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The Empty Ark

  • The Empty Ark

    Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
D'var Torah By: 

In our parashah this week, Moses instructs the Israelites that they must not interpret their inheritance of the Promised Land as a sign of divine acknowledgement of their spiritual worth (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). Rather, he insists, God will usher Israel into its new home for two other reasons: in order to reward the "merit of the patriarchs," z'chut avot, and to punish the wickedness of the land's native inhabitants. Having barely emerged from the wilderness, these Israelites find themselves pinioned between the great deeds of their ancestors and the depravity of the Canaanites; if they aspire to spiritual greatness of their own, they must first attain an appropriate level of reverent modesty.

Immediately after this speech, Moses begins retelling the story of the Revelation at Sinai. What is strange, however, so soon after his plea for religious humility, is Moses's apparent decision to change the details of what happened on Mount Sinai in order to claim a new religious accomplishment for himself:

I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain. After inscribing on the tablets the same text as on the first-the Ten Commandments that the Eternal addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly-the Eternal gave them to me. Then I left and went down from the mountain, and I deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as the Eternal had commanded me. (Deuteronomy 10:3-5)

The strange thing about this text, of course, to anyone who is familiar with the biblical material preceding it, is that according to the Book of Exodus, the craftsman Bezalel was the designer and builder of the Holy Ark. No other book of the Bible describes Moses as having had a role in its construction. How, then, are we to understand his bold claim?

Responding around the turn of the twelfth century to these curious verses, Rashi offers the hypothesis that Moses did, in fact, build an ark of his own before the construction of Bezalel's ark in Exodus 37. Rashi points out that the luchot ha-b'rit, the Tablets of the Covenant, must have needed to be stored someplace before Bezalel received his commission; after all, quite some time would have passed between the Revelation of the Ten Commandments and the construction of the Tabernacle (Rashi on Deuteronomy 10:1). Rashi teaches that Moses's ark was used as temporary storage for both the broken first set and the second intact set of tablets until Bezalel built their more ornate and more permanent home.

Later commentators largely agree. Nachmanides, writing in the thirteenth century, goes a step farther and adds a halachic perspective to Rashi's commentary. He reminds us that since Moses's ark had been consecrated to holy purpose, it could neither be destroyed nor repurposed once it was replaced by Bezalel's gold-plated masterpiece (Nachmanides on Deuteronomy 10:1). According to the laws of tashmishei k'dushah, "implements of holiness," Moses's ark had to be hidden away and remain empty forever afterward (see Babylonian Talmud, M'gillah 26b).

Now let us travel 1,500 miles northwest and 670 years into the future to explore the writings of Sigmund Freud. Freud's book Moses and Monotheism, writtenat the end of his illustrious career, is an ambitious (and frequently bizarre) exploration of Israelite religious history, viewed from the perspective of psychoanalytic theory. Despite some of the odd ideas in this work (its central claim is that Moses was a renegade Egyptian prince who successfully exported Egyptian religion to the Israelites until, horrified by the concept of circumcision, they rebelled against Moses and murdered him in the wilderness), this final work by the founder of psychoanalysis does have some relevant lessons in our current context of Parashat Eikev.

For Freud, unsurprisingly, the most valuable and innovative contribution that Moses gave to Israel was not a wooden box, but the human religious mind. More than the revered Ark of the Covenant, it is our minds that are the greatest possible repository of sacred material. Freud teaches that the Israelite rejection of Egypt's pantheon resulted in a quantum leap forward for Israel's intellectual and spiritual potential. When a worshiper realizes that God may be accessed more readily in his mind than in idols or frescoes, he reaches a peak of religious insight. Freud says that the groundbreaking notion of an intangible God

signified subordinating sense perception to an abstract idea; it was a triumph of spirituality over the senses. . . . There opened then the new realm of spirituality where conceptions, memories, and deductions became of decisive importance, in contrast to the lower psychical activity which concerned itself with the immediate perceptions of the sense organs. It was certainly one of the most important stages on the way to becoming human. ( Moses and Monotheism, translated by Katherine Jones [New York: Vintage Books, 1939], pp. 144-145)

Only once a Jew assimilates and embraces the idea of an incorporeal God can she begin the work of contemplating and refining the invisible characteristics of her inward self. Learning to relate to God privately, internally, helps us acknowledge honestly our souls' secret shames and triumphs. For Freud, this is Moses's gift to the world: the "progress in spirituality," (Ibid., p. 158) which gives us the capacity to excavate our inner selves and to refine what we find there into something valuable for the rest of our community and the rest of humanity.

The classical Rabbinic commentators marvel at the thought of Moses's ark, emptied of its holy cargo and secreted away, its enduring emptiness the sign of Israel's piety. For Freud, true reverence is manifested not in the ark's emptiness but in the mind's ability to be filled and refilled again; the "new realm" of the human intellect may be eternally repopulated with ever-richer content. The religious mind finally becomes not like Moses's ark, but like Bezalel's: adorned with the gifts of the wise-hearted, bearing the sacred cargo of God's truth.

Our parashah begins with Moses's rebuke to the Israelites, reminding them of how meager their qualities are in comparison to those of their ancestors. But Freud's perspective suggests that after Sinai, even the ragged wilderness generation became able to access something the patriarchs never knew: an inner spiritual life that provides the ongoing sensation of revelation within. In this way, Moses's guidance toward religious contemplation elevates the Israelites-and ultimately us, their heirs-above all who came before.

Still, we cannot ignore Moses's appeal for religious humility. Scrutiny of our inmost selves ought to be undertaken to seek holiness, not to escape into the labyrinth of the ego. We need the perspective of Jewish tradition and the presence of religious community to learn best how to enrich our minds and serve God. If we are successful in that search, however, if we are earnest and serious and humble, then our journeys through the inmost chambers of the human intellect will reveal that we have traveled through the richest Promised Land of all.

Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004. Rabbi Hayon welcomes feedback from readers at

Was the Ark Really Empty?
Davar Acher By: 
Scott Shpeen

I stood in my grandmother's empty apartment. In the silence of that space a flood of memories filled my mind. The precious contents of the home in which she lived for thirty years had been packed up and carefully removed. The home in which so many wonderful occasions and joyous celebrations took place, the environment that helped to shape the incredibly close relationship we shared was now empty. Yet the sadness of that emptiness was tempered by the memories of all that once filled those walls. At that moment, I understood that even in emptiness great things can still be found.

As Rabbi Hayon pointed out, for a short time, Moses's self-constructed ark contained not only the Tablets of the Pact, but also the broken pieces of the original set (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 14 a-b, B'rachot 8b). That Ark held reminders of the accomplishments, as well as the disappointments and heartbreaks, of his life. The physical items stored in that space were the tangible symbols of his relationship with God and his struggle to bring his people into that same sacred covenant.

When those items were transferred to a new and perhaps more glorious abode, the empty Ark-now hidden away-was nevertheless a reminder of all that was once within it. I am struck in a very personal way by the metaphor to which Rabbi Hayon alludes and the parallel it offers us. The legacy Moses gave to the Israelites was more than a mere wooden box, but rather as Rabbi Hayon states, "the human religious mind." So, too, the relationships that give meaning to our lives, those which foster our own spiritual journeys, might well be framed within specific spaces be they a synagogue, a chapel, or a loving home in which we grew up. And even when they become void of their contents, echoes remain so that the spaces are never truly empty.

Rabbi Scott Shpeen is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth, Albany, New York and an adjunct professor at the College of St. Rose, Albany, New York.

Reference Materials: 

Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,379–1,408; Revised Edition, pp. 1,226–1,250;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,089–1,114