December 14, 2018

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: The ark that wasn’t there

Vayakel Moshe — and Moses gathered the whole community of Israelites and said unto them, these are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.

— Exodus 35:1

For centuries, Jews have gathered to hear and embellish the stories of Torah in accordance with the perspectives of the time. I would like to add a “Malibu midrash” to our portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, a true story titled “The Ark That Wasn’t There.”

In this week’s parsha, Moses again recounts the directions for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. “Let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them,” God instructs Moses (Exodus 25:8). The directions for the menorah, the ark, the furnishings and even the priestly garb are described to Moses in minute detail. All of the senses are combined to echo the beauty of God’s creation as heaven is to be grounded on earth in this mikdash, holy space. 

Before the sanctuary in space is to be completed, however, God reminds the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat, our sanctuary in time that always is accessible, every seventh day. No assembly required. We have always had a “date night” with God, if only we will observe the Sabbath.

The instructions for intimacy with God in time and space are interrupted by the story of the golden calf. It appears that the Israelites are not yet ready to engrave God upon their hearts in faithfulness and love. The gold of the ark is traded for the gold of an idol.

In our subsequent portions of Vayakhel-Pekudei, it becomes evident that the repentant Israelites clearly need a building project. Again, they are reminded to first observe Shabbat: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest” (Exodus 35:2).

Bezalel, a man endowed by the Creator with “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft,” is chosen as master craftsman (Exodus 35:31). At the center of the Holy of Holies was an ark of acacia wood, with a cover of pure gold. Two cherubs were of one piece with the cover, their wings spread out above and their faces  turned toward each other, and it is there that God “will meet with you … from between the two cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Pact” (Exodus 25:22).

Here, in the space enclosed by the wings of the cherubs, heaven and earth are to intersect. In this void, this emptiness, the voice of God, the bat kol, will be heard.

It was no small matter, then, to finally dedicate the ark that was to crown our new sanctuary here in Malibu 11 years ago. Our Bezalel, chosen after an arduous committee process, was an artist who, in fact, was a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He was a superb craftsman, with an exacting eye for detail.

A year after the building was completed, we finally scheduled an inauguration of our precious ark with a gathering of the entire community on Shabbat. As the day grew near, I visited the artist’s studio and saw the ark doors, lying on the table. “Just a balancing problem,” I was told. “Don’t worry, it’s a few small details.” The next morning, an hour before the ceremony was to begin, I received an ominous phone call. There still were details to be worked out. The ark was not going to appear.

I ran into the sanctuary and set up a small screen, draped with cloth.

“Where’s the ark?” Cantor Marcelo Gindlin whispered as we took our places on the bimah.

“Don’t worry,” I said, pointing to the panels behind me. “Let’s get started.”

Vayakhel. A large crowd gathered, with all of our board of directors and major donors sitting in the front rows. We made our way through the service, and at last it was time to “install” our ark.

“Please rise if you were among the donors to this project,” I said. “You are the doors to our ark, providing both opening and protection.” About 50 people stood.

I then asked all those who had read Torah that year to rise. “You really hold the Torah within you. Please remain standing.”

I then asked our board to rise, our Eternal Light, as our choir sang words of Torah.

Soon everyone was on their feet, singing and clapping. I then asked people to give one another a blessing. The room grew quiet and a holy silence descended. Here and there, a heavenly voice could be heard.

“But what about the ark?” someone shouted.

“Oh, that ark,” I responded. “Ah, it’s not quite ready yet. But each one of you is really a holy ark, making a space for God to dwell. The real ark is in the human heart.”

No assembly required.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. For more of her Torah commentaries, visit