Bahaalotcha 5764

June 10, 2004

The Ark that counts

There is a verse that we sing when bring the Torah out of the Ark:


Vayihi binsoa aron, vayomer Moshe: kuma, Adonai, v’yafutzu oyvecha,
viyanusu mipanecha m’sanecha

And it was when the ark traveled, Moses said, “Arise, Adonai, and may your
enemies be scattered, may those who hate you flee from your presence!”

This is a somewhat perplexing passage. What does the ark traveling have
to do with enemies being scattered? 

As if just figuring out the meaning of the verse wasn’t mysterious enough,
this verse, and the one after it, which tells us that when the Ark rested
the Israelites returned, are set aside for special treatment unlike any
other verses in the entire Torah. They are set off by a pair of inverted
Hebrew letters, the letter nun.

The Talmud says the reason these two verses are set apart between two
large inverted nuns is because they constitute a whole book of the Torah
by themselves. That instead of five books of Moses, there are really
seven books of Moses, with the book of Numbers divided into three: the
section before these two verses, these two verses, and the section after
these two verses.

The commentators are all over the map in trying to understand what these
verses are about. The Midrash, Sifrei, asks who could be enemies of God? 
The answer—enemies of Israel! The Slonimer rebbe suggests we should
understand these verses metaphorically and consider talmidei chochamim,
Torah scholars, the ark—after all, it is within people that the Torah
really resides.

However, it may be that a less interpretive reading, and a more literal
reading is closer to the original intent. The tradition claims that the
ark WAS imbued with mystical powers that allowed the Israelites to prevail
over their enemies. If so, the ark’s ability to help us conquer our
enemies could explain why this is so important as to merit being set apart
from the rest of the Torah.

The power of the ark is mentioned in several places in the Torah. 
Consider the caution given after Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu are killed
for offering strange fire to the Lord: “The Lord said to Moses, Speak to
Aaron your brother, that he should not come at all times into the holy
place within the veil before the throne of mercy, which is upon the Ark,
so that he does not die: for I will appear in the cloud upon the throne
of mercy.”

The throne of mercy was the slab of pure gold which served as the cover
for the ark, on which rested the two cherubim. The two cherubim, a type
of angel, are another anomaly all by themselves: we are forbidden to make
graven images, except we are commanded to make this one graven image,
which was kept hidden, out of sight, at all times. God’s presence was
said to rest on the Ark, and approaching at the wrong time could lead to
sudden death!

The new Harry Potter movie is out—I haven’t seen it yet, but I can tell
you the kind of magic they have in Harry Potter is relatively light weight
compared with incredible things the Ark of the Covenant could do in the
movie “The Raiders of the Lost Ark.” If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost
Ark, you might have thought that all that fantastical stuff about the
powers of the Ark, how it could level mountains, lay waste regions, and
protect any Army carrying it was all made up. Not so! As I’m about to
show, the writers of Raiders of the Lost Ark relied directly on material
in the Jewish tradition—in the Bible and in the Midrash. If you haven’t
seen the movie, go rent it! It’s a great film, your kids of any age will
love it.

The Bible and Midrash are full of legends which attest to the powers of
the Ark. They are either in the later parts of the Bible, or in Midrash,
not in the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) themselves, so even people who
are regular shul goers might not be familiar with some of these tales.

In the Torah we are told the details of the construction of the Ark, and
who would carry it and how. We are told where they kept the Ark, and what
was in it. The Midrash fills in how the Ark was actually also the ancient
Hebrews’ navigational device. The Ark led the way in the desert. As the
people would break camp, Moses would tell them to do what the Shechinah
(Divine presence) within the Ark commands. But the people would not
believe Moses that the Shechinah dwelt among them unless he spoke the
words in this week’s parsha: “Arise, Lord, and let your enemies be
scattered, let them that hate you flee before you.” At which point the
Ark would move, the people would believe, and the Ark would soar up high
and swiftly move before the camp a distance of three days march, settling
in a suitable camping spot. Wouldn’t that be useful for those summer
vacations when all the good camp sites seem to be taken!

The Midrash also tells us that the Ark provided protection in the desert,
with sparks or fiery jets issuing forth from the cherubim that killed off
the serpents and scorpions in the path of the Israelites, and burned away
all the thorns on the path that might injure the hikers. As if that’s not
sweet enough, the smoke from the zapped thorns rose straight in a column,
and perfumed the whole world!

Everyone knows about the parting of the waters at the Red Sea. Not
everyone knows about a second parting of the waters—of the Jordan River. 
In the book of Joshua we learn that when the Israelites were entering the
Promised Land, as the priests who were carrying the Ark set foot into the
Jordan River, the waters piled up behind, and allowed them to walk across
on dry land. The midrash expands on this story, and says that the waters
rose to a height of 300 miles!!! The midrash says the Ark remained in the
middle of the riverbed while all the people crossed, and once all the
people were across, the Ark set forward all on its own, dragging the
priests entrusted with its care after it, until it overtook the people!

Once they got the Ark to Israel, the first stop was to conquer Jericho. 
Most people have heard the story of how the Jews walked around the city,
blew on the trumpets, and the walls came tumbling down. But an important
part of the story is that the important factor in the walls coming down
was not the blowing of the trumpets, but rather the presence of the Ark,
which was carried around the city.

Having the Ark in your possession was NOT a guarantee of victory in
battle, as evidenced by the story told in the book of Samuel, when the
Philistines captured the Ark. The Philistines pretty quickly, however,
realized they had a hot potato—where ever the Ark was, statues of the
Philistine god Dagon were knocked down, people died, and those who didn’t die were afflicted with a horrible case of hemorrhoids. The Philistines
loaded the Ark on a wagon and it sent it back to the Jews. With an
“offering” of five golden hemorrhoids for good measure.

Again, according to what is written in the Bible in the book of Samuel,
when the Philistines sent the Ark back to the Jews, it went by way of the
town of Beit Shemesh—and 50,000 and 70 men died because they looked at the Ark of the Lord. The midrash says the 70 were great rabbis of the
Sanhedrin who were not immune from the harmful effects of looking at the
Ark.

Escorting the Ark was a dangerous job. In 2Samuel, we are told how Uzzah
was escorting the Ark, which was properly covered, but when the wagon
tilted he reached out to steady the Ark, and for the impunity of touching
it he was instantly killed.

Uzzah’s death made King David nervous, so he left the Ark at a nearby
house for sometime until he saw the owner of the house was prospering, so
he figured it was a good thing to have the Ark, and he sent for it.

The holiest place in Judaism today is the Western Wall, which is holy
because it’s the place that is closest to where the Temple stood that we
can readily get to. Yet the reason King David wanted to build the Temple
itself was so that there would a proper place for the Ark. Again in
2Samuel it says “That the king said to Nathan the prophet, See now, I live
in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God dwells within curtains.”

The Ark had a few other remarkable powers. According to the Midrash, when they were bringing the Ark to Geba, the priests who tried to take hold of it were raised up in the air and thrown violently to the ground. Another
story told of the Ark is that when the Queen of Sheba came to visit
Solomon, Solomon used the Ark to distinguish between men who were
circumcised and men who were not!

Given all of these magical powers, and the fact that the Ark held the
testimony to the covenant between Man and God, the tablets of the Ten
Commandments, the Ark and its contents were clearly the most important
object in Jewish history. There is nothing that is even a close second. 
Which makes it all the more mysterious that the Ark could disappear
without a trace. The very last reference we have to the Ark anywhere in
the Bible is in 2 Chronicles, where it says King Josiah told the Levites
to put the Ark in the Temple, the implication being that it had been moved
from there earlier by King Menashe. And that is the very last mention in
the Bible of the Ark—yet there is a lot of history which comes after.

Nowhere in the Bible does it mention the Ark either being carried off in
the destruction of the First Temple, or it being returned after the
Persians allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple. There are no further
references to the Ark whatsoever. Not only has the Ark physically
disappeared, but even the scriptural history of the Ark stops totally
abruptly.

The Talmud does record a sort of postscript which says Josiah hid the Ark
before the invading army of Nebuchadnezzar came and destroyed the Temple the first time. And the Talmud says that one time a priest noticed
something hidden under the wood house by the Temple, but he was struck
dead before he could reveal the secret to others.

There are those who believe that this story in the Talmud is what actually
happened, and that the Ark remains hidden away under the Temple mount
somewhere, waiting to be unearthed.

But there is another tale told. The Christians of Ethiopia claim that the
Ark, the most sacred object in Judaism, the Ark which could kill 50,000
who just looked at it (sounds like a nuclear explosion, no?) is in
Ethiopia.

The Ethiopians claim that when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she
took a little souvenir home: the Ark of the Covenant! The path the Ark
supposedly took in getting from Jerusalem to Axum is a very long and
complicated story. Interestingly, every Ethiopian Christian church has a
tabot, which is a replica of the Ark. These replicas of the Ark are what
gives the church its sanctity. When they bring the replicas out, they are
covered in cloth wrappings so no one can actually see them.

Not only does each church have a replica, but the Ethiopians claim that in
the town of Axum in Northern Ethiopia, in the church of Saint Mary of
Zion, guarded over by one old Ethiopian who tried to flee when told he was
appointed guardian of the Ark, rests the Ark of the Covenant.

Is it really the Ark of the Covenant? If you’re interested, read Graham
Hancock’s book “The Sign and the Seal” and consider the evidence for
yourself.

But whether it is sitting in a church in Ethiopia, or whether it lies
buried under Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, I believe we are better off leaving the Ark where it is.

The Torah tells us the Ark was so special no one could look at it anyway. 
Another reason not to have it in our possession is it would be far too
easy to turn it into an opportunity for idol worship. To focus on the
box, not the contents, the tablets, not the teachings. Having the Ark and
putting it on display in a museum would make Judaism seem like another
museum religion, like the Egyptian sun worshippers for example, a religion
with interesting artifacts, but no relevance to the present.

No, it’s better to remember what the Slonimer Rebbe said. The Ark that
counts is the person. The Ark that is eternal—the Ark that cannot be
lost, stolen, or destroyed is the Ark of the Jewish people, who keep the
covenant engraved on their hearts, not engraved on stone. And it is that
Ark which will scatter our enemies—we will scatter our enemies through the
strength, wisdom, and courage we gain from living lives guided by God and
His Torah.

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