On the face of it, Terumah might seem like pretty dull stuff unless you’re one of those people who tries to imagine building the mishkan (Tabernacle) and its contents, including the Ark of the Covenant, based on the detailed instructions we read in this week’s sedra. I’ll admit that I do, and I’m lousy at DIY.
The other exception is if you’re a fan of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s 1936 and archeologist-explorer Indiana Jones is racing the Nazis to find the lost Ark, the unimaginable power of which will mean a decisive advantage for the finder’s side. Of course it’s all fiction, but it does beg two questions: what did happen to the Ark and what is its significance?
The books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel trace the journey of the Ark after the Israelites crossed the Jordan. It had an important role as an oracle, employed for guidance on military matters. This made it a vulnerable asset and it was captured by the Philistines, but it brought them only woe so they returned it to the Israelites. In time the practice of consulting the Ark before battle was lost.
When the first Temple was built, an inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, was constructed to house the Ark, although there were still occasions when it was removed from, and returned to, the Temple over the subsequent years. It’s unknown what happened to the Ark when the Temple was destroyed in 587 BCE. Some say it was taken to Babylon along with other treasures, while others argue that it was hidden prior to the attack.
The Ark of the Covenant may still exist somewhere, but more important is its meaning to us today.
The Israelites lived among idolaters. Bull worship, in particular, was a popular version of this at the time. Golden calf anyone? People needed something physical upon which to focus their belief. Ingeniously, our tradition overcame the problem of the man-made god: God told us what to make and provided the blueprint. God understood man’s frailty, accepted our need for something we can see to worship, and had our holiest texts placed inside, allowing us to continue with a firm belief in God’s might.
When the Ark was taken into battle it may have guided our armies, or perhaps more likely it simply encouraged them. What better way to know God is with you than to see God’s presence leading you into the fray?
Improper use of the Ark led to grave results. This maintained a level of veneration, reinforcing its power. One intriguing theory is that the Ark harnessed electricity. Could it be that static electricity, something that builds up in hot and dry places, explains how those who touched the Ark (made of wood, an electrical insulator, and gold, an electrical conductor), might receive a nasty shock? I’m even less of a physicist than a DIY-er and therefore I’m taking advantage of my ignorance to enjoy this possibility.
Over the years, various claims have been made for the whereabouts of the Ark, including Warwickshire. None are taken seriously, and I think it’s highly unlikely that it has been stored in a giant American government warehouse since 1936, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that without the Ark of the Covenant our ancestors may not have been able to sustain the sense of belief and belonging that carried them through their tribulations as they established the society that we have inherited and value so much today.
Nick Gendler is a member of New North London Synagogue and former co-chair of Masorti Judaism