“Give and Take” – Parashat Pekudei 5776

All of the components and the utensils that will be used in the Mishkan have been manufactured and delivered to Moshe. Moshe will perform the final integration and he will officiate at the Acceptance Testing. It is the Torah’s description of the integration of the ark (aron) that interests us this week [Shemot 40:20]: “[Moshe] took and placed the testimony into the ark, he put the poles upon the ark, and he placed the ark cover on the ark from above.” What was it that Moshe took? Why doesn’t the verse simply say “Moshe placed the testimony into the ark…” as it does with every other component?

The medieval commentators offer a wide variety of suggestions. A body of commentators led by the Ramban assert that Moshe took the two tablets (luchot) from the wooden ark and moved them to the golden ark that was made specifically for the Mishkan. Which wooden ark are they referring to? In the events following the sin of the golden calf (egel) Moshe is told to make a second set of luchot and to bring them to the top of Mount Sinai, where Hashem will reprint the Ten Commandments[1]. In the Book of Devarim, which recaps the the seminal episodes of the Torah, the story is slightly different. Moshe is told to bring something else [Devarim 10:1-5]: “‘Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to Me onto the mountain, and make for yourself a wooden ark. I shall inscribe on the tablets the words that were upon the first tablets which you shattered and you shall place them into the ark’. So I made an ark of acacia wood, and I hewed two stone tablets like the first ones… I turned and came down from the mountain, and placed the tablets in the ark which I had made, and there they were…” Referring back to the Mishkan, when Moshe “took and placed the testimony into the ark”, he took the luchot[2] out of the wooden box and placed them in the golden box.

Why did Hashem command Moshe to move the luchot from one ark to another? Why didn’t Hashem tell Moshe to bring with him a golden ark up to Mount Sinai in the first place? Perhaps because it would have weighed too much? I don’t think so. The entire episode was fraught with miracles and Moshe carrying a heavy golden box up and down the mountain would not have seemed terribly out of place. And if we’re already asking questions about the wooden ark, why doesn’t the Torah even mention its existence until the second time it tells the story of the egel, after forty years of wandering in the desert?

I’d like to base the remainder of this shiur on the explanation of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, one that I have quoted frequently is these shiurim. Rav Hirsch offers a most beautiful symbolic explanation regarding the structure of the ark. According to Hashem’s instructions, the ark was to be doubly overlaid in gold [Shemot 25:11]: “from inside and from outside you shall overlay it”. Rashi explains that the ark was made from three boxes that fit one inside the other. The inner and outer boxes were made of gold while the box in the middle box was made from acacia wood. According to Rav Hirsch the gold and the wood complemented each other. Gold is a precious metal. It is not eroded or dissolved by the elements and it is unaffected by temperature, dust, shock, or vibration. Gold, however, does not grow when planted in the ground. It just sits there. Wood, on the other hand, does not last as long as gold, but when it is planted in the proper soil it will flower and flourish. The ark was comprised of inner and outer gold boxes symbolizing a Torah that is unwavering, unchanging, pure and free of blemish. But the Torah cannot remain static. It cannot be relegated to a galaxy far away or to a time long ago. The middle wooden box represents growth. It represents a Torah that is dynamic and alive, eternally relevant even in an ever-changing world. In summary, the golden ark – the product of these boxes – represents a Torah that is simultaneously static and dynamic, and the tension between the two forces is bound by the utmost purity.

There is one last piece of the puzzle missing. While it is not explicitly written in the Torah, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [86a] identifies the date that the Torah was given on Mount Sinai as the sixth day of Sivan, which coincides with the holiday of Shavuot[3]. For this reason the holiday of Shavuot is called “Z’man Matan Torateinu” – “The Time of the Giving of the Torah”. Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, also known as the “Chiddushei HaRim”, asks why Shavuot is not called “Z’man Kabalat Torateinu” – “The Time of the Receiving of the Torah”. Rav Alter answers that the Torah was given to mankind by Hashem once, on a mountain top thousands of years ago. However, we have never stopped receiving the Torah – a Jew receives the Torah each and every day.

The Torah in the Book of Shemot is addressing Jews who had until just recently been slaves. They knew nothing other than their Egyptian master’s explicit commands. Hashem and His Torah were irrelevant. They did not need another authority to tell them what to do. These people did not receive the Torah – they were given the Torah. It was forced down their throats. According to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88a] Hashem picked up the mountain, held it over their heads, and told them that if they did not accept the Torah then they would be crushed under the mountain. This Torah was pristine. It was pure. It was Divine. But it was detached. Until Am Yisrael could incorporate the Torah into their lives and into their souls, it would be kept in a golden ark, as a sort of museum piece.

Forty years later Am Yisrael stand at the border of the Land of Canaan, ready to take their roles as a [Shemot 19:6] “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. They are ready to receive the Torah. They are ready to absorb the Torah. And so the episode as told in the Book of Devarim tells of a wooden ark – an ark that holds the Torah of Life, the Torah that would accompany them and grow with them all the while it was guiding them, each and every day. When Moshe “takes” the luchot from the wooden ark, he is serving as the emissary of Am Yisrael, who are finally ready to receive the Torah from Hashem. As Rav Hirsch warned, this Torah could not be kept forever in a wooden box and so Moshe is commanded to place the Torah in a box bound with internal and external layers of gold[4].

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat above asks why we are bound by the Torah if, at the end of the day, it was forced upon us. The Talmud answers that Am Yisrael accepted the Torah again in the days of Mordechai and Esther, quoting a verse in Megillat Esther [9:27]: “The Jews obeyed and accepted upon themselves” and explains that the Jews “obeyed what they had already accepted”. I suggest that the Torah was given to Am Yisrael in three phases: At Mount Sinai, they were given the Torah. After forty years of daily miracles in the desert, their recognition of Hashem became innate, and they received the Torah. In the Persia of Mordechai and Esther they recognized the Hand of Hashem even though it was hidden[5], and they absorbed the Torah, signalling the culmination of a process that had begun more than one thousand years earlier.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yossef ben Bracha.

[1] It is unclear who actually wrote the second edition of the Ten Commandments – Hashem or Moshe. In a recent shiur we suggested it was Moshe. For the purposes of this shiur the answer is unimportant.

[2] The “testimony” is understood as the “luchot”, see Rashi on Shemot [25:10].

[3] There is controversy as to this date. One opinion states that the Torah was given on the seventh day of Sivan, and this seems to be the more halachically correct opinion. But this is a topic for another shiur.

[4] Lest the reader ask “So what happened there at Sinai? Did Moshe take a wooden box with him up to the mountain or did he not?” I suggest that Moshe did take the wooden ark with him up the mountain, but as Am Yisrael were not yet ready to receive the Torah, they did not understand the relevance of the ark, and so the Torah does not mention it. Forty years later they are told what really happened.

[5] The name of Hashem is not mentioned even once in the Megilla. The story of Purim, as told in the Megilla, contains no “shock-and-awe-type” miracles, only a series of coincidences. The fact that they made Purim into a holiday means that they attributed their salvation to Hashem. See the explanation of the MaHaRaL of Prague in Chapter 32 of “Tiferet Yisrael.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, 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.