February 24, 2012

Each year in this week’s parsha I am drawn to another detail of the tabernacle and its appurtenances.[i]  Consider the symbolism of the badim—the carrying poles or staves attached to the sides of the holy ark.  Exodus 25:15 states that the poles were never to be removed.  I have always enjoyed this image of a “portable Torah.”  This symbolizes the sustaining power of Torah and gives us identity even when our surroundings shift.  It also indicates that Torah itself must be placed in different contexts in order to fulfill its function.

There is a drash about “tent Judaism” and “templeJudaism,” where it was argued that the most creative moments of the Jewish spiritual history have occurred during our journeys. Yet even in our times of repose, when the Jewish settlement feels secure and near-permanent, we are required to maintain the trappings of transition.  This is one function of Sukkot, but it may also be a reason why the staves remained in place even when the Holy Ark was ensconced in the home built by Solomon. Our parshah’s injunction was apparently observed even inFirstTempletimes, long after the function of the (carrying) poles had been rendered obsolete.

In I Kings 8:8 we read, “And the staves were so long that the ends of the staves were seen from the holy place, even before the Sanctuary; but they could not be seen without; and there they are unto this day.”  In the Talmud, this verse is the source of puzzlement—were the staves seen or not seen from without?  Menachot 98a-b provides the answer, the staves were pushed against the parochet.[ii]  The staves were not seen directly, but they could be discerned by looking at the parochet.  From outside the Holy of Holies, one saw two bumps in the cloth, like the breasts of a woman. Thus the imagery from Song of Songs 1:13 describe God as a woman drawing her lover to her breasts—between the badim.

In the Talmud Shabbat 88b, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi links this feminine imagery to that of the next verse in the Song of Songs, 1:14, with its reference to Ein Gedi, flowers, which is of course a hint at Kapparah, atonement.  Israelsays to God, even though we have sinned (with the Golden Calf), draw us near, like a mother hugs her recalcitrant child, and forgive us. Immediately, God commands us to build the tabernacle, in order to atone.

If so, then the imagery of the staves is not only one of a portable Torah, but also of intimacy and forgiveness. Like a loving mother or father, or even a lover, God sees us in our failures and draws us even tighter into an embrace.  Reading these verses long after the Arkand Tabernacle, we can still appreciate God’s desire to dwell in our midst, to enlighten, embrace and atone.  As we complete another intense week, may we welcome the Shekhinah into our very midst, enjoying the comforting grace of the divine embrace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


[i] For a visiual of the badim, it is enlightening to see the depiction on page 1521 of the Etz Hayim.  Look closely and you will see how the badim or staves are attached to theArk by what look similar to what we may know as oar locks.

[ii] Parochet is the curtain on the front of the Aron Kodesh (Ark) in a synagogue that covers the Torah Scrolls.  In most cases, behind the parochet is also a door.  This curtain represents the covering that was on the original Ark of the Covenant.  It is customary in many synagogues to change the parochet to a different set (normally white) during the High Holy Days.