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Parashat Hashavua Eikev 2008 / 5768 - War, and the Ark of the Covenant

25.08.2008 by

This week's parsha, Eikev, is the third in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). In this, the last book of the Torah, Moshe delivers a farewell address to the Jewish people, who are about to enter the Land of Israel without him. He reviews the events of the past 40 years, focusing on the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the sins of the golden calf and the spies, and in general tries to teach the people the lessons they should have learned from the Exodus from Egypt and their years in the desert.

This week, Moshe focuses on the sin of the golden calf, and recounts how, some 40 years earlier, he received the Ten Commandments, broke them when he saw the people worshipping the calf, went back up to Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the people, and then received the commandments a second time. This is how Moshe tells the last part of the story: "At that time God said to me: 'carve out for yourself two tablets of stone, like the first ones, and come up to me to the mountain, and make for yourself an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words which were on the first tablets which you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.' And I made an ark of wood, and I carved two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. And He wrote on the tablets like the first writing, the ten commandments...and I turned and went down from the mountain and I placed the tablets in the ark which I had made, and they were there, as God had commanded me."

The commentators all scratch their heads over this wooden ark. Is it the same one as Indiana Jones's, the golden Ark of the Covenant, which Moshe, back in Exodus 40 years ago, when he originally came down from Mt. Sinai with the second tablets, commanded the Jewish people to make as part of the Tabernacle, and into which the Tablets were placed? If so, why, in this retelling, does the ark seem to go up with Moshe to Mt. Sinai? In the original story, Moshe brings the tablets down, commands the building of the golden ark, and then places them into it, once it is finished. Here, Moshe seems to make an ark himself, just out of wood (not gold, as in the other, more famous ark) and brings it up to Mt. Sinai, in order to immediately place the tablets inside it. This would seem to be a different ark. If so, what is its purpose?

Some of the commentaries resist the notion that this is a different ark, and understand the verses above to be referring to the same gold-covered Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle, built after Moshe comes down from the mountain, even though the text doesn't easily read that way. Rashi (France, 11th century), however, reads the verses as they seem to present themselves: this is a different ark, one made out of wood by Moshe, separate from the other, more photogenic one. Rashi further stipulates that the two arks served different purposes: The gold-covered one never left the Tabernacle, and was the permanent resting place of the Ten Commandments. Moshe's little wooden one accompanied the Israelites when they went out to war. It is not clear if Rashi thinks that the tablets would then be taken out of the golden ark, placed in Moshe's wooden one, and carried into battle, or if only the broken pieces of the first tablets were in the wooden ark. There is even a theory that Rashi meant that the wooden ark went out to war empty , while both sets of Ten Commandments, the broken and the whole, remained behind in the Ark of the Covenant (see below). Furthermore, Rashi says that the one time the Israelites failed to switch arks in this way, in a war against the Philistines which was going badly, and took the real, golden ark with them, they were punished, and the golden ark, with the tablets in it, was captured by the Philistines for a while. It would seem that the distinction between the two arks, the one being for regular use in the Tabernacle, and the other, wooden one, made by Moshe, for battle, is a sharply drawn and important one.

As I said earlier, other commentaries disagree with Rashi. Nachmanides (Spain and Israel, 1194-1267) assumes that Rashi meant that the tablets would stay in the Golden Ark of the Covenant, and the wooden one went to battle empty, or, perhaps, with only the broken first tablets inside. He questions the point of such a procedure: why go to war with an empty ark, or with the broken tablets? What good could that do? Nachmanides, and others, therefore postulate that if the wooden ark was, in fact, a different ark, and not the golden one, then it was only a temporary one, meant to be used to carry the tablets down the mountain and hold them until the real golden ark was ready, and was then disposed of. (The Chizkuni (13th century), in a remarkable comment, stipulates that this was necessary in order to make sure that Moshe didn't lose his temper over something the Israelites might do while the tablets were in his hands and break them, as he did with the first ones - the wooden ark was meant to protect them from Moshe's anger, and keep them safe until they were placed in the golden one!)

Taken together, these commentators do not accept Rashi's idea that the wooden ark played a permanent role as the ark that went into battle, and either read the verses as referring, though somewhat obliquely, to the one, golden ark, or to another, temporary, wooden one, simply used to store the second tablets until the real ark was ready. I, however, like Rashi's idea, that the wooden ark was distinct from the golden Ark of the Covenant, and was retained as the ark to which the tablets - or perhaps the broken first tablets (or perhaps it went out empty) - were transferred when the Israelites went out into battle. The golden ark, holding the ten commandments, is not meant to ever be taken out to war. In fact, as we said, the one time the Israelites deviated from this practice, they were punished, and the ark was taken away from them for a while. In this understanding, the ark of the covenant, the golden Indiana Jones one, is too holy to be used in battle. That is not its primary use, it is not even an acceptable one. When the Israelites go to war they take a more humble ark, containing the broken first tablets or, even more radically, containing nothing at all.

This seems to me to be a clear communication about the Torah's attitude towards war, one that I'd like to think about with you. A few weeks ago, I was in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was satnding with former student of mine, Michael Grumer, who was in his Israeli army uniform, and carrying his M16. As we were talking, in English, we were approached by an obviously ultra-Orthodox American Jewish family. Hearing Michael talking English, they immediately stopped in their tracks, and asked him, behaving not very differently from the way people do when they meet a rock star, if he was, in fact, an American, why was he in the army, and where he was from originally. After getting his details, they went on to ask him, breathlessly and at some length, about what he did in the army, the gun he was carrying, and had he ever used it (!). I don't want to sound nasty, but it seemed to me that the mother of the family had to hold herself back from asking if she could touch it.

Seeing Michael, with Kippah, uniform, and gun, was clearly a transcendent religious and cultural moment for these New York Jews, one of the most important and moving things they would do in their trip to Israel. After they left (it was a while), Michael told me that, when in uniform, he gets that kind of reaction all the time - Americans of all types stopping him excitedly when they realize he's an American and treating him like a superstar - a combination Rambo, Ari ben Canaan (from Exodus, played in the movie by Paul Newman), and righteous avenger of all wrongs ever done to the Jewish people.

According to Rashi, the Israelites are never meant to take the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments, into battle. Wars are, at times, necessary, and, at times, they are just, and it is a Mitzvah, at times, to fight them. And those who wage these just wars are often heroes, putting themselves on the line for the sake of their people. They certainly deserve our respect, admiration, and support, especially after 2000 years of relative Jewish powerlessness. War, however, is not what the Jewish people are about. Our most important cultural artifact, the most potent symbol of who we are as a nation - the Ark of the Covenant, containing the word of God as given to the Jewish people - is not meant to take part in a war. We do not enter battle saying 'this is who we are, this fight is the ultimate expression of our Jewishness, and therefore we take the ultimate Jewish symbol with us into war'. We go to war with a substitute symbol, a second-best ark, containing, perhaps, the broken tablets (!), or, more suggestively, no tablets at all (!!), because war is not some sort of ultimate expression of our Jewish selves, it is dysfunction, a necessary evil. It is not what we, as Jews, ultimately aspire to. It is simply what we, all too often, have to do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Why go to war with an empty ark, or with the broken tablets? What good could that do?Rabbi Shimon

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