Reminders of the Lost Ark

THE PORTION

By Daniel M. Jaffe

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Jonathan, a member of Temple Har Zion’s New Building Committee, has accepted the assignment of developing a design approach for its new ark. Jonathan figures that he might as well start at the beginning and be as authentic as possible, so he types “ark of the covenant” into his computer’s Internet search engine. He is chagrined by the results: “Ark of the Covenant — Shop eBay,” “The Covenant, $6.11,” “Save on the Covenant,” “Ark of the Covenant Replica.”

Hmmm. Thinking that he might do better to examine the actual source, Jonathan takes the Hertz Pentateuch from his study bookshelf and reads through Terumah, the Torah portion specifying details for the biblical ark. He jots down notes and ideas: “(1) ark of acacia wood overlaid with gold — expensive but possible if we use gold paint instead of leaf; (2) gold rings and staves to carry the ark — unnecessary, since our ark won’t be portable like the original; (3) two golden cherubim on top — not such a good idea, since angels have basically been co-opted by Christian art over the past 2,000 years; (4) curtains of blue, purple, scarlet linen — garish by today’s standards? (must ask the committee); (5) nix the acacia wood sacrificial altar with brass basins and fire pans and — ugh — flesh hooks.”

He then sits back to ponder whether this overall approach — applying the Torah’s specifics — is actually proper. After all, Terumah is a guide for the ark, the one and only ark meant to hold the original two tablets of the Ten Commandments while the Israelites wandered the desert. Didn’t Maimonides suggest that one of the Torah’s goals in those biblical times was to wean the Israelites away from idol-worshipping cultures? If so, then the biblical ark’s design was intended to awe, to capture the people’s imaginations with richness and spectacle. Once they reached the Promised Land, the daily miracles would stop — the pillar of fire guiding by night, the pillar of smoke by day, the manna showing up six days a week. The people would need an elaborate ark and sanctuary to serve as a tangible reflection of the Law’s philosophical and spiritual importance, the Almighty’s presence among them. A communal focal point and source of pride.

Solomon wisely continued this tradition when he built the Temple. So immense and grand. Hadn’t Jonathan’s own jaw dropped the first time he visited the Western Wall? The mere remains of the Western Wall! But that’s the Temple, from a different time in our history.

The Children of Israel are not the same people we were back then. We’re now divided not among 12 co-habiting tribes, but among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Hasidic, Reconstructionist, Humanist and other variations of thought and practice. And we’re spread around the world. No single place of worship can meet all Jewish needs. So we’re not talking about one special ark as conceptualized in the Torah. What’s more, individual synagogues didn’t even exist when the Torah was written, so the Torah’s design elements couldn’t have been meant to apply to synagogues and their arks.

In fact, now that he thinks about it, Jonathan considers that imitation of the Torah’s ark design actually might constitute a profanation of sorts. Wouldn’t a contemporary synagogue ark in the image of the biblical one be equivalent to those mini-replicas available for purchase online? Fetishism of a tangible form. If all synagogues started re-creating that ancient ark design, maybe we’d be inclining the people toward a kind of idol worship, the very pagan expression the entire Torah was designed to counter!

No, maybe Terumah should be studied not so much for its details but for its lessons: that a sanctuary is a special place, that an ark must be constructed with care and attention to detail, at great expense, in acknowledgment of the sanctity of the Law and biblical mandate.

Yes, that’s it. Jonathan stands from his desk, knowing what he will recommend to the committee: They should not worry about golden cherubim, purple linens or acacia; rather, they should focus on the ancient goal of designing an ark worthy of holding the words that changed the world. After building such an ark, whatever its specific design, they will all be able to sit with their children each Sabbath and feel respect for the Law and the Almighty. And as a consequence, they will feel respect for themselves.

Daniel M. Jaffe, compiler-editor ofWith Signs & Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction(first published in 2001 by Invisible Cities Press), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.