moses gave us still lives; God's word was intended to guide and direct every situation in every period. And from this perspective, all our questions can be answered:
Firstly, God may command Moses personally to construct every part of the sanctuary, but the sacred ark - like the divine words within it - has to be "built" by all future generations, by the religious leaders of every era, whose task is to interpret and apply the divine will to the novel situations which emerge. Secondly, the ark is made of acacia wood plated with gold; gold represents eternal value - exactly as our laws and customs are predicated on eternal values - and wood comes from a tree, which is ever growing, ever changing, ever bearing new seeds and new fruit.
Thirdly, the staves must always remain attached to the ark as a constant reminder that the Torah of God must be constantly ready to move; it must be where the Israelites are, and its laws must be able to deal with the exigencies and demands of a mobile society. Indeed, the very term Halacha means to progress, to step forward, to be timeless and timely at the same time.
And finally, the cherubs - with faces like children and wings extending heavenward - can be seen as symbols of Jewish religious leadership in every generation, the means by which we can continue to hear the ever-present and ever-relevant voice of the divine. Of course, our Bible speaks in the future tense - when God will speak to us and will command us - because our Torah is tradition and modernity at one and the same time.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.