‘But They Don’t Fall Down’ Parashat Teruma 5779

Parashat Teruma is essentially a Prime Item Design Specification (PIDS) for the Mishkan and its utensils. The Mishkan was a mobile synagogue that travelled along with the Jewish People from the time they left Egypt until a permanent Beit HaMikdash was built more than four hundred years later. The heart and soul of the Mishkan was the Ark of the Covenant, a rectangular box that held the Two Tablets, which served as a direct conduit to the Divine.

The Ark was carried on two poles attached to the Ark with rings [Shemot 25:12-14]: “You shall cast four golden rings for it and you shall place them upon its four corners, two rings on one side and two rings on the other side. You shall make poles of acacia wood… you shall bring the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them.” The location of the rings is the subject of a three-way argument between Rashi, the medieval commentator par excellence, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a contemporary of Rashi who lived in Spain, and the Ramban (Nachmanides), who lived in Spain about one hundred years after the Ibn Ezra. The Torah commands the artisans to put the rings on the four ‘pa’amot” of the Ark. Rashi translates this word as “corners”, specifically the upper corners[1]. The Ibn Ezra, noting that whenever the Bible uses the word “pa’am”, it means “legs”[2], asserts that the Ark had legs and the rings were attached to the top of the legs. The Ramban takes a “middle of the road” approach. Like Rashi, he holds that the Ark did not have legs and like the Ibn Ezra, he holds that the rings of the Ark were attached to the lower half of the Ark.

It seems odd that the Torah goes into such intricate detail in its description of the Mishkan. The Mishkan was designed to be temporary and mobile. It was eventually replaced by a Beit HaMikdash that was permanent and static. Why do we need to know the exact location on the Ark of the rings that held the poles? The poles were only required to carry the Ark through the desert. After the Beit HaMidkash was built, the requirement for transportability should have vanished. It turns out that there is much to be learnt if we look at the Mishkan metaphorically. Rabbi Chaim Alter Paneth from Karlsburg, writing in “Tapuchei Chaim”, compares a Torah scholar to the Ark. Rabbi Paneth accepts the opinion of the Ramban: The Ark did not have legs and its poles were located on its lower half. Rabbi Paneth explains that the Ark did not have legs because legs are a metaphor for haughtiness and placing one’s self above the crowd. A Torah scholar should be like the Ark, keeping low and acting with humility. However, whenever the Torah scholar leaves the confines of the study hall to adjudicate on Torah-related matters, he must rise to the occasion, similar to the way the Ark rose above its poles when it was carried from place to place.

We can take this metaphor even further but first we need some background. When I was a child, I used to play with a toy called “Weebles”. A Weeble is shaped like an egg. It is weighted so that it rights itself when it is pushed over[3]. A television commercial bragged that ‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”. We used to buy our children punching bags that worked on the same principle. Why do these things not fall down? The reason is that they have a low centre of gravity. With a punching bag, the centre of gravity is lowered by fastening a small bag of sand to the bottom of the punching bag. What happens if we raise the bag of sand? The laws of mechanics state that as the centre of gravity rises, the punching bag becomes less and less stable. If the bag of sand is fastened to the top of the punching bag, the punching bag becomes completely unstable: It will remain upright only until the smallest puff of wind pushes it over, where it will stay until someone comes along and stands it up again. Similarly, the location of the rings that hold the poles of the Ark determined the stability of the Ark. The most stable configuration is the one in which the rings are affixed at the top of the Ark. In this configuration, the centre of gravity of the Ark lies below the shoulders of the people carrying it. Held in such way, the chances of the Ark accidentally falling are slim. If the rings are lowered to the bottom of the Ark, then the ark is held above the heads of the people carrying it. The centre of gravity rises, the stability is reduced and the chances of the Ark falling increase. If the Ark has legs, it becomes even less stable because an Ark with legs can be tipped over while an Ark without legs cannot. The Bible [Samuel II 6:6-7] tells how the Ark was once being carried on a cart when it began to fall. A persons named Uzzah tried to steady the Ark and G-d killed him on the spot. An Ark that weighs more than a ton[4] will not easily slip off a cart but an Ark that stands on legs might very well tip over.

Is stability a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it all depends on what you are building. If you’re building a passenger airplane, you want as much stability as possible to keep the passengers comfortable. If you’re building a fighter-bomber, you want it to be unstable so that it can manoeuvre out of the way of adversaries. If you’re building an air-to-surface missile to use against a stationary target, you want it to be stable so it can impact the target with great precision. If you’re building an anti-aircraft missile, you want it to be unstable so you can hit the fighter-bomber that’s trying to run away from you. What about an Ark? Obviously, there is more to an Ark than how easily it falls over, especially one that is safely secured in the Beit HaMikdash. How much stability should we design into the Ark?

Before we answer this question, let’s put things in context. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main during the 19th century, offers a beautiful metaphorical explanation of the structure of the Ark. The Ark was made from acacia wood and pure gold [Shemot 25:11]: “You shall overlay [the acacia wood]s with pure gold; from inside and from outside”. Our Sages understood that the Ark was comprised of three boxes that fit one inside the other, like a Matryoshka doll. The inner and outer boxes were made of gold while the middle box was made of wood. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the core of the Ark was specifically made of wood, a living and breathing material. The Torah must remain eternally fresh. We must allow it to grow, to adapt to new times and to new situations. When we discover something new, the Torah must voice its opinion. The wooden box is sandwiched between two golden boxes. These boxes symbolize the boundaries of growth. The Torah is pliable but it is also unyielding. Certain things will always remain beyond the pale.

Continuing down this path, let’s define the “stability” of the Ark as the agility with which the Torah reacts to changes in society and technology. We live in an era of unprecedented technological growth. The Torah must address issues today that only a few years ago seemed impossible: May we use an electronic hotel lock on Shabbat? May we eat meat from a non-kosher animal grown from stem cells? Must we wait six hours between eating lab-grown meat and milk? The easiest approach is that “everything that is new is forbidden”. This the minimal-agility approach, the “poles on the top of the Ark” approach. Alternately, we could say that if the Torah does not explicitly prohibit something, then it must be permissible. This the maximal-agility approach, the “poles on the top of the legs of the Ark” approach. But there is another way, the optimal agility approach, the “poles on the bottom of the Ark” approach. This approach treats each halachic question on its own merit. Constraints and ramifications must be clearly understood. For instance, our homes are becoming inundated with automatic systems that do everything from opening the window shades in the morning to locking our doors at night. What do we do on Shabbat? To adjudicate, we must first determine which rules of Shabbat are adversely affected. Then we must devise a solution that is both technologically feasible and socially sustainable. This approach combines the agility to deal with technological change with the stability to withstand the ebbs and flows of social change. The Torah might wobble, but it will never fall down.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tuvia Moshe ben Chaya Raisa and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] The above translation of the verse, taken from chabad.org, reflects Rashi’s understanding.

[2] See [Song of Songs 7:2] “How beautiful are your “pa’amayich”, referring metaphorically to legs.

[3] In Hebrew, we call these things, “Nachum Takum”, or “Get Up, Nachum!”

[4] Just the two tablets weighed at least one ton, see the Talmud in Bava Batra [14a] and do the math.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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