Parashat Terumah, 5778

A D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpatim
by Rabbi Isaac Mann

This week’s Torah portion deals with the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the various vessels to be placed in it or in front of it. Most of the vessels were to have rings built on their sides through which rods or staves would be inserted that would allow for the Priests or the Levites to transport them easily from one encampment to another during the sojourn of the Israelites in the Desert. In particular, four vessels were to have these rings adjoined to them: the Holy Ark (Ex. 25:12-15), the Table of the Lehem ha-Panim (Ex. 25:26-28), the Altar for Sacrifices (Ex. 27:4-7), and the Incense Altar (Ex. 30::4-5).

Of the above vessels, only one had a special instruction that applied to it and to none of the others, namely, that the staves must remain in the rings permanently. That vessel is the Holy Ark. Indeed the Torah expresses this requirement in rather strong terms, as a prohibition — “The staves shall be in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be taken from it” (Ex. 25:15). Indeed , this is considered one of the 613 commandments of the Torah and listed as such by Maimonides and the Sefer ha-Hinukh. This prohibition applies only to the rods that were used for the Ark – those rods must remain in place even when the Ark is stationed in the Holy of Holies, which is where its place was. For the other vessels, this does not apply, and the rods can be removed from them when they do not need to be transported.

The Torah gives no explanation for this particular prohibition and why it applies only to the Ark. The Sefer ha-Hinukh suggested (in his main explanation) that the staves were fixed permanently to the Ark as a safety precaution. Since the Ark, unlike the other vessels, could sometimes be taken out hurriedly to lead the Jews in battle against their enemies, it was necessary to be able to ensure the durability of the rods that would be used to hold the Ark. This would more likely be the case if they were permanently attached.

One could argue with the above premise that the soundness of the rods was the key factor in the requirement that they not be removed. If anything, one could more easily examine them and replace them if necessary when they would be removed. But if one looks for a practical explanation, it’s not difficult to find one. The Ark, as we know from the story of the fall of Jericho and other places in our Scriptures, was often taken out in battle, as mentioned above. This alone would justify the need to keep the staves in place. Imagine telling your troops to wait until we find the staves and put them in place and only then can we bring out the Ark, symbol of God’s protection of His people. In battle every minute counts, and the morale of the soldiers depends on seeing that symbol of protection immediately as they are summoned to fight.

My favorite explanation for this mitzvah – to keep the staves in place – is a contemporary derash that rabbis occasionally use to emphasize the importance of the supporters of the Torah. Just as the Ark is a symbol of the Torah contained therein, the rods that carry the Ark represent those who carry and support the Torah. Just as the Torah itself (or perhaps the Tablets) are never to be removed from the Ark, so too those who help support the Torah and Torah institutions, whether through their time or money, should never be removed from the Ark. They are an integral part of Torah learning, even if they are not learned themselves. Like the Issachar-Zevulun bond (one learns and the other supports), the Torah and its facilitators form a bond never to be sundered. This is the symbolic message contained in the instruction — “they [who support] shall not ever be taken [from those who learn.” Only through this inseparable union shall Torah flourish.

Have a Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty and is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.