Parshat Terumah, Exodus: 25:1-27:19
Imagine putting God in a box. Impossible? Not according to Parshat Terumah.
Terumah delineates the specifications of this box, its dimensions and how it was made of acacia wood and gold. Other ritual objects described in Parashat Terumah were also made of acacia wood and gold. What made this box exceptional was its purpose and power. It stored the Tablets of the Commandments. Thus its name: Aron HaEidut, the Ark of the Pact or Testimony.
The Ark had a multitude of powers and purpose. It also served as advance scout leading the people from Sinai through the wilderness, then drying a path across the Jordan River for the people to cross into the Promised Land. The Ark turned dangerous if misused or mishandled. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, were immolated when they offered a “strange fire” before the Ark. Uzzah was electrocuted when he righted the Ark as it otherwise would have tumbled off an ox cart. The Ark also served as a weapon. Joshua paraded the Ark around Jericho during the seven-day siege until the walls of the city fell. The Israelites brought it into battle and then lost it in battle to the Philistines. But the Ark was the bane of the Philistines, afflicting them with plagues that prompted the Philistines to return the Ark post haste to the Israelites. The Ark was also the source of ultimate bliss and fulfillment. King David danced around the Ark when it arrived in Jerusalem. This ecstatic moment affirmed Jerusalem as David’s capital and the capital of the Jewish soul for all time.
In Terumah, God also ascribed the ultimate purpose to the Ark. “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you, from atop the cover between the two Cherubim that are on the Ark of the Pact, everything that I shall command you concerning the Israelite people.” Nowhere else in the Torah is God’s presence associated with anything fashioned by human hands. In sum and in effect, God was in the box.
So what shall we make of the Ark’s disappearance following the fall of Jerusalem and the first Temple circa 586 B.C.E.? Some speculated that Nebuchadnezzar took the Ark as booty back to Babylon. Some said it was hidden away in the Temple mount. Today, theories exist for the Ark secreted away somewhere in Asia or Africa or Europe.
All theories must yield to truth. Here is a simple truth to begin, and then deeper truths.
The simple truth is the Ark disappeared.
A deeper truth is that Judaism did not disappear. The contents of the Ark live on with every mitzvah that we Jews keep, and with every one of the Commandments acknowledged by the world as the bedrock of morality.
Another deeper truth is a harder truth for many people to accept. How often do people today put God in a box in order to box with God? How many people reject God believing that what they reject is precisely God? Examples abound: I reject God because where was God at Auschwitz? I reject God because life can be fraught with suffering! So begin a flurry of punches in boxing with God, intended to knock God out.
Here is the truth. God wasn’t at Auschwitz. The Germans did a very effective job keeping God out. They surrounded the camp with barbed wire and erected watch towers. They cultivated cruelty to levels previously unknown in the history of cruelty. Whatever spark of God that may have remained in the souls of Auschwitz’s prisoners, the Germans extinguished in the gas chambers, then incinerated in the crematoria.
Here is another truth taught by the Ark’s disappearance. Everything physical is also temporal, mortal. Mortality must at moments entail loss and even pain.
Here is yet another truth taught by the Ark’s disappearance. Everything moral and just, loving and spiritual, is also eternal. The eternal and ever-present YHWH lives in every moment of goodness, as we live in eternity every moment that we keep a mitzvah.
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.