"And they shall make an ark of acacia-wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth therefore, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and thou shalt make a crown of gold round about." (Shmos 25:10-11) "And thou shalt make staves of acacia-wood and overlay them with gold." (Shmos 25:13) The first time I ever learned Chumash, I almost abandoned the effort when I reached Parshas Terumah. Having started midway through with Kedoshim I'd learned that not every parashah was full of exciting stories or uplifting speeches. Despite that, I'd slogged through the long stretches full of sacrificial bits and procedural stuff. Then when I hit Bereishis it picked up and I was thoroughly enjoying myself until I reached Terumah. First of all, I have a hard time visualizing objects from their textual descriptions. Show me a picture and it all makes sense but tell me about how something looks and I really don't have a clue how to put it all together. Second, I couldn't figure out the relevance of all the descriptions. Yes, Rashi on Bereshis 24:42 tells us that the casual conversation of the servants of the Avos are more beloved by God than the Torah of their descendants because Eliezer's story is repeated in full while many important halachos are only hinted at. But it seemed to me that Shabbos, kashrus and many other important areas of Jewish life that remain relevant today only received a sketchy outline in the Torah. Meanwhile the details Mishkan, which was built to last 11 days (Dev. 1:2) at the beginning and then only remained in use slightly longer than 38 years (Yehoshua 4:20), stretched out over four and a half parshios. What’s up with that? Could the Torah not have simplified things by simply saying that God instructed Moshe Rabeinu, a”h, to make a Mishkan and its various contents and just added a few volumes to the Talmud to bring in the details?
Since that time I’ve become well aware of the many commentaries that explain the deep symbolism to the Mishkan and its constituent parts. Whether it represents the universe in toto, a human being or a continuing of the revelation of Maamad Har Sinai, there is clearly a great purpose in the Torah giving us all the details of its construction. This isn’t simply a hot-to guide. And this past Shabbos I found another thought on the Mishkan I hadn’t come across before.The Meshech Chochmah on the two verses noted above comments on a subtle difference between the two types of gold used in making the Aron. In the case of the Aron itself, pure gold (zahav tahor) was to be used while for the staves plain gold was acceptable. He states that the difference between zahav tahor and just zahav is that the former is resmelted to increase its level of purity. He then brings a halacha from the Shulchan Aruch to show a fascinating way to understand one of the symbolic meanings of the Aron. In Orach Chayyim 32:37, the Mechaber states that the leather used to make tefillin boxes “must be processed for the sake of the mitzvah where possible.” Commenting on the words “where possible”, the Mishnah Berurah (32:171) notes that it is the opinion of the Rambam that the leather of tefillin boxes needs no processing at all. As a result, the processing step does not require specific kavannah because it’s not an essential part of the process. Although all other decisors disagree, the Mechaber implies that where processed skins are unavailable to make tefillin, the Rambam’s opinion can be relied upon.
But what does all this have to do with the Mishkan?
It is well known that in Jewish philosophy the human being consists of three parts: body, mind, and soul. Consistent with this the commentators also note that there are three articles placed in the Kodesh section of the Mishkan: the table, menorah and incense alter. The table, with its lechem hapanim represents the physical, the menorah with its lights represents the intellectual, and the alter with its ephemeral incense represents the spiritual.
But then what is the purpose of putting the Aron under the same roof but behind the paroches in the Kodesh Kodashim section? Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt”l, notes that this represents the Torah as external to the person. God’s law is not something we can internalize and play with as we see fit. It remains outside, objective, immune to our attempts to alter it. All three components listed above have a high degree of subjectivity. Each person has different physical tastes, intellectual interests and spiritual acuity. What works for me does not work for anyone else.
What’s more, I can adjust myself over time. That which I found interesting and meaningful ten or twenty years ago is not always what tickles my fancy today. My taste in foods, reading materials or how I approach God in prayer evolves over time.
This is not so in Torah. What was considered appropriate by Torah standards twenty, one hundred or two thousand years ago is the same today. What is right and wrong in the world does not get adjusted by societal “norms” or the whims of flawed humans. The Torah does not change; it remains external and objective.
What the Meshech Chochmah seems to be noting then, is that in the human being who is essentially a walking, talking Mishkan, the tefillin God had commanded us to wear serve the same role as the Aron did in the original structure. While I contain my own versions of the table, menorah and altar, the tefillin remain external to me, an objective reminder of where my loyalty must lie without compromise.
And how does he show this parallel? The verses above note that the gold that actually made up the Aron was pure and processed lishmah. The gold that made up the staves did not requiring processing. This is the same as the Rambam’s understanding of how tefilling as constructed. The parchments themselves must be processed lishmah for they hold on them the words of God, just as the Aron contained them. The boxes which serve to carry the parchments do not require further processing. There are the staves of this Aron equivalent.
Thus for the Meshech Chochmah, when we put tefillin on in the morning we are not simply fulfilling a mitzvah but are also turning ourselves into a complete replica of the Mishkan and meriting God’s promise: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them.” (Shmos 25:8)