The Ark of the Covenant was central to the religious experience of the ancient Israelites. Placed at the heart of their physical and spiritual community, the Ark accompanied the young nation on their journey, reminding them of God’s presence and protection.
And they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:33)
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the whereabouts of the Ark became a mystery. To this day, several theories abound as to what happened to it. Based on a verse in the Book of Jeremiah, some say it is hidden deep within Mount Nebo, approximately where Moses is said to be buried. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has long claimed to be in possession of the Ark, but won’t let anyone inspect the place where they say it is. The Lemba people of South Africa claim to have it, and there are theories that it is somewhere in England, Ireland, France, the Vatican and even the United States.
Whatever happened to the Ark, we know that it played a major role in the religious lives of the Israelites. Interestingly, according to some of the commentators, including Rashi, it contained the broken pieces of the first set of Tablets which had been collected after the incident of the Golden Calf. Why would the pieces of the shattered tablets have been collected at all, and why should they have been placed in the Ark? Perhaps they were collected because they were not regarded as garbage but as something sacred that shouldn’t be left scattered with the rest of the rocks and debris of the desert. And perhaps they were collected because they had symbolic value, containing lessons that could still be transmitted despite being broken fragments. Here are three such lessons that they may have offered:
- It is possible to fail and then recover. The shattered tablets represented the failure of the Israelites to remain faithful to God, broken promises of fidelity and loyalty to the idea of the covenant with God. Yet, the Israelites’ journey, and relationship with God, continued. They were able to pick themselves up and move forward. So too, we can experience failure, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward.
Things that seemingly no longer have a purpose still have value. In our society, things that seem obsolete to us are often discarded for what is new and novel. The elderly are often treated as if they have no value and need to tolerated rather than respected. Collecting the broken fragments of the tablets reminds us that things and people still have value even if they are not fulfilling a specific function or purpose.
Tradition is relevant, not obsolete. Often, Jewish tradition is regarded as a relic of the past, something that doesn’t fit into the times in which we live. We quickly dismiss customs and rituals as having no relevance to our own lives. Perhaps we do so because we do not have sufficient knowledge or experience with those practices. But we should take a second look at traditions that have survived millennia of Jewish living in countries around the globe and be reluctant to dismiss them. True, some traditions have no place in our times. But we should be hesitant to dismiss or overlook the ones that can add meaning to our lives and connect us to our heritage.
The broken fragments of the tablets were carried around for the benefit of the Israelites. The message they offered transcends time and now rests with us.