The Making Of An Ark

construction scene from ancient biblical times terumah mishkan tabernacle desert task

As I have stressed many times in these studies, the Torah was meant to be listened to, not read. The eye can scan many lines at once; but listening is always a sequential, word-by-word process. The result is that the ear can sometimes hear a discrepancy that the eye misses. A discrepancy is always significant when it comes to Torah. Like a discord in a work by Mozart, or the assymetrical background to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, it is meant to draw attention to something, to launch reverberations of complexity, to add depth to an otherwise superficial response. So it is in the apparently prosaic details of the construction of the Tabernacle. One item is incongruous, though it is a matter of only two letters in the text.

One by one, God instructs Moses in the making of the sanctuary and its appurtenances. In each case the verb is in the second person singular: ve-tzipita, ve-asita, ve-yatzakta, ve-natata, ve-heveta, “you shall cover . . . you shall make . . . you shall pour . . . you shall place . . . you shall bring.” There is one exception, namely the ark. Here the verb is in the third person plural: ve-asu aron atzei shittim, “They shall make an ark of acacia wood.” Why “they” not “you”? Why the shift from the singular to the plural? The answer of the Sages is profound.

The ark contained the tablets of stone given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. I Kings 8:9 makes this clear:

There was nothing in the ark except the two stone tablets that Moses had placed in it at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the Israelites after they came out of Egypt.

The Torah here calls the tablets “the testimony” (“And you shall put into the ark the testimony which I will give you”) since they were the physical symbol of the Sinai covenant. According to the Sages, “both the [complete second set of] tablets and the fragments of the [first] tablets [which Moses broke after the Golden Calf] were in the ark.” (Incidentally, the Sages learned from this that one must always respect an elderly scholar, even though he has forgotten his learning, since both the whole and the broken tablets were given equal respect by being carried in the ark). The ark, in short, symbolized Torah.

The reason, therefore, that the construction of the ark was commanded in the plural is that everyone was to have a share in it:

Rabbi Judah son of R. Shalom said: The Holy One blessed be He, said, “Let them all come and occupy themselves with the ark in order that they may all merit the Torah.”

Unlike other aspects of service in the sanctuary or temple, Torah was the heritage of everyone. All Israel were parties to the covenant. All were expected to know and study its terms. Judaism might know other hierarchies, but when it came to knowledge, study and the dignity conferred by scholarship, everyone stood on equal footing.

Judaism is a profoundly egalitarian faith. As the historian Norman Gottwald puts it:

“The Chosen People” is the distinctive self-consciousness of a society of the equals created in the intertribal order and demarcated from a primarily centralised and stratified surrounding world. Covenant is the bonding of de-centralised social groups in a larger society of equals committed to co-operation without authoritarian leadership and a way of symbolising the locus of sovereignty in such a society of equals . . . Israel thought it was different because it was different: it constituted an egalitarian social system in the midst of stratified societies . . .

In the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson translated this idea into the famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” What is interesting about this sentence is that “these truths” are anything but self-evident. They would have been regarded as subversive by Plato, who held that humanity is divided into people of gold, silver and bronze and that hierarchy is written into the structure of society. They would have been incomprehensible to Aristotle who believed that some were born to rule and others to be ruled. They are “self-evident” only to one steeped in the Bible.

But any attempt at creating an egalitarian society runs up against the perennial difficulty that people are born unequal in talents, endowments and natural abilities, as well as in their early environment. Communism, like every other attempt to enforce equality, ends up by demanding an unacceptable price in terms of liberty. How then can a society be free and equal at the same time?

To my mind, no civilization has ever come closer to creating such a society than the people of the covenant – and it did so in a way still unrivalled in its insight and depth. Physical goods – wealth and power – always represent, at least in the short-term, zero-sum games. The more I give away, the less I have. For that reason they are always arenas of conflict, in which there are winners and losers. Political and economic systems therefore play the important function of mediating conflict by the imposition of rules (such as elections in the case of democracy, exchange in the case of market economies). In this way, competition does not degenerate into anarchy. That is the necessity for, and the glory, of politics and economics. But they do not create equality.

Spiritual (sometimes called social or public) goods, however, have a different logic. They are non-zero-sum games. The more love, or influence, or trust I give away the more I have. That is because they are goods the existence of which depends on being shared. They give rise to structures of co-operation, not competition. It has been one of the great discoveries of sociobiology on the one hand, “civil society” or “communitarian” political thought on the other, that the survival of any group depends at least as much on co-operation as competition. No individual, however strong or gifted, can rival the achievements of a group in which each contributes his or her talents to an orchestrated, collective endeavour. On this, Aristotle and the Rambam agreed: homo sapiens is, above all, a social animal whose very existence depends on specialization, co-operation and trust.

It was the genius of Judaism to see that the primary social good is knowledge. The simplest and most effective way of creating a society of equal dignity is to make knowledge equally accessible to all. The symbol of this was the ark, the container of the most important of all bodies of knowledge, namely the Torah: the written constitution of Israel as a nation under the sovereignty of God. If everyone has a knowledge of the law, then everyone is, in the fullest sense, a citizen (one could almost say that Israel is defined as a nation of constitutional lawyers). Knowledge, said Bacon, is power; and if knowledge is distributed equally, so too is power. That is why, here alone in its list of the component parts of the sanctuary, the Torah shifts from the second person singular to the third person plural. When it comes to the ark, home and symbol of the most significant form of knowledge, everyone must have an equal share.

On no other subject were the Sages more eloquent. The midrashic passage quoted above goes on to state in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

There are three crowns: the crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. The crown of kingship – this is the table . . . the crown of priesthood – this is the altar . . . the crown of Torah – this is the ark . . . Why does it say of the rest [of the items of the Tabernacle] “And you shall make” whereas of the ark it says, “And they shall make”? To teach you that the crown of Torah stands above all. When one has acquired the Torah it is as if he has acquired all the rest.

Or as Maimonides formulates it:

With three crowns was Israel crowned — the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood was conferred on Aaron . . . The crown of kingship was conferred on David . . . But the crown of Torah is for all Israel . . . Whoever desires it, let him come and take it.

In a yet more striking statement, the Sages ruled:

A bastard who is a scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest, for it is said, “More precious is it than rubies [peninim]” – meaning that [one who is wise] is more precious than the High Priest who enters the innermost sanctuary [lifnay ve-lifnim].

These are intensely political statements. They reflect the fact that biblical Israel was not a wholly egalitarian society. Initially, the firstborn in each family was to have become a priest, but after the Golden Calf that role was transferred to a single tribe, Levi, and a single family within the tribe, namely the sons of Aaron.

Initially, Israel did not have a monarchy. Throughout the long period covered by the Book of Judges it existed as a confederation of tribes without a political leader. At times of crisis individuals would emerge known as “judges” who would lead the people in battle, but they had no formal office or succession. Eventually in the days of Samuel the people asked for, and were given, a king.

So hierarchy existed as of necessity in the case of both the “crown” (domain) of priesthood and kingship. In a vaulting leap of imagination, however, the Sages saw that the very collapse of Israel, during the first and second centuries of the common era, paved the way for a full implementation of the biblical ideal, a society of equals. Now there were no more kings or (functioning) priests. Only the “crown of Torah” remained. By creating, in the days of Joshua ben Gamla, the world’s first system of universal compulsory education, they were able to lay the foundations of a national identity built on literacy, study and the life of the mind. The “ark” was indeed the property of all.

To be sure, even then there were temptations (when are there not?) for those well versed in Torah to hold themselves superior to others, the ammei ha-aretz (the ignorant, those who had not mastered the texts). Yet this sense of superiority was always answerable to the fact that the Sages knew, in their heart of hearts, that learning was not the preserve of an elite. Two stories from the Talmud illustrate this with great poignancy. Here is the first:

Once Rabbi Jannai was walking along the way, when he met a man who was handsomely attired. He said to him, “Would the master mind being my guest?” He replied, “As you please.” He then took him home and questioned him on Bible, but he knew nothing; on Mishnah, but he knew nothing; on Talmud, but he knew nothing; on Aggadah, but he knew nothing. Finally he asked him to say grace. He replied, however, “Let Jannai say grace in his house.” He then asked him, “Can you repeat what I tell you?” He answered, “Yes.” He then exclaimed, “Say, A dog has eaten Jannai’s bread.” At this point the guest rose and seized him, demanding, “What of my inheritance with you, that you are cheating me?” “What inheritance of yours do I have?” asked R. Jannai. He replied, “The children recite, ‘Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.’ It is not written here ‘congregation of Jannai’ but ‘congregation of Jacob.'” At this, they became reconciled.

Rabbi Jannai mistakenly assumed that from the man’s impressive appearance, he was a scholar. On finding that he was ignorant, he treated him with contempt. However, the stranger defeated the rabbi on a simple point of Jewish principle. The Torah is the inheritance of the entire congregation, not of an aristocracy of scholars. The fact that Rabbi Jannai was forced to concede the point demonstrates its power.

The second story concerns the temporary removal from office of the Nasi (religious head of the community) Rabban Gamliel. As leader, Rabban Gamliel had adopted an exclusive approach to the house of study. He insisted that only those whose “inside was like their outside” – whose integrity was unchallengeable – were permitted to enter. The Talmud states that when he was deposed, the doors of the house of study were opened to all.

On that day, many benches were added . . . Rabban Gamliel became alarmed and said, “Perhaps, God forbid, I withheld Torah from Israel.” He was shown in a dream, white casks full of ashes [suggesting that those to whom he refused entry were in fact unworthy of a place in the house of study]. This however was not so. He was only shown the dream to set his mind at ease.

Rabban Gamliel’s exclusivism was wrong. The doors of the house of study should be open to everyone. As Maimonides said, “whoever desires [the crown of Torah], let him come and take it.”

This ideal was part of Judaism throughout the ages. The Prophet Isaiah insisted, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great will be your children’s peace.” Many centuries later, in the first century C.E. Josephus could write, “Should any one of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.” A 12th century monk wrote in one of his commentaries, “A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, not for gain, as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s Law; and not only his sons but his daughters too.”

With a touch of exaggeration, the historian Paul Johnson calls Judaism an “ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.” It was, of course, not the production of intellectuals that motivated the Judaic love of learning, but rather the idea that a society structured around divine law should be one in which everyone had equal access to knowledge and therefore equal dignity as citizens in the republic of faith. It was, and remains, a beautiful idea, hinted at for the first time in the simple, yet resonant detail that though all else in the tabernacle was constructed by individuals (“you”), the Ark belonged to everyone (“they”). Seldom has so slight a nuance signaled so high an ethical and intellectual ideal.

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