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"And They Shall Make an Ark"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein







“And They Shall Make an Ark

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Among the many commands pertaining to the building of the Mishkan that appear in this week’s parasha, we find the command concerning the Ark:


They shall make an Ark of shittim wood – two cubits and a half long, and a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. (Shemot 25:10)


The command is formulated in the third person plural – “They shall make” (ve-asu) – in contrast to the commands concerning the other vessels, which are all given in the second person singular: “You shall make (ve-asita) a table” (25:23); “And you shall make (ve-asita) a menorah of pure gold” (25:31); “And you shall make (ve-asita) poles of shittim wood” (25:13), “And you shall make (ve-asita) a covering” (25:17), etc.


Ramban notes this discrepancy and explains that the other commands are given in the singular because Moshe, who was in charge of building all the other vessels, was considered equal to all of Israel.  This explains why the other commands are given in the singular, but we are still left with the question of why specifically the command concerning the Ark is in the plural. Ramban therefore brings another reason, quoting the Midrash:


Perhaps it hints that all of Israel should participate in the fashioning of the Ark, for it is “the holiest dwelling-place of the Most High” (Tehillim 46:5), and so that all will merit the Torah. Indeed, it says in Midrash Rabba (Shemot Rabba 34:2): “For what reason does the Torah say, ‘you (singular) shall make’ concerning all of the other vessels, while with regard to the Ark it says, ‘They shall make an Ark’?  Rabbi Yehuda the son of Rabbi Shalom answered: [It is as if] God said, ‘Let all come and engage in [fashioning] the Ark, so that they will all have a share in the Torah.’ ”


According to this midrash, only the command about the Ark is formulated in the plural because only with regard to this endeavor – the Ark that will store the Torah – is there an expectation that all of the Jewish nation should join in as one to carry out the task. This hints to us that every person is able to earn a share in the Torah, if he so desires.


If we look at the Midrash itself, we find that a further explanation is provided there for the discrepancy between the singular formulation concerning the other vessels, and the plural in the case of the Ark:


Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said: There are three crowns – the crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. The crown of kingship is [represented by] the Table, concerning which it is written, “A golden zer (crown) around it”; the priesthood is [represented by] the altar, concerning which it is written, “a golden zer around it”; and the crown of Torah is [represented by] the Ark, concerning which it is written, “a golden zer.” Why is the word “zer” used in connection with these? To teach us that if a person is worthy, they become a crown for him. If not, they are “zar” (foreign). And why, concerning all [of the other vessels] does it say, “ve-asita lo” (you shall make for it…), while concerning the Ark it is written, “ve-asu alav” (they shall make upon it…)?  To tell us that the crown of Torah is above them all. If a person has acquired Torah, it is as if he has acquired all of them. (Shemot Rabba 34:2)


It would seem that there is a great difference between the first part of the midrash, cited by the Ramban, and the second part. According to the second part, all of Am Yisrael should engage in building the Ark by virtue of the superiority of Torah over all other values. According to the first part, however, all of Am Yisrael should take part in building the Ark in order to acquire a share in the Torah. But if we look carefully at the Ramban, we see that both aspects are actually included in his words: “that all of Israel should participate in the fashioning of the Ark, for it is ‘the holiest dwelling-place of the Most High’ [= second reason], and so that all will merit the Torah [= first reason].”


We may conclude that in fact these are not two different aspects, but rather two sides of the same coin.


In contrast to other religions, where involvement in the law is the province of a chosen few, while the population at large is simply obligated to fulfill the Divine command, amongst Am Yisrael engaging in Torah is meant to be a common endeavor and aspiration, each person applying himself in accordance with his level and abilities. Some contribute greatly to Torah study, others offer a more modest contribution to the endeavor, while others still identify with the goal without actively participating. All must be part of the edifice of Torah.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1) cites the midrash that we discussed above:


Three crowns were bestowed upon Israel: the crown of Torah, and the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood was given to Aharon… the crown of kingship was given to David… the crown of Torah is ready and waiting for all Jews… anyone who wishes to may come and partake of it. Lest you say that those [other two] crowns are greater than the crown of Torah, it is therefore written, “By Me kings reign, and rulers legislate righteousness, and princes rule” (Mishlei 8:15) – from this we learn that the crown of Torah is greater than both of them.


Upon closer scrutiny we note that the midrash conveys an even stronger message than the Rambam. According to the midrash, not only is the crown of Torah greater than the other crowns, but a person who acquires the crown of Torah has in fact acquired all of them!


Obviously, this cannot be understood on the literal, functional level: we cannot say that a person who learns Torah turns into a kohen or a king. Clearly, the priesthood is reserved for the descendants of Aharon, and royalty belongs only to the descendants of David. However, on a deeper level, the concept is certainly true. The midrash seems to be telling us that, in moral terms, priesthood and kingship are only means to attain the crown of Torah. The Torah is more important than they are, and they exist to serve it.


The Torah must be the center of our lives. We must understand the centrality of Torah and feel our connection to it – even when we are busy with other occupations that are related to “kingship” (exercising authority and serving the country). Any such occupation is ultimately meant to serve Torah study, and is by definition secondary to it.


(This sicha was given on Shabbat parashat Teruma 5756 [1996].)