Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
“The Torah was not given to the ministering angels.” (BTBer. 25b) The Sages explained that the Torah was not given to perfect beings, such as the angels. The Torah was given to human beings in all their imperfection. Therefore God cannot demand from us superhuman exertions or achievements.
This statement combines a sense of tough-minded irony – “hey, we’re no angels, ya know!” – with a sense of humble wonderment – “instead of limiting the Torah to a spiritual sphere, safely kept by the angels in heaven, God gave the Torah to us!” This dual awareness seems to be present in our Torah portion’s description of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark consisted of a simple rectangular box that was topped by an elaborate lid. The lid was of one piece and was not simply a flat covering. It included two sculpted angelic beings – cherubs – with outstretched wings. The placement of the angels is described in a curious way. Their faces are to look both toward each other and also toward the lid, itself. (Ex. 25:20) Thus they are not really able to “see” each other, nor can they “see” what is in the box, the Tablets of the Torah given by God to Israel. There is a certain ambiguity or even confusion expressed in such a posture. Why are they confused? Why is their gaze unfocussed?
The answer is that these angels are placed above the space that contains the Torah, the Torah that had only recently been residing in heaven with them, but has now been given over to the flesh and blood people of Israel. Indeed, the command to place the Tablets in the Ark is here mentioned twice, as remarked by some commentators in puzzlement. Once the verse says: “You shall put into the Ark the Testimony [ – the Torah] that I shall give to you.” (v. 16) And then we find this repeated: “And you shall place the covering on the Ark, above, and into the Ark you shall place the Testimony that I shall give you.” (v. 21) Why the redundancy?
But the repetition should be understood as an emphasis, not only of the command to place the Torah in the Ark, but, perhaps most poignantly, of the latter part of both verses: “that I give to you,” and not to the ministering angels, who stand above the Ark, eternally bereft of their heavenly privilege.
God gambles on giving the Torah to us imperfect beings. God entrusts Her most precious treasure with us. And God can only hope that we will take good care of it.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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image: “Women of the Wall reading from the Torah at Robinson’s Arch” by מיכל פטל in the public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.