Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As Moshe recounts the events following the sin of the golden calf, he adds a detail not mentioned in the original version of these events, recorded in the book of Shmot.
Moshe relates that when God commanded him to carve a second set of Tablets of Testimony to replace the first, God also instructed him to fashion an aron etz, a wooden ark, in which to house the new tablets. Strikingly, Moshe mentions this wooden ark no less than four times within the span of five sentences:
At that time the Lord said to me, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first and ascend to Me to the mountain and make for yourself a wooden ark. And I shall inscribe on the tablets the
declarations that were on the first tablets that you shattered, and you shall place them in the ark.”
And I made an ark of cedarwood and I carved two stone tablets like the first, and I ascended the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. And He inscribed on the tablets, according to the first writing, the Ten Declarations that the Lord spoke to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire, on the day of the congregation, and the Lord gave them to me. And I turned and I descended from the mountain and I placed the tablets in the ark that I made, and they remained there as Hashem had commanded me.
Why is the creation of the aron etz mentioned by Moshe here, yet omitted in the original narrative concerning these events?
Why does Moshe place repeated emphasis on the fashioning and use of the ark? What aspect of the aron etz captures the attention and fires the imagination of this great leader? And again, if the ark is so important, why isn’t it mentioned until now?
Why did Moshe apparently alter the sequence of God’s instructions surrounding the aron etz? God commanded Moshe to first carve Tablets of Testimony and then to fashion the ark. Moshe, however, responded by first fashioning the ark and only subsequently carving the tablets.
Why did God command Moshe to fashion an ark only in connection with the second set of Tablets of Testimony and not in connection with the first?
Finally, what ultimately happens to the aron etz? Does it continue to be used? What is the relationship between this wooden ark and the gold-covered Ark first detailed in Parshat Teruma as part of the overall construction of the Sanctuary and its utensils?
Addressing our last question first, a dispute emerges among the classical commentaries concerning the ultimate role and fate of the aron etz fashioned by Moshe at Sinai.
Mirroring a position quoted in Talmud Yerushalmi and elsewhere, Rashi and the Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot identify Moshe’s wooden ark as one of two arks that were destined to stand in the Sanctuary. These scholars explain that for a short period of time – after Moshe’s descent from Sinai until the creation of the Mishkan – the simple wooden ark held both the shards of the first tablets as well as the complete second set. With the building of the Mishkan, a primary, gold-covered Ark was created at God’s command to serve as the permanent home for the second complete set of tablets. Fashioned by Betzalel and his artisans, this second ark was designed to remain in the Sanctuary as the centerpiece of the Holy of Holies. The creation of Betzalel’s Ark, however, did not render Moshe’s first ark obsolete. The wooden ark remained in use as the lasting home for the shards of the shattered first tablets. Housed in the Sanctuary as well, this humble ark was periodically removed to accompany the nation in battle.
Noting that the Talmudic view postulating two arks in continual use is a minority opinion, the Ramban insists that only one ark, Betzalel’s Ark, stood in the sanctuary. This gold-covered Ark housed both the shards of the shattered first tablets as well as the complete second set. Moshe’s wooden ark was meant to be temporary from the outset. Once the Sanctuary’s Ark was created, the aron etz was stored away in preparation for respectful burial, as are all sanctified items that have fallen into disuse. The absence of a similar temporary aron in connection with the first tablets, the Ramban adds, reflects God’s awareness that those tablets were destined for immediate destruction by Moshe at the base of the mountain.
The Ramban also offers a second, alternative reading for this entire passage – a reading that completely changes our understanding of God’s message to Moshe at this critical moment.
In his second approach the Ramban contends that God did not command Moshe to create a separate wooden ark at all. Only one ark was built at Sinai: the Ark fashioned by Betzalel as part of the Sanctuary’s construction. This Ark, although covered and lined with gold, was primarily built out of cedarwood and could be rightfully referred to as a “wooden ark.” The divine instruction to Moshe, “Make for yourself a wooden ark,” therefore, does not refer to a new ark at all, but to Betzalel’s Sanctuary Ark. God deliberately repeats the instruction to create this ark in conjunction with the second tablets, in order to put Moshe’s mind at ease.
Moshe, explains the Ramban, was uncertain as to the extent of God’s forgiveness in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. Did that forgiveness, he wondered, extend to the building of the Sanctuary, as well, or would that sanctified edifice be denied to the nation as a result of their failing? God, therefore, simultaneous with His instructions concerning the second set of tablets, commands Moshe, “make for yourself a wooden ark. I reiterate, Moshe, the first mitzva associated with the Sanctuary’s creation – the fashioning of the Ark – as an indication of the extent of My forgiveness. Rest assured that the nation will not be denied the Mishkan as a result of the sin of the golden calf.
If we accept the Ramban’s second reading of the text, the question as to why the aron etz only seems to appear in conjunction with the second set of tablets becomes moot. God is not commanding the construction of a new ark, but instead reaffirming His commitment to the ark that has already been mentioned.
Also understandable is Moshe’s preoccupation with the construction and use of this ark in his recollections of these events in the book of Devarim. Traumatized by the nation’s sin, Moshe was deeply afraid that the Mishkan would be denied to the Israelites. His profound joy and relief upon realizing that his fears were unfounded are now expressed by his repeated emphasis on the ark.
The Ramban refers to his second approach – that only one ark was created at Sinai – as the pshat of the text. The vast majority of scholars, however, accept the more obvious reading: that God commands Moshe to fashion a separate wooden ark at Sinai, distinct from the primary Ark of the Sanctuary. If we reconsider the creation of this wooden ark against the backdrop of surrounding events, another explanation for its significance can be suggested.
Travel back for a moment to the scene at Sinai, to the swiftly moving events following the sin of the golden calf. The nation has failed grievously at the very foot of Sinai, moving Moshe to smash the first tablets at the mountain’s base; the primary perpetrators of the sin have been punished; God has threatened further penalties against the nation as a whole; Moshe has prayed; God has fundamentally forgiven. And now, God commands Moshe to begin again, to carve a second set of tablets. Only one question remains: What will be different this time? What must the nation learn from their previous failure, so that they will not fail again?
To convey the essential changes that must occur if the second attempt at Sinai is to succeed, God subtly varies His instructions concerning the tablets. These variations allow for the transmission of two critical lessons with the giving of the second tablets: the lessons of partnership and context.
The first of these lessons emerges from an obvious distinction between the tablets themselves. While the first Tablets of Testimony were both carved and inscribed by God, the second set is to be fashioned by Moshe himself, and only inscribed by divine hand. To a people whose sin may well have been an unwillingness to relate directly and closely to God, God’s primary message is clear:
This is a partnership that we are forging, you and I. You cannot be passive, distant participants in the process. I am giving you a living law that you will be required not only to obey, but to study, analyze and apply to ever-changing circumstances.
You are full partners in the task of bringing My sanctity into the world. To symbolize that partnership, we will create these second tablets together. Moshe will carve the tablets and I will inscribe My word upon them.
If the nation is to succeed in this second attempt, however, another lesson must be taught as well. It is the lesson of context: the Torah is valueless in a vacuum. The words of God’s law are only significant when they find a ready home in the heart of man, shaping the actions of those who receive them. As we have previously suggested (see Shmot: Ki Tissa 4, Approaches E), this second critical lesson is conveyed not only through the second tablets themselves, but also through the newly commanded aron etz.
Moshe recognized a hard truth upon descending from Sinai with the first set of tablets in his hands. Confronted by the horrific scene of his nation celebrating before a golden calf, he realized that they were unready to accept God’s word. The Torah had no place to “land,” no ready context within which to exist. Had the law been given to the people in their present state, the Torah itself would have become an aberration, misunderstood and even misused. Moshe had no choice but to publicly destroy the Tablets of Testimony before the eyes of the people. Only then, at God’s command, could he begin the process of their reeducation.
This teaching process begins as God alters the details concerning the Tablets of Testimony. God will inscribe His decrees upon this second set, but this time, only on stone carved by Moshe. The tablets thus represent the word of God finding a home in the actions of a man. To further convey this point concretely, God also commands that these new tablets be immediately placed into a physical home, Moshe’s aron etz – a simple ark of wood. The symbolism is clear. Only if the contents of these tablets also find their home (in the humble hearts of man) – only if the Torah finds context – will this Torah be worthy of existence.
If these lessons of partnership and context are so critical, however, why does God wait until the transmission of the second set of tablets to convey them? Couldn’t the horrific failure of the egel hazahav and the devastating ensuing pain and punishment have been avoided had these points been shared from the outset, with the transmission of the first tablets?
With these questions we once again enter difficult territory that we have already explored (see Bereishit: Noach 1, Approaches A; Shmot: Teruma 1, Approaches B; Bamidbar: Shelach 1, Points to Ponder). Why does God allow man to fail, at times educating him to his errors only after the failures have occurred? Why not avoid, through divine intervention, the devastation of the flood in Noach’s time, the sin of the spies after the Exodus or the sin of the golden calf at Sinai?
As we have previously suggested, it would seem that God’s education of man does not follow a linear course. By creating a world predicated upon the existence of free will, God accepts the inevitability of human failure. In such a world certain values cannot be taught frontally but must emerge through a process of human trial and error. Like the wise parent who hurts for his child’s pain, yet recognizes that his child must experience failure, God stands back and allows his creations to stumble, knowing that upon rising they will be better for the process. The values embedded in the second set of tablets and the accompanying aron could not have been fully appreciated by the Israelites until after their failure at Sinai. God therefore waits until the transmission of the second Tablets of Testimony to convey the lessons critical to the nation’s success.
God also appreciates the powerful impact that Moshe’s own dawning realizations can have upon the people. He therefore holds back any mention of the wooden ark in the initial narrative of the events, instead allowing this powerful symbol to emerge only in Moshe’s recollections. The repeated stress that Moshe places upon the aron as he speaks to the nation in retrospect drives home this great leader’s own critical recognition of the ark’s importance. Telling, as well, is Moshe’s self-admitted deviation from God’s instructions. While God commands Moshe to create the second tablets and then to fashion the ark, Moshe insists on creating the aron first. This great leader recognizes that the Tablets of Testimony cannot exist even for a moment outside of their proper spiritual context. For the nation to learn that lesson, these tablets must be placed immediately in their physical home, as well.
Points to Ponder
Every once in a while, we rabbis hit what we consider to be a sermonic “home run,” a critical speech that truly finds its mark.
From the reactions received, it seems that my Kol Nidrei drasha this past year was one such “home run.” This drasha, in fact, hit such a sensitive nerve with so many of my congregants that, with a bit of editing, I submitted it as an op-ed to my local area Jewish newspaper, again to strong reaction.
This piece deals in its own way with the lesson of context that we have discussed in our study, the recognition that Torah is only valuable when it shapes the character and actions of man. I therefore offer it for your attention, as well.
So there we were, Barbara and I, on a two-week vacation to the Canadian Rockies.
The trip was exceeding even our high expectations: majestic mountains, roaring crystal rivers, emerald lakes in hanging valleys, and wildlife – bear, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, an elk that we thought was a moose (we never did see a moose) – a nature lover’s dream. Ma nora ma’asecha, Hashem, How awe inspiring are Your works, God!
But as the days wore on, I unexpectedly found myself captivated by a different “life form.” I began to take note of the people we met along the way – non-Jews, mostly – along the trails, in the parks, at the picnic tables…
And you know what I found? They were nice! I mean, really nice! They were open, friendly, pleasant and engaging. Their children were polite, well mannered and cooperative. And strangely enough, the more people I met, the more uncomfortable I became. Because I began to feel that in some ways, they are nicer than us.
Now I know what some of you are saying to yourselves. Wow, the rabbi is skating on thin ice. He goes on a two-week vacation, meets a couple of people in passing, and returns to insult us. So let me make some things abundantly clear from the outset: Our congregations are exemplary in so many ways. The extraordinary human resource and wealth of spirit that exist within them are incomparable. The personal support that we extend to each other at critical life moments, whether joyous or challenging, sets a standard towards which other faith communities can aspire. When the chips are down, there is no one I would rather be with than the members of our Jewish community.
I also recognize that my chance meetings with a series of people on vacation in the Canadian Rockies hardly qualify as a scientific survey of the non-Jewish world.
Nonetheless, the High Holy Day season is a time for honest selfappraisal. Let me, therefore, ask you a question. Don’t you sometimes feel that we Jews could use an attitude adjustment? Don’t you sometimes think, and I don’t know how else to put it, that we need to get over ourselves a bit? The signs are readily apparent: How many of you in the service fields have come to me over the years and told me that you would rather deal with your non-Jewish customers than with Jews? How many of us, in the public arena, from the shul to ShopRite, have acted, or seen our coreligionists act, in ways that are a bit condescending, entitled, even pushy? And what about our children? Are we pleased with the way they talk to each other, to us, or to other adults?
If you are not convinced yet, try this little litmus test. Some of you may know the story of the El Al plane landing at Tel Aviv during Chanukah, in a year when Chanukah falls when it most often does. As the plane taxis towards the gate, the copilot announces over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, please stay in your seats. The plane is still moving; we have not yet reached the gates.” A few moments later, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, once again, the plane is still moving. It is not safe. Please be considerate of yourselves and others – please remain in your seats.” And a few moments later: “Ladies and gentlemen, stay in your seats!” Finally, he announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to tell you that we have arrived at the gate. To all of you who are standing, happy Chanukah! To all of you who are still seated, merry Christmas!”
The litmus test: Could this story be true?
I almost feel as if there is an attitudinal veneer that blocks the basic goodness in our hearts from rising to the surface. It seems to automatically kick in, like a switch that’s pulled, whenever we feel a bit stressed, tense, harried or pushed.
The reasons for this phenomenon are potentially manifold: Perhaps we have been pushed so often and so long throughout our history that given the opportunity, we naturally tend to push back. Perhaps we still feel a bit uncertain and vulnerable. Clearly many of us misinterpret our role as God’s chosen people to mean that we are inherently superior, rather than that we have greater responsibility. And to be honest, for some of us, it’s simply our affluence and our success that makes us feel that we can do anything or say anything with impunity. After all, there is no mitzva to be nice. Six hundred thirteen commandments, and not one of them says outright that we have to be nice, right?
Wrong! Dead wrong!
During this holiday period, as we return to basics, let me tell you what one of our greatest scholars has to say about the mitzvot. Rav Abba bar Aivu, who is known within Talmudic literature simply as Rav (“teacher”), emphatically declares: “The sole purpose of the mitzvot is to refine mankind.” He goes on to explain that our detailed performance of the mitzvot does not make a difference to God. It makes a difference to us. The mitzvot simply are created to refine us. To make us nice.
Let’s understand what this means. If we are punctilious in the performance of the mitzvot, yet that performance does not change us, refine us, make us better human beings, then the system simply isn’t working. If the performance of mitzvot doesn’t knock the chip off our shoulder, if it doesn’t bring us down a peg by making us realize that we stand on equal footing with all human beings before an all-powerful God, if it doesn’t bring us up a notch by making us recognize the majestic potential that lies within our souls, then we are not performing mitzvot properly. If the system of Jewish law does not produce nicer people, then something is desperately wrong.
The reason there is no specific mitzva to be nice is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is to make us better human beings.
Now, you may say, You know, the rabbi is right. This is all fine and good. How, however, can we act upon this knowledge? How can we break through our own familiar attitudinal veneer? I would like, therefore, to prescribe a simple exercise.
This exercise is not mine. It was prescribed by the rabbis of the Talmud, centuries ago. Thankfully, they even hinged this drill upon an abundantly familiar biblical passage, so that it is very easy for us to remember: V’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha b’chol levavcha u’v’chol nafshecha u’v’chol me’odecha, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your
soul and with all your might…” How, ask the rabbis, is it possible to “love God”? How can love apply to an entity that lies so far beyond our understanding? Among the answers they propose is the following powerful suggestion: “And you shall love… that the name of heaven should become beloved through you.” In other words, you should act in such a way that your very actions increase the awareness of and the love of God in this world. Others should see your behavior as a Jew and say, “How wonderful! What a mensch! If this is what Judaism produces, what a beautiful system it must be.”
So here’s the exercise: This year, every time you are about to lash out at the person next to you, every time you feel entitled to be rude, every time you become frustrated because the cashier at ShopRite (who is so obviously inferior to you in your mind, because she needs to work behind the counter to put herself/her children through college and you don’t) is too slow, every time you feel righteously entitled to criticize someone in your synagogue and you don’t feel the need to do so in a non-hurtful way (because you so obviously know better than the person you are about to criticize), every time you are about to be rough on your housekeeper (who is also so obviously lesser than you, although she is only doing the work that your grandmother once had to do for someone else; and there, but for the grace of God, go you)…
Every time, stop and ask yourself: “Is this really what God wants? Is what I’m about to do or say going to increase God’s presence in this world? Are my actions or words going to enhance the appreciation of God’s will and the love for His word?”
If the answer is no, then don’t do it. Don’t say it. Period!
And, who knows, maybe if we stop and regularly ask ourselves these questions, we will succeed in being nicer to each other, to those with whom we regularly deal, to those whom we glancingly meet on the journey.
We will succeed in bringing out the innate goodness that lies in each of our hearts. We will fill the world with a bit more love and respect for the Divine.
We will truly do “what God wants” and we will show our love for Him by bringing Him nachat.