Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Ekev 5777

How Many Arons?  Which One Goes to War?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

An Iron Dome battery commander tells the following story:

“A missile was fired from Gaza. Iron Dome precisely calculated [its trajectory]. We know where these missiles are going to land down to a radius of 200 meters. This particular missile was going to hit either the Azrieli Towers, the Kirya (Israel’s equivalent of the Pentagon) or [a central Tel Aviv railway station]. Hundreds could have died.

“We fired the first [interceptor]. It missed. Second [interceptor]. It missed. This is very rare. I was in shock. At this point we had just four seconds until the missile lands. We had already notified emergency services to converge on the target location and had warned of a mass-casualty incident.

“Suddenly, Iron Dome (which calculates wind speeds, among other things) shows a major wind coming from the east, a strong wind that…sends the missile into the sea. We were all stunned. I stood up and shouted, ‘There is a God!’

“I witnessed this miracle with my own eyes. It was not told or reported to me. I saw the hand of God send that missile into the sea.”

For many there is an immediate reaction of disbelief, that is not how our world works. We simply don’t witness miracles. Now, I wasn’t there and it is hard to know when to believe what you read in the news but today I ask myself – why couldn’t it be true. Don’t we believe that God is involved in the fate and destiny of the Jewish people and the land of Israel?

I will come back to that thought in a few minutes.

Moshe in recounting the smashing of the first tablets and his successful attempts at procuring a second set tells the people:

1. At that time the Lord said to me, Cut two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me into the mount, and make an ark of wood.

  1. And I will write on the tablets the words that were in the first tablets which you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.

When you look back at the original episode in Shmot, chapter 34 it is very similar but there is one significant difference.

  1. And the Lord said to Moses, Cut two tablets of stone like the first; and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke.

In the original story there is no mention of placing the tablets into the wood ark that is made. That detail is only added in Devarim. As you would imagine it captures the attention of every one of the commentators.

This one details gives rise to a fascinating argument regarding the number of arks that the Jews kept in the desert and the purpose of those arks.

There are three basic approaches:

The first approach is offered by the Eben Ezra and the Ramban. They argue that there is only one ark; the one described here is the same ark that Bezalel made in Shmot. That is the ark that was in the Mishkan and that was the ark that went out to war.

There are two problems with such an approach:

  1. This ark is described as wooden whereas Bezalel made one of wood and gold.
  2. It seems from shmot that the Mishkan was not yet built at the time before the second set of tablets was brought down.

Because of these questions the second and third approaches both assume that there were two arks in the desert. The first was a plane wooden one in which the tablets are deposited immediately upon Moshe’s descent. Those tablets are then transferred to the wood and gold ark when it is constructed by Bezalel. Such an approach can be found in the Midrash Tanchuma.  The question that defines the next two approaches is – what happened to Moshe’s wood ark after the transfer of the tablets to Bezalel’s ark?

(Approach 2) Ramban, although he rejects it, understands that Midrash to mean that once the tablet transfer was completed Moshe’s ark was buried as geniza. From that point on there was only one ark.

The only question to ask here is: why was an ark necessary for temporary storage of the second set when no such arrangement was made for the first set?

Rashi and others adopt what is by far the most fascinating approach. They believe that after the transfer of the second set of tablets to Bezalel’s ark, the shattered remnants of the first set were placed in Moshe’s ark. Bezalels ark always remained in the Mishkan and it was Moshe’s ark with the shattered remnants that was taken out to war!

Leave aside the question of where did they keep the second ark, one must ask- according to Rashi, why was there a need for two arks? And why is it the remnants ark that goes out to war?

I did not find any answers to these questions in the commentators.

What could one suggest for Rashi? Why should there be two and why take the remnants to war?

It could be to teach us that when you go to war you have to leave the Torah at home. Not in a moral or halachic sense, but in a practical one. There is a time for learning and a time for war. That is not the most convincing of arguments.

It could be that the remnant and this box teach us a very important lesson. The chizkuni answering the question – “why did Moshe have a temporary box by the second set and not the first?” – argues that the tablets are put in a box to demonstrate to the people that they will not be broken like the first one. It might be that the shattering of the luchot were seen as the breaking of the Sinai covenant. Placing the second luchot in an ark so that they cannot be smashed symbolizes that the covenant between us and God is eternal and can’t be broken or smashed.

Thus we go to war with the knowledge that we have an eternal covenant with God.

Lastly one might suggest that it is not so much that the remnants go out as much as the whole tablets must always remain at the center of the camp! Even when you leave the camp to go to battle, which you must, you do so with the knowledge that core of the Jewish camp and people is the Torah. The ark and the remnants then serve as a link to the tabernacle ark holding the Torah and a reminder that God and the Torah are the guiding principles through which we live and through which we fight!

Although Rashi’s position is the most intriguing it is not the one that most commentators adopt. Most believe that there is only one ark.

A fascinating component of that position is that the one ark and the whole tablets go to war with the Jewish people. That speaks to the fact that when the Jews must fight a war, there is nothing more urgent or important.

And, so to speak, there is no place that God would rather be. The ark was the receptacle for the divine presence in the mikdash. We take that receptacle to war with us.   God goes to war with us.

We pray that real peace should be achieved and we pray that if we need to return to war, that God should accompany us as we battle our enemies.