Bringing the Torah With Us Into the Modern Age

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This month, we begin reading the section of the Torah that describes the Mishkan – the portable Sanctuary which Gd commanded our ancestors to construct at Mount Sinai.  This structure served as the site of sacrificial offerings throughout the 40 years of travel in the wilderness, and even after Beneh Yisrael entered the Land of Israel, until the construction of the permanent Bet Hamikdash in Jerusalem.

At the center of the Mishkan stood the aron – the wooden, gold-plated ark which contained the two stone tablets which Moshe received atop Mount Sinai, and upon which Gd had engraved the commandments.  It also contained the first ever written Sefer Torah.

Rabbenu Bahya (Spain, 1255-1340) comments that the aron is given this name because it contains the Torah, our source of light (“or”).  We might say, tongue-and-cheek, that the word “aron” means “lightbox.”  It is the box which radiates the spiritual light of the Torah upon the nation.

There is, however, something startling about the aron that requires explanation.  Namely, it was kept hidden, and hardly ever seen.  Gd commanded placing the aron in the kodesh kodashim – the inner chamber of the Mishkan, which was set off from the rest of the structure by a cloth partition called the parochet.  The ark thus remained concealed.  Nobody was ever permitted to enter this chamber, except the kohen gadol, who was allowed there one day a year – on Yom Kippur, to sprinkle the blood of the special atonement sacrifices toward the ark.  And even then, he had to first create a cloud of smoke by offering incense inside the kodesh kodashim so that he would not see the ark.  

Oddly, the holiest and most important feature of the Mishkan, which symbolized the light of the Torah which is to shine upon the Jewish Nation, was never seen.  It was hidden behind a curtain. 

Why?  Should the aron not have been on public display for everyone to see upon coming to the holy site?  If it is the most important of the all the articles in the Mishkan – and, later, in the Bet Hamikdash – then why was it kept concealed behind a partition? 

The Immutable Torah 

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966), in his classic Torah commentary, Oznayim LaTorah, offers an insightful answer. 

 

All other fields of knowledge, he explains, evolve.  Scholars in every generation carefully study and scrutinize the conclusions of earlier scholars, questioning their theories and ideas, and making new discoveries.  The science of the 20th century is quickly being replaced by an updated, 21-century science.  This is true of every field.   

 

The Torah, however, is immutable.  We do not update or question our sacred text.  One of the famous 13 articles of faith listed by the Rambam is that the Torah we have received will never be exchanged.  We upgrade our phones and our cars, but not our religion.  Like a sturdy tree that remains firmly in place even during the fiercest storms, the Torah that Moshe brought us at Mount Sinai remains with us permanently, its original form, continually withstanding the gale force winds of change that are blowing all around it. 

 

This, Rav Sorotzkin explains, is the message of the aron which remains hidden and protected inside the inner chamber of the Temple.  The concealment of the aron represents the need to protect the Torah against attempts to reform it, to erase some of the text and add new text.  The original text is to be kept hidden inside the inner chamber of the Bet Hamikdash, where no people ever go, to teach us that we must carefully preserve the Torah in its authentic, original form, and to firmly reject all attempts to tamper with it, to “update” it to conform with modern trends. 

The Ark’s “Feet”  

Someone might then ask, does this not consign the Torah to irrelevance?  If the Torah remains static and immutable, then how does it maintain its importance even today, several millennia after it was first given?  Does this ancient text really have to what say in the 21st century, when life is so drastically different than it was at the time of Matan Torah? 

 

The answer, of course, is a resounding “yes.” 

 

The Torah commands affixing to the ark four rings (“taba’ot”), through which wooden poles were inserted so that the ark could be transported when necessary.  These rings are to be positioned “al arba pa’amotav” (Shemot 25:12) – on its four “pa’amot,” a word which most commentators explain to mean “corners.” 

 

However, Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1092-1167) notes that the word “pa’amot” is never used anywhere in Tanach in reference to corners. Boldly disagreeing with the majority of the commentators, Ibn Ezra asserts that the word “pa’amot” actually means “feet.”  Thus, for example, the verse in Shir Hashirim (7:2) states, “Mah yafu fea’amayich bene’alim – How beautiful are your steps in shoes…”  Similarly, a verse in Tehillim (85:14) says about the Almighty, “…veyasem lederech pe’amav – He directs his steps toward the road.”  In both these contexts, the root p.a.m. denotes walking.  Accordingly, Ibn Ezra posits that when the Torah commands affixing rings to the four “pa’amot” of the aron, this means that they are to be placed near the aron’s feet.  Ibn Ezra explains that it would be disrespectful to place the sacred ark directly on the floor, and thus, necessarily, it had four “feet,” protrusions on each corner, on which it stood. 

 

What might be the significance of the aron’s “feet”?  Assuming that Ibn Ezra is correct, and the ark did not lie directly on the ground, what might we learn from this intriguing feature of the most sacred article in the Bet Hamikdash? 

 

The “Walking” Torah 

 

Later writers observed that the sources cited by Ibn Ezra to prove this meaning of the word “pa’amot” actually refer not to feet, but, more specifically, to steps.  The “feet” implied by the word “pa’amot” are not stationary, but rather moving forward, marching toward a destination. 

 

The aron’s “feet” signify the fact that although the Torah is unchanging, it comes with us wherever we go.  Throughout our long, tumultuous history, the Jewish Nation has lived in many different places, among many different kinds of societies, under many different sets of circumstances, and under many different sorts of spiritual, ideological and cultural influences.  And wherever we were, we brought the Torah with us.  The Torah remains forever concealed and protected inside the ark, so-to-speak, but the ark does not stay in only one place.  It comes with us wherever we go, throughout our journey through history. 

 

One who reads halachic responsa by the leading Torah luminaries of the modern age, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (1915-2006), will not see questions about horses and buggies, or about ancient methods of agriculture.  The questions they masterfully address concern things like electrical devices, in vitro fertilization, cutting-edge medical procedures, telephones, cars, airplanes, and so on.  And while these and other great scholars often disagree, and reach different conclusions,  their essays have one thing in common: they never reply to their questioner that the Torah has nothing to say about the topic.  Instead, they draw from our ancient scholarly tradition in an attempt to apply the timeless principles of halachah to modern-day realities.  As humankind has entered the modern era, we Jews have brought the Torah with us, protected in its ark, preserving it in its original form.  It continues to guide us and inform our decisions to this very day, just as it did for our ancestors in the wilderness, and for every generation of Jews since.  As the Jewish Nation marches through history, the Torah marches with us. 

 

The image of the “walking Torah” is instructive in another respect, as well. 

 

It instructs that we must bring the Torah with us wherever we go throughout our day.  We don’t leave Judaism behind in the synagogue when we work, tend to our families, go on vacation, socialize, or do anything else.  The Torah has “feet” because it must accompany us to the office, to our homes, on our trips, in restaurants, and everywhere we go.  Everything we do, from the time we wake up until the moment we close our eyes at night, must be informed and governed by the Torah’s timeless values and laws. 

 

The “walking Torah” also accompanies us throughout every stage of life.  The Torah teaches us what to do as youngsters in school and yeshiva, as we get married and enter the workforce, as we raise children, as we help our children get married, and when we retire.  We recite each night in the arvit service before the reading of Shema, “Ki hem hayenu ve’orech yamenu – for they [the words of the Torah] are our lives and the length of our days.”  Throughout our lives, and day in and day out, the Torah accompanies us and shows us the right way to conduct ourselves. 

 

Our world today is changing at a dizzying pace.  Technologies which are considered cutting-edge become obsolete in a matter of a few short years.  Cultural fads come and go, and newfangled ideas are always coming fresh onto the scene.  The Torah is and always was our anchor, our source of stability in our rapidly changing world.  When we commit ourselves to halachic observance and to the Torah’s ideals and values, we always know what to believe and how to act regardless of what the world around us is doing.  Let us, then, strengthen this commitment, and devote ourselves to hang tightly to the “tree of life” that has always withstood and will always withstand even the most powerful cultural winds.