Parashat: Vayakhel

Parashat Vayakhel

February 26, 2022, 25 Adar I 5782

Torah: Exodus 35:1-38:20; Triennial 36:20-38:20
Haftarah: II Kings 12:1-17

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Ilana Kurshan

In the 1981 American adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark, archeologist Indiana Jones vies with the Nazis to recover the Ark of the Covenant, featured in this week’s parashah. The ark, like all the Mishkan furnishings, was built to be portable, and ultimately it seems to have gone astray. No one knows the whereabouts of the ark to this day, which is the premise for the Indiana Jones film – as well as for an entire page of Talmudic speculation about sanctity, secrecy, and the service of God.

The Mishnah (Yoma 5:2) teaches that the ark was already missing by the Second Temple period. The rabbis explain that in place of an ark, the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple contained a rock that dated back to the time of David and Samuel. Since there was no ark on which the High Priest could place the pan with the incense on Yom Kippur, he would place it on this rock instead. It was only the First Temple that contained the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments inside – though what happened to it subsequently is a subject of debate.

The rabbis discuss the whereabouts of the ark in the sixth chapter of Shekalim, a Talmudic tractate named for the same half-shekel coin donation we read about in the special Maftir reading for this week. They offer three opinions on the matter. First, Reish Lakish argues that the ark was hidden in a tunnel under the Holy of Holies. He bases his argument on a verse from the first book of Kings (8:8) in which the poles of the ark are described as being in the same place “to this day,” understand by the rabbis as a reference to all time – suggesting that the ark is sequestered in its place. The rabbis explain that the reason the ark was not moved was on account of King Josiah—the king of Judea in the seventh century BCE—who was dismayed to discover the prophecy at the end of Deuteronomy that “God will drive you, and the king you have set over you, to a nation unknown to you or your fathers, where you shall serve other gods of wood and stone” (28:36). King Josiah feared that if the ark were to go into exile with the people, the people would engage in idolatry and forsake the ark. He thus hid it in its place. According to this understanding, the sanctity of the ark is inherently tied to the place where it is located. Holiness is rooted in a particular location, and Torah—the Ten Commandments contained in the ark—is meant to come forth from Zion. In contrast to Reish Lakish, Rabbi Eliezer

In contrast to Reish Lakish, Rabbi Eliezer argues that the ark was in fact exiled to Babylonia along with the Jewish people, who brought it with them. He bases his argument on a verse from the second book of Kings (20:17) in which Isaiah prophesied about the exile to King Hezekiah, stating, “Behold the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylonia; no item shall be left, said the Lord.” The term for “item,” davar, is understood as a reference to the Ten Commandments, the Aseret HaDibrot. And indeed, by the time of the Talmudic sages, Babylonia had become a major center of Torah learning, with yeshivot rivaling those in the land of Israel. According to Rabbi Eliezer’s view, sanctity is not rooted in any centralized location; the Jewish people carry the holy Torah with them wherever they study it.

A third view about the whereabouts of the ark is contained in the Mishnah in Shekalim (6:1), where we find a story about a priest who was once chopping wood for the altar in a side chamber of the Temple when he noticed that one of the paving stones was slightly higher than the rest. He went out to report on his discovery to a fellow priest, but “he had not yet finished speaking when suddenly his soul departed from him, and they knew for sure that this was where the ark was hidden.” This priest, relegated to the back-breaking manual labor of chopping wood, was someone whose physical blemishes prevented him from engaging in the more glorified aspects of Temple service, like sacrificial worship. He worked in a chamber of the Temple known as the wood repository, where all the extra wood was prepared and stored. Perhaps this story is meant to teach us that holiness is not to be found in the Holy of Holies alone, but wherever we engage in divine service – even if that service involves chopping wood in a peripheral, nondescript Temple chamber. This, too, is Torah, since the wood for the altar was necessary to bring sacrifices and thus to draw people closer to God.

What happened to the lost ark? Is it still sequestered in place since the time of King Josiah? Did it follow the sages to Babylonia? Or does it make its presence known whenever we serve God? We may never solve the mystery of the ark’s whereabouts, but that mystery offers us a lesson about Torah’s richness and multivalence. While we might associate Torah with fixed places, we may study it wherever we go; and any time we engage in divine service, we experience a revelation of sorts. We may all aspire to become raiders of the lost ark, bringing the Torah to light.

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