Parshat Pekudei – Who am I and how do I look?

The central and most important object was the Aron Ha’edut – the Ark of the Covenant – the ark that held the two Tablets of the Covenant.

March 10, 2016 20:03
3 minute read.
Illustration by Darius Gilmont

Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children'. (photo credit: WWW.DARIUS-ART.COM/WWW.ARIELLA-VERLAG.DE)


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Over the last few Torah portions, we have been reading about collecting materials for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This week, we read about the process of building the Tabernacle, creating the ritual objects that were placed in it, and sewing the clothing for the kohanim, the priests.

The central and most important object was the Aron Ha’edut – the Ark of the Covenant – the ark that held the two Tablets of the Covenant that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai etched with the Ten Commandments.

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We learn about the importance of the ark from the fact that it was placed in the inner and most sacred part of the Mishkan, in the Holy of Holies, and it was covered with a “parochet,” a curtain. Approaching the ark itself was forbidden, other than for one person once a year – the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur.

The Ark of the Covenant is described in the Torah as covered in gold; a cover that was made in a special manner. Three arks were placed one inside the other: a golden ark, and inside that a wooden ark, and inside that another golden ark. Thus, the wooden ark was surrounded on all sides with golden arks.

Since the ark contained the Tablets of the Covenant, the sages of the Talmud saw it as representing the Torah and the correct way it should be kept. They taught and studied the following idea from the fact that the ark was covered by gold both externally and internally: “Any talmid hacham [Torah scholar] whose inside is not like his outside is not a talmid hacham.” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Yoma, daf 62) One glance is enough to discern the seeming absurdity in the words of the Talmud. Was the inner part of the ark identical to its outer appearance? Indeed, it was covered in gold on both sides, but its inner part was made of wood and not gold. How, then, can we learn from it about the character of a person needing to match his outer appearance? Sometimes, one sentence written about 1,700 years ago can contain depth and existential understandings that are particularly relevant to a person in our times.

One good example of this phenomenon is this sentence we quoted from the Talmud.

If the Talmud is comparing the ark to man, and the ark – as we know – was made of three layers, then the purpose of the comparison would be to teach us that also man’s character has three similar layers: The deepest layer in character is the layer of yearning, dreaming and hope. Often, this layer does not come to fruition, but its existence adds significance to man’s life. Another layer in character is the practical layer – the way man lives his life, his relationship with his environment, his good and less-good deeds – all these are part of this second layer. The third layer is outer appearance.

There are those who choose to look more respectable and others who choose a more slovenly appearance.

There are those who choose an outer appearance that expresses meticulousness and others whose appearance causes others to smile.

When the Talmud demands from the talmid hacham to coordinate between his outer appearance and his inner essence, it is referring to the most internal of his essence. Even if man might sin in the practical layer, even if he does not actually implement the values he stands for – this does not mean that this is his inner essence. Even if the ark is made of wood, the inner part is made of gold and therefore the outer part which is also made of gold matches it.

Many people who are self-aware live with a certain sense of missed opportunity. Man naturally strives for more real results. He strives to reach desired goals and when he does, when it seems as though he has already realized his aims, he discovers a hidden inner voice has set him new goals. We always want more, and as we move forward we discover that we have more progress to make.

But the sages of the Talmud in their deep and delicate sensitivity understood that this is not the reason for the sense of missed opportunity. On the contrary, it gives us a sense of significance and mission in our lives. Our external appearance has to fit that same desired goal that we have not yet reached. Why? Because the goal we are striving to reach, the place we are aiming to get to – that is what loyally expresses our human essence.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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