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 of “With Signs & Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction” (first published in 2001 by Invisible Cities Press), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.