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God Squad: Inside the ark, a sermon for the Jewish High Holy Days

The ark of the covenant, which was once

The ark of the covenant, which was once in the Temple in Jerusalem, contained the Ten Commandments along with other things that most people don't know about.  Credit: Usruss/Dreamstime

Even though I am retired, every Jewish New Year I preach a sermon at my synagogue, Temple Beth Torah in Melville. Then I summarize it in my weekly column so that my readers (both of them) know what is on my mind during these Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It also helps congregants who were sleeping when I preached this sermon.

I have been engaged in a multiyear quest to explore the symbolism of the objects that were once in the Temple in Jerusalem. Last year I preached about the menorah. This year I turn to the holiest object stored there: the aron ha-kodesh, the holy ark of the covenant.

The ark was a box made of acacia wood overlaid by gold (about 52-by-31-by-31 inches). On top of the ark were two statues of winged angels called cherubim whose four wings shielded their eyes and the ark below. No one, except perhaps Steven Spielberg, knows where the ark is now.

What was in the ark? Well, in addition to the Ten Commandments, there were other things that most people don't know about. According to various biblical texts, there were three things in the ark that are listed in this old text in Hebrews 9:4, "The ark of the covenant [was] covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron's rod, which budded, and the tablets of the covenant." This passage from the New Testament is confirmed by passages from the Hebrew Bible: Exodus 16: 31-34 and Numbers 17: 8-10.

The jar of manna, the Ten Commandments and the flowering staff of Aaron were precious, and each was a symbol: The manna was something to live from. The tablets of the law were something to live by, and the flowering staff was something to live

The manna was sustenance in the desert. It was bread of a sort. The manna reminds me of Gandhi's insight, "To a poor man, God is bread." There are many lessons folded into Gandhi's simple dictum. The first is that we must not let our faith outpace the misery in the world. Hunger is basic, and if we do not address hunger, nothing else we do for God makes sense. That is why the Rev. Tom Hartman and I spent so much time and energy working with the food rescue network on Long Island.

And it is not only in soup kitchens on Long Island that the miracle of manna is repeated every day by holy people who are birthing God's miracles into this wounded world. I was in Israel visiting a school for Jewish kids from Ethiopia. I knelt next to a young boy who was drawing a picture of a smiling dog. I asked him his name and he said "Moshe." I asked him why the dog in his picture was smiling, and Moshe said to me, "Because I don't have to eat him." The manna is what we live from to keep our bodies and our souls alive.

As you know, the tablets in the ark were the second set of tablets brought down from Sinai. Moses had smashed the first set after first descending the mountain and seeing the people worshipping the golden calf. According to legend, Moses was commanded by God to pick up every single shard of the first set of broken tablets and put them into the ark along with the whole second set.

As I grow older, I think more and more about the broken tablets. They remind me of my broken parts.

In the midrash to Leviticus, Vayikra Rabba 7:2 we read: "If a person uses broken vessels, it is considered an embarrassment. But God seeks out broken vessels for his use, as it says, 'God is the healer of shattered hearts.' "

The tablets clearly belong in the ark and so does the jar of manna, but why the flowering staff of Aaron?

The answer, I think, is not in the staff but in the flowers. The flowers are a symbol of joy, and the flowering staff is in the ark to remind us that our faith must above all be joyous. We read in the second verse of Psalm 100, "Serve the Lord in joy: come before his presence with singing" (ivdu Adonai b'simcha).

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years."

The great Hindu philosopher Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy."

Where is the ark now? I say that the ark is here. I say that the ark is in each one of us.

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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