This week we see the building andfunctioning of the temporary sanctuary referred to as the tabernacle. I cannot improve on the way our Etz Hayim Chumash (The Conservative movement’s commentary on the Torah) enunciates it. “When the people leave Sinai, they do not leave God. God accompanies them on their journey, and the tabernacle is to be a symbol of that.” Our Torah portion this week, parasha T’rumah describes the erection of the tabernacle and its appurtenances. The aspect I bring to your attention is the badim and their symbolism.
The badim are the carrying poles or staves affixed to the sides of the Holy Ark.[i] Exodus 25:15 tells us that the poles were never to be removed. I relish in the image of the “portable Torah” that travels with the people and is stubbornly resistant to being in a fixed place. What more vivid symbol could there be of the sustaining power of Torah to give us identity even when the surroundings shift? It likewise suggests that Torah itself must be placed in different contexts in order to fulfill its function in the world.
A popular topic at the Jewish Theological Seminary is the dimension of what is referred to as “tent” or “temple” Judaism. The gist of the discussions is that they would always revisit the proposition that the most creative moments in Jewish spiritual history have occurred in our “journeys”. Even in our times of repose, when 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 permanent home built by Solomon. Our parshah’s injunction was obviously observed even in First Temple times, 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 (Menachot 98a-b), this verse is the source of puzzlement—were the staves seen or not seen from without? The answer is given that the staves pushed against the parochet, curtain. Thus the staves were not seen directly, but they could be discerned by looking at the parochet. From outside the Holy of Holies (i.e. from the Holy zone), one saw two bumps in the cloth, like the breasts of a woman. Thus, the imagery from Song of Songs 1:13 describes God as a woman drawing her lover to her breasts—between the badim, as Rashi suggests.
In the Talmud (Shabbat 88b), Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi links this feminine imagery to a verse in the Song of Songs, 1:14, with its reference to Ein Gedi and “My beloved to me is a spray of henna blooms” which is of course a hint at kapparah or atonement. Israel is saying to God, even though we sinned with the calf, draw us near, like a mother hugs her recalcitrant child, and forgive us. Immediately, God commands them to build the tabernacle, even after the golden calf, in order to atone.
If so, then the imagery of the staves is not only one of portable Torah, but also of intimacy and forgiveness. Like a loving mother, or even a lover, God sees us in our failures and draws us even tighter into her embrace. Reading these verses long after the physical ark has disappeared from our camp, we can still appreciate God’s desire to dwell in our midst, to enlighten, embrace and atone for us. As we complete another intense week, may we welcome the Shekhinah into our very midst, enjoying the comforting grace of the divine embrace.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] Lauren and I spent my fourth year of rabbinical school in Israel, and I recall the exact moment we both saw the model of the Holy Ark and realized “that is what the badim are.” I have inserted a photo of the model with the golden cherubim adorning its top and the badim in place to enhance your appreciation.