By Rabbi Dr Moshe Freedman
The Torah describes the construction and assembly of the Tabernacle, which served as a portable temple for the Jewish people until King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Gemara (Yoma 72b) explains that the Ark was formed by making three pieces which had four walls and a base which slotted into one another. The middle section was made of wood (Exodus 25:10), while the inner and outer sections were gold covering the wooden core both inside and out (ibid. 11).
Rav Tzaddok HaKohen (d. 1900) questioned why it was necessary to make the central part out of wood if it was going to be covered with gold in any case. He explained that the two golden parts remind us that our inner character should be a true reflection of the external image we project to others.
While the wooden core remains hidden, it connects the external to the internal. But why specifically wood? King Solomon likens Torah to a tree (Proverbs 3:18).
It is firmly rooted in the Divine, but continually grows bearing new fruit.
The wooden core of the Ark therefore represents the inspiration and means with which to live life as honest, integrated human beings. Yet King Solomon declares ‘Eitz Chaim hi’ – the Torah is not merely any tree, but the Tree of Life.
When Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, the path back was blocked by the fire of a revolving sword and guarded by two cherubim. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden represented eternal life in the physical world.
It had to be guarded to prevent man from becoming immortal and attaining a godlike status.
Torah however, is also called a Tree of Life. It cannot bestow physical immortality, but it feeds and nourishes our souls, strengthening our connection to the Divine, thus imparting spiritual perpetuity to ‘those who grasp it’ (ibid.).
Therefore, the very same cherubim that guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden adorn the holy Ark of the Covenant, guiding us to spiritual immortality. Similarly, the Midrash Tanchuma (Vayechi 14) describes a Torah scholar as a cherev pifiyot, a double-edged sword.
Their Torah learning resembles fire (Deuteronomy 33:2), which gives warmth and light to those who learn from them.
The Ark therefore serves as a focus of connection with God, bringing heaven down to earth and directing our hearts to the everlasting light of the Divine.
• Dr Moshe Freedman is rabbi of New West End Synagogue