A New Ark of the Covenant
The heart of Israel’s ornate Tabernacle in the wilderness was the Ark of the Covenant. From above the extended wings of the two cherubim affixed on top of the Ark, God’s voice would emanate to address Moses. It constituted the holiest spot in the Tabernacle, and was approached by the High Priest but once a year on Yom Kippur. Moreover, the Ark was the first part of the sanctuary that Moses was instructed to build. After inviting Israel to make “Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8),” God immediately continues, “They shall make an ark of acacia wood… (Exodus 25:10).”
What is it that gave the Ark pride of place? Nothing other than its unique contents. As its name suggests, the Ark held the symbol of the Covenant, the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It served as a shrine for the nation’s foundational text, the indisputable evidence of its collective experience of revelation at Mount Sinai. At the same time, the presence of the tablets held out the promise of encounters to come.
The biblical texts leave no doubt that the tablets alone were the source of the Ark’s sanctity. This week as we conclude the book of Exodus with the final erection of the Tabernacle, the Torah specifies that Moses “took the Covenant and placed it in the ark (Exodus 40:20).” And more elaborately, the book of Kings reiterates the fact when King Solomon brings “the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant” to its final resting place in his temple: “There was nothing inside the Ark but the two tablets of stone which Moses placed there at Horeb, when the Lord made [a covenant] with the Israelites after their departure from the land of Egypt (I Kings 8:9).”
And yet the Talmud challenges our religious imagination by insisting that the Ark contained something else as well. “Rabbi Joseph (a third-century Babylonian sage) was wont to teach that both the tablets and the shards of the tablets were deposited in the Ark.” We, of course, have long ceased to think about the fate of the first set of tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai and smashed in anger when confronted with the spectacle of Israel worshiping the Golden Calf. But whatever happened to those sacred fragments? Were they any less holy now because shattered and illegible? Did they not still bear the imprint of the divine word? Rabbi Joseph evidently felt that their holiness had not dissipated and that Moses in fact had continued to accord them the same reverence as the second set.
Rabbi Joseph was even able to cite a supporting verse to anchor his claim. When Moses came to recount the story of the two sets of tablets in Deuteronomy 10:1-2, he quoted God as saying: “I will inscribe on the tablets [i.e. the second ones] the commandments that were on the first tablets which you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.” Rabbi Joseph prefers to drop the disjunctive (that is the comma in English) in the subordinate clause and read both verbs in the past tense, which the Hebrew text allows, hence: “which you smashed and deposited in the ark.” The object of both verbs is now the first set of tablets.
However, Rabbi Joseph is not an antiquarian, but a moralist. From the precedent of the sacred shards, he draws a touching lesson for his day and ours: “From Moses’s example we learn that we are forbidden to be disrespectful to a scholar of Torah stripped of his learning through no fault of his own.” Like the broken tablets, such afflicted scholars were once the medium of God’s word and thus remain forever worthy of our esteem and gratitude. The fact that Rabbi Joseph himself had been robbed for a time of his great learning by illness only heightens the poignancy of his lesson.
How often did the plea of Rabbi Joseph cross my mind as I watched the mental faculties of my brilliant and beloved teacher and predecessor, Chancellor Gerson D. Cohen, deteriorate in the wake of his relentless neuropathy and its exacting treatment. After he stepped down from the chancellorship and tried to return to teaching, his first love, he confided in me that he could no longer lecture because he had lost the capacity to synthesize large chunks of material. At best he was still able to read difficult Hebrew texts with his students and offer some illuminating commentary. When I saw him last, not long before his sudden death at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, his room was utterly bare of books, even his own, which had just appeared. Disease had spared only his innate dignity and youthful visage.
The ultimate source of Rabbi Joseph’s memorable moral insight is halakhic. The Talmud identifies a class of religious artifacts that it calls “instruments of holiness,” which are not to be discarded when no longer in use. They include such items as containers for sacred books, tefillin, mezuzot, carrying bags for a Torah scroll or tefillin, and the leather straps of tefillin. Contrastingly, the Talmud designates another class of artifacts as “instruments for a mitzvah,” which may be thrown away when the mitzvah has been performed. And this category includes items like a succah, lulav, shofar or the fringes (tzitzit) of a garment. In other words, “instruments for a mitzvah” lose their sacred status after the act while “instruments of holiness” never do.
What distinguishes the latter is that they are all connected with the words of Torah. They either harbor a specimen of Scripture like tefillin or mezuzot or serve to protect Holy Writ itself with a suitable covering. The “instruments for a mitzvah,” on the other hand, are unrelated to sacred writing. They bear no inscriptions from the Torah and thus acquire no irreversible sanctity. Only those artifacts that come into direct physical contact with the Torah or are inscribed with a passage from it attain its state of permanent sanctity. The Torah stands at the pinnacle of the Jewish hierarchy of holiness and its aura is infectious. No human being comes into more frequent and intimate contact with the Torah than its teachers, the supreme instruments of holiness, and we are admonished, in the spirit of the halakhah, not to disdain them after they have passed their prime. In no set of propositions do I find the core value of Judaism more sensitively articulated. Judaism is a religious culture based on books. Written words are buried as if they were human. And aren’t they really? Are we not the only wordsmiths in the universe? God, creation, revelation, religion, culture and memory are all imagined by Judaism in terms of language and literature. Existence begins with the spoken word. At The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Ark of the Covenant is our Library’s Rare Book Room with its grand collection of literary remnants that span the ages. Association with Torah have rendered them forever holy.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,