Parashat Beha’alotcha: Ark of the Covenant in a war zone?

We put a mezuzah at the entrance to our home to remember the values written within it.

 ‘JOSHUA PASSING the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant,’ by Benjamin West, 1800.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘JOSHUA PASSING the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant,’ by Benjamin West, 1800.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, we read a very mysterious verse that describes the journey of the Ark of the Covenant – the ark that contained the two tablets given on Mount Sinai – before the nation. From the Torah, it seems that the journey involved a war with an enemy, and the ark was taken to war at the head of the fighting army. The Torah quotes what Moses would say when the ark would go out to war ahead of the army:

“So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You.’” (Numbers 10:35)

“So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You.’”

Numbers 10:35

The ark setting out to war before the army is also described in the Book of Samuel, where we read about a war between the tribes of Israel and the Philistines, the inhabitants of the land before the Children of Israel entered. 

The Book of Samuel tells us about this war in a place called Afek (where the city of Rosh Ha’ayin is now located). In the first battle of the war, the Philistines were winning and about 4,000 soldiers from among the Children of Israel fell in battle. After the battle, the elders of the nation consulted with one another and decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battlefield, saying: “Let us take to us from Shiloh the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, and He will come in our midst, and save us from the hand of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3).

When the ark was brought into the camp, “all Israel shouted a great shout” (4:5). The nation was certain that the presence of the ark would bring them victory. The Philistines also saw the presence of the ark as a determining factor against them and called out anxiously, “Woe is unto us! Who will save us from the hand of this mighty God?!” (4:8). But despite this, in the second round of battles, the Philistines won again and the losses to Israel were great – 30,000 soldiers fell in battle! And if that wasn’t enough, the Ark of the Covenant itself was taken into captivity by the Philistines!

 STEVEN SPIELBERG’S Ark of the Covenant from his iconic film ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ on display at Washington’s National Geographic Museum. (credit: Mary Harrsch/Flickr) STEVEN SPIELBERG’S Ark of the Covenant from his iconic film ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ on display at Washington’s National Geographic Museum. (credit: Mary Harrsch/Flickr)

This turn of events doesn’t easily mesh with the verses we started with. From this week’s parasha, it seemed that the presence of the ark would bring salvation to the nation and victory over its enemies. But the Book of Samuel tells us about a crushing defeat that was not prevented by the presence of the ark.

Biblical commentators

Some of the biblical commentators who dealt with this question focused on an important principle that arises from looking at these two stories. The presence of the ark in the war is not a magical means with power to bring about victory. The role of the ark in war is that the army carrying it will be influenced by it, that the army camp will be a holy place with the values and commandments of the Torah.

When the nation is not influenced by the ark, it becomes nothing more than pieces of wood coated in gold and the tablets become nothing more than pieces of stone etched with letters. The power of the Ark of the Covenant lies in people drawing from it the values of Torah, morality and derech eretz.

The Ark of the Covenant taken to war as described in the Book of Samuel had no influence on the nation. They continued to worship idols, to practice incest and other social immoralities. They wanted to use the ark as a magical means, and that is not its purpose. The purpose of the ark is to cause a person to transcend and repair his ways, and only then does the ark bring about victory in war. 

We no longer have the Ark of the Covenant, but this discussion still applies to our lives. The mezuzah is an example – that piece of parchment with texts from the Torah that is covered and attached to our doorposts. Many see the mezuzah as a means of protecting the home. There are sources for this in the literature of Chazal. But we must remember that that is not its purpose. The Rambam, Maimonides, writes about this in his typical decisiveness:

They, however, who write names of angels, holy names, a biblical text… within the mezuzah, are among those who have no portion in the world to come. For these fools not only fail to fulfill the commandment but they treat an important precept that expresses the unity of God, the love of Him, and His worship, as if it were an amulet to promote their own personal interests… (Mishneh Torah, Mezuzah 5)

We put a mezuzah at the entrance to our home to remember the values written in it: the unity of God, the love of Him and keeping His commandments. If we remember that, the mezuzah indeed protects us from harm. But if we see the mezuzah as some sort of magical amulet, it loses its power. 

The Torah and commandments are not magical means of attaining victory and success. They are meant to influence us and elevate us from the quagmire of materialism and egocentrism to lofty peaks of spirituality and morality.  ■

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