Frederick L. Klein

Terumah: The Case of the Missing Ark

I recently went to the Isabella Stuart Gardner gallery in Boston, Massachusetts.   Gardner was a leading patron of the arts and collector and built a mansion in Boston to hold her extensive and eclectic collection.  The collection is overwhelming, with masterworks from all periods and many countries, all one on top of the other from floor to ceiling.   I have never seen a museum with such a seemingly random and haphazard layout.

However, what struck me almost as much as the things I saw were the things I did not see.  Upon entering a room, I noticed a large frame without a painting, then another, and then another.  In 1990,  thirteen works, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas were stolen; to date it is the largest and costliest art heist in history and thirty years later it is still an active FBI investigation.  This heist has been the subject of novels, provided grist for popular TV shows — even superhero comics, and has been the topic of documentaries.  Because Gardner’s will clearly stipulated that the collection (as well as the home itself)  must remain completely untouched or unchanged, for over thirty years 13 frames are hanging in prominent places without anything to ‘show’ for it.   What is the purpose of a frame without a picture?!

If you think this glaring omission is bizarre, consider our parahsha, which enumerates the building of the various objects within the Tabernacle in the desert, as well as the tabernacle itself and its accompanying courtyard.  The building process and design is elaborate in its own right, but the clear goal is to house its various vessels, most notably the showbread table, the incense altar, the menorah, and most importantly the holy ark.  This holy ark, the sole object placed within the inner sanctum, the kodesh kodashim, holds the tablets of the law containing the Ten Commandments revealed at Mount Sinai.  Sitting atop the ark is its golden covering, the kaporet, and perched upon that are the two cherubs with their wings stretched out to one another.  The purpose of this ark?  There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people (Exodus 25:20).  Indeed, this is exactly what happened throughout the wilderness.  Following Sinai, Moses goes to the Tabernacle into the Holy of Holies to receive more revelation.

Nachmanides in his commentary on the Torah is clear that the Tabernacle is in essence a traveling Sinai.  Just as God speaks from the mountaintop, here God speaks from the holy of holies.  Just as a cloud and fire covers the mountaintop, here the incense will fill the chamber of the Holy of Holies.  Just as God’s glory hovered over mountaintop in the form of fire, here God’s glory would rest below (Commentary on Torah, Ex. 25;1).  Similarly, just as revelation at Sinai was accompanied by acts of sacrifices which sealed the covenantal relationship (See Ex. Chapter 24), here the daily communal sacrifices -morning and evening, would reference that same historical moment.

For centuries this makeshift Tabernacle stood upon entering the land of Israel, first in the town of Shiloh, and for shorter periods in the Israelite towns of Giv’on and Nov.  Finally, after 480 years from the Exodus, a Temple, the first Beit Hamikdash is built for God by Solomon in Jerusalem, and then following the first exile, a second Temple is built by Nehemiah, later expanded to monumental proportions by King Herod.  (The kotel, the Western Wall, is in fact the retaining wall of the Temple Mount upon which that structure stood.)  In many ways, one would expect the mikdash- the permanent Temple in Jerusalem- to not only be an extension of the themes implicit in our parashah, but in fact an expansion.

Yet, in comparing the Tabernacle, the First Temple, and the Second Temple, the rabbis bemoan a precipitous spiritual decline.   The Talmud recounts that the Second Temple lacked the ark, its cover, the cherubs, the perpetual supernal flames on the altar, the Divine presence and the Urim V’Tumim in the priestly breastplate (B.T. Yoma 21b).  In fact, one Talmudic tradition recorded by Maimonides is that the ark along with other Mosaic period objects, were hidden in a secret chamber by King Josiah, who feared they might be plundered (Hilkhot Beit HBechira 4:1). In essence, the very things in which reference God’s revelatory presence on Mount Sinai are decidedly absent as early as the seventh century BCE.  Thus for at least half a millennia the holy of holies seemed to have been completely empty!  This would be akin to building an ornate gallery to house a particular artwork.  The only problem is that the person does not own the artwork. It sounds completely absurd.  What is the point of a room which is empty?

On the one hand, there are many comments of the rabbis which seem to allude to a process of spiritual decline.  There is a void in the later Temples which can never be filled, and the empty room attests to this sad fact. For example, the beginning of our parashah asks the people to donate, with the word ‘donation’ (terumah) being invoked three times.  They are to give “gold, silver, and brass”, which the midrash creatively alludes to three future donations, to three future structures.  The first is the gold standard, the tabernacle in the desert.  The second will be the contribution to Solomon’s First Temple, which is like silver in comparison to gold.  Finally, in a distant third place, upon the return to Zion under the Persian rule of Darius, the people will bring another contribution to a Temple,  compared to brass (Yalkut Shimoni Terumah 247).  The world of the Second Temple was one in which the revelatory voice of God was muted, and for centuries the prophets had been silenced.   Looking past the monumental scale and artisanship meant to overwhelm and impress, one realized that at its core, the Temple felt cold and empty.   Accompanied with this is a gnawing urge to return to the intimacy and immediacy of so long ago.  These latent desires are then projected onto a Third Future Temple, a perfectly heavenly temple which in the religious imagination is even built by God.  (See the comments of Rashi on the last lines of the Song at the Sea, Az Yashir, Ex. 15:17.)

In our own lives, there are always gaps between the world in which we had hoped and the world in which we live.  While as children everything seems miraculous – everything seems new, in time we can grow older, even jaded.  Perhaps the idealistic, traveling, Sinaitic tabernacle was never a realistic goal.  However, perhaps there is another way to look at the relationship between the Tabernacle and the later Temples, the mishkan versus the mikdash.[1]

While Sinai was a peak spiritual experience, it occurred in an uninhabited world, a no man’s land.  In truth, Mount Sinai was the mountain of God, a place beyond the world of nations, of politics, of history.  Sinai represents a moment in time in which God connected with humanity, and humanity interpreted this moment through a Divine command.  The people, or more accurately Moses, went up God’s Mountain and came down with something from the Divine.  The tabernacle/ mishkan was the place in which humanity through regulated worship could ascend the mountain once again.  In this sense, the Tabernacle represented a moment or place beyond history.  It may also have been only one moment of Israelite spiritual development, for ultimately the God idea that was on the mountaintop needed to be translated into the real life of families, communities, and nations.

Following the unique moment of revelation, the people moved on, not only geographically but also spiritually.  The building of the Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, was a structure of a totally different order.  The Temple, unlike the Tabernacle, is not a place out of time and space where a God ‘comes down’ and the people “go up”.  Rather it is a permanent home for God in the midst of the people.  The book of Deuteronomy, while not singling out Jerusalem, repeatedly speaks of the obligations for the entire people to appear at ‘the place God will choose’.  Just like King David has a palace, God will have a palace.  The mountain upon which it will sit is Mount Zion, a Mountain in the midst of the people.  Finally, decidedly this mountain is not in a nameless wilderness, but in the center of a Land bequeathed to Abraham.

In a very real way, the Temple represents the notion that God dwells in the midst of the people.   Furthermore, this central place will be for worship and prayers not only of Israel, but anyone who comes to worship. (See Solomons dedicatory prayer in Kings 1, ch. 8). Interestingly, during the Temple period God’s testifying ‘from between the two cherubim’ is no longer emphasized, and interestingly, Deuteronomy completely downplays the role of sacrifice, with the exceptions of personal sacrifices of gratitude to God.

Instead, the emphasis of Deuteronomy and other texts emphasize the fact that God dwells amongst the people, and therefore requires that they act justly, creating a societ which is reflective of the values they claim to profess.

Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?
Who may stand in His holy place?—

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who has not taken a false oath by My life
or sworn deceitfully (Psalm 24:4-5)

Conversely, to come and sacrifice- to ‘appease God’- while continuing to act corruptly in the land is perverse.  Jeremiah excoriates the people. “See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail.   Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced, and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, “We are safe”? [Safe] to do all these abhorrent things! (Jeremiah 7: 8-10).

To come to God’s home, while spurning God’s values, is hypocritical and incongruous.  In essence, the Temple is not a place outside the community but very much part of the fabric of the people. It is a place to celebrate, to pray, to give thanksgiving, and to share with those less fortunate.  The ideal Temple reflects the body politic of Israel and their collective relationship with God.  In essence, while the structure was subservient to the objects in the tabernacle, during Temple times the structure itself-the house – was elevated to the main element, for God lives among the people. [2]

The absence or downplaying of the ark reflects the fact that Mount Sinai has been replaced by Mount Zion.  As such, God needs to dwell not in an ethereal place, but rather in the hearts of the people.  God’s revelation, in the form of the mitzvot, need to be realized in the very fabric of their lives.  In a prophetic vision of the future, Jeremiah exclaims:

And when you increase and are fertile in the land, in those days—declares the Lord—men shall no longer speak of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, nor shall it come to mind. They shall not mention it, or miss it, or make another.  At that time, they shall call Jerusalem “Throne of the Lord,” and all nations shall assemble there, in the name of the Lord, at Jerusalem. They shall no longer follow the willfulness of their evil hearts (Jeremiah 3:16-17).

In what way will the ark not come to mind?  In what way will people call Jerusalem the place of God?  Rashi provides the solution.  For your entire assembly will be holy, and I will dwell therein as though it were an ark (ibid). 

Hence, while one might grieve the lack of the ark, the source of revelation, one might also look at the ark as redundant. Revelation is no longer something that occurs outside of space and time, but occurs within the heart of the people themselves; they realize that God is all around them and they recognize the Divine command.  Revelation, in a modern sense, can be the culmination of a process of realizing the world in which they live.  Jeremiah envisions a time when they (read us) internalize the realization of God’s immanence in the world in which we live.  We can work towards a time in which all peoples of faith will flow together to Jerusalem, which is not only the Jewish capital, but the capital for all peoples, as it is the place from where God dwells in our world. [3]

May we build a sanctuary, and through doing it, provide a place for God to reside in it, and in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Some of the following remarks were inspired by a lecture of Elana Stein Hein delivered at the Shalom Hartman Institute in summer, 2023, as well as the musings of R. Yitzchak Etshalom For an extended profound treatment of the themes of Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, see Jon Levison, Sinai and Zion, (USA: Harper, 1987)

[2] If one reads chapter seven of Kings, one will notice the emphasis on the structural elements of the Temple at the expense of the objects within it. (This section is read as the haftarah of Vayah’el, which essentially is a repetition of this week’s parashah.)

[3] Please note that when we speak of God ‘dwelling’ anywhere, we are using symbolic language.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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