The Ark of the Covenant is the heart, the nucleus of the Holy Temple. G-d commanded Israel to create it to serve as a receptacle for the Tablets of the Law that Moses would bring down from Mount Sinai. Thus, Torah also refers to it as ‘the Ark of the Testimony’ – for the tablets are the testimony of the covenant between the Holy One blessed be He and Israel; a testimony of the unbreakable bond of love that exists between them.
Here, between the two golden cherubim on the Ark’s cover, is the dwelling place of the Shechina, the Divine Presence. Even today, all of Israel throughout the world turns in prayer to face the direction of the Shechina. Located within the innermost and most sacred chamber, the Holy of Holies, the Ark is hidden from everyone, like the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. The Holy of Holies is so sacred that only the High Priest enters in, and only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the awesome Day of Atonement. Indeed our sages teach a mystical idea: The Biblical Garden of Eden comprised a very large area. But the center of the Garden of Eden is in the Land of Israel, and the heart of the Garden is in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. And the altar of offerings is the location of the Tree of Knowledge, and the heart of hearts is the location of the Holy of Holies, which is the place of the Tree of Life.
With its contents of the tablets of the law and the golden cherubim spreading their wings above, the Ark represents a perpetuation of the Sinai Revelation. The Ark is the secret of the Temple altogether: a portal, man’s rendezvous with the Divine. It was here that Moshe stood, between the two poles of the Ark, to hear the voice of the Shechina. The Ark is aron in Hebrew, derived from the word or, ‘light’ – the light that was revealed on the first day of creation and then stored away for the future rectified world, is hidden in the Ark. That’s the simple meaning of this word, aron – it’s a box of light.
The Ark is the exception to every rule. The first vessel that was commanded to be created, it is the only vessel which was commanded by G-d in the plural: “They shall make an Ark of acacia wood…” (Ex. 25:10). The other vessels are used to perform some aspect of the Divine service: either daily (such as the kindling of the Menorah, and the offering of incense on the Golden Altar) or weekly (the placement of the loaves on the Table of the Showbread). But no service is made with the Ark. Only the High Priest enters into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle the blood, and even that only in the proximity of the Ark.
The other vessels in the Sanctuary are all situated length-wise; only the Ark is to be placed by its width. This was in order to enable the two poles to extend until they slightly touched the curtain.
The poles on the Ark facilitated its transportation until it reached its permanent location. Yet there is a special commandment never to remove the poles from the Ark even in the Holy Temple, even though they were no longer needed…this was so that the protrusion of the poles could be slightly seen in the Sanctuary, touching the curtain….
Numerous ‘supernatural’ events surrounding the Ark are recorded in the Bible, such as the plagues when the Ark was captured by the Philistines and the death of Uzah when the Ark was being brought to Jerusalem.
An amazing tradition testifies that the Ark ‘occupies no physical space.’ That is, its dimensions could not have fit within the Holy of Holies! The Ark revealed an element that was above time and space. It transcended space. In addition to this idea as it relates to the Ark, this concept of transcendence, of being unbound by the limitation of space, was also manifest in the Holy Temple in the words of the Mishnah as ‘they stood crowded, but prostrated expansively;’ one of the ten miracles that took place in the Second Temple (Chapters of the Father, 5,5). This references the tradition that when the people of Israel gathered together in the court of the Holy Temple, they stood packed together as a crowd, with barely room for all to stand. Yet when the moment came for everyone to fully prostrate themselves as they heard the awesome Ineffable Name of G-d pronounced by the High Priest, there was ample room for everyone to perform this act of devotion without one person unsettling the next!
Moreover, the Ark ‘lifted its bearers;’ despite the fact that it was very heavy, with its contents of the tablets of law, not only did it not need to be carried – it lifted and bore those who carried it.
But the greatest miracle of all, we find associated with the Ark’s poles.
When Joshua was preparing the people to cross the Jordan to enter into the Land, he said to the Children of Israel, ‘Come here and hear the words of the Lord your G-d. Through this you will know that the living G-d is in your midst…’ Citing the Midrash, Rashi explains the meaning of these words ‘come here:’
“…he gathered everyone in between the two poles of the Ark, and this is an example of the principal of ‘a little which holds a lot’ (i.e. a transcendence of space).”
Do we understand what we are reading here? ‘Come here,’ said Joshua, and he gathered the entire nation of Israel in between the two poles of the Ark! He told them: ‘through this you will know that the living G-d is in your midst…’ the fact that the two poles of the Ark held all of you shows you that the Shechina of the Holy One, blessed be He, is among you. This is the revelation of Godliness which is beyond the borders of reality; the very essence of the Ark is beyond the beyond the confines of nature and thus through it, a glimpse into the true nature of reality, is revealed in this world.
When Israel was on the threshold of her entry into the land, Joshua elevated them to this level. This is the super-reality that was experienced in the Temple every day. In the same manner that the Ark occupied no space within the Holy of Holies, and ‘lifted its bearers,’ and just as ‘they stood crowded but bowed down amply,’ so too Joshua revealed the spiritual root, the vortex of the dimension of holiness, between the poles of the Ark. The super-reality that would later be revealed through daily life in the Holy Temple, was hidden between the poles.
But let us not overlook the most amazing thing of all: the Children of Israel built this Ark, out of the simple materials they brought with them from Egypt, under the harsh conditions of the desert…this portal, this box of Divine light, dwelling place of the Divine Presence in this world, in between whose two poles the entire nation of Israel, men, women and children were able to gather, was not created by super-humans. It was created by G-d-fearing people who sought to honor and fulfill the Creator’s will. This is the basis of our relationship with the Almighty: God commands and we fulfill. Man is able to activate His will through simple obedience. The Ark, the very heart of the Holy Temple and the resting place of the Shechina, from where the Creator would manifest His loving presence, was left up to Israel to create, so that there could be a revelation of Godliness in this world. This is the beauty, the challenge and the privilege of being a person in this world: to sanctify and elevate this world and make it into a place for the Divine Presence.