Digging for the Lost Ark
Adapted from the Rebbe’s Sicha (LKS Vol 21, Terumah) by Rabbi Israel Rubin

We mourn the Temple’s destruction during the Three Weeks preceding Tisha B’av. But rather than just cry over the past, we act constructively for the future by studying the Rambam’s Hilchos Bais Habchira. And rather than merely read the laws, let us dig deeper to discover their relevance today.

Rambam on the Ark

The Rambam opens the fourth chapter with the design of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum where the Holy Ark rested:

“When King Solomon built the Temple he knew it would ultimately be destroyed, so he built a place in the Temple directly below, in the hidden depths reached by winding passages. Later, King Yoshiyahu ordered that the Ark be hidden in the hiding place prepared by Solomon. He told the Levites, ‘Place the Holy Ark in the house that Solomon son of David King of Israel built. The Ark shall no longer be borne on your shoulders; now go serve your G-d.’ ”

Rebbe’s Questions

The fascinating story of the Ark’s hiding belongs in a Midrash, but not in a code of law. What practical difference does it make that Kings Solomon and Yoshiyahu arranged it 2,500 years ago? Do the details of the Ark’s hiding have any relevance today?

Actually, there are other Talmudic opinions regarding the Ark’s location, so why mudy the Rambam favor one opinion if it has no practical application?

Some explain that this affects today’s halachic status of the Temple Mount, forbidding us to walk there in respect to the Ark buried below.

But it would have sufficed to merely state that the Ark is buried there. Why elaborate that this was part of Solomon’s original plan hundreds of years earlier? And isn’t it strange and contradictory that King Solomon planned for the Temple’s destruction at the time of its construction?

Reason for this Historical Background

By giving us the historic background, the Rambam emphasizes that this hiding place was not merely a last resort emergency storage area. Rather than ‘a hole in the wall,’ it was a full prepared room serving as an alternative Holy of Holies.

The Rambam devotes the first 4 chapters of the Temple Laws to the structure of the building, while the later chapters discuss its vessels and furnishings.

Note that the Rambam includes the Ark as part of the building structure, rather than in the more appropriate Vessels section. Rambam thus establishes that the Ark was not only a furnishing like the Menorah and the Altar, but was intrinsic to the building itself.

A Temple without an Ark?

But this raises a question. The Ark was missing during the end the First Temple and throughout the Second Temple. If the Ark is so central to the Temple structure, how did the Temple function without the Ark? It is to address this problem that the Rambam stresses that the ‘hiding place’ was not a desperate afterthought, but part of the original plan.

Ark on Two Levels:

Solomon originally built two sanctums to house the Ark: One housed the Ark on an open, revealed level, while the other housed the Ark on a deeper, concealed level.

The Ark’s concealment did not remove it off premises, for the ‘hiding place’ is part of the structure, serving the Temple above it during the First and Second Temples, and continuing to function to this very day!

Not an Escape Plan, but by Original Design

“Yoshiyahu ordered that the Ark be hidden in the place built by Solomon.” Yoshiyahu reigned when Israel was a great power and there was no threat of destruction. The Ark was not rushed away, no matter how or where, but was calmly moved with full ritual and ceremony recalling the grand entrance in Solomon’s time when “the Cohanim escorted the Holy Ark to its place.”

Yoshiyahu commands: “Place the Ark in the home built by Solomon.” i.e. it is not being removed, for even in ‘hiding’ the Ark retains its function.

“You will no longer carry the Ark on your shoulders.” The Levites’ service is not diminished in status or sanctity, as would be the case if the Ark was gone. “Now serve G-d.” Your ritual observance in the Temple now has the same status and validity as in the past, for the Temple’s sanctity continues as before.

Three Temples—One Unity, One Continuum

This also adds a special dimension to the First Temple. It was not only a temporary structure for only 410 years, for the continued existence of the Ark in its hidden chamber makes the First Temple an enduring edifice. Although destroyed, its essence remained.

Indeed, this ‘hiding place’ is the foundation of all three Temples; they are not separate structures, but an enduring con¬tinuity. The Ark’s ‘hiding place’ is the in-destructible core and foundation beneath all three Temples, revealed at different times in history.

The hidden sanctum is like the indestructible “Luz” bone from which the body will be reconstructed at Resurrection. Our enemies destroyed only the external structures, but the deeper essence remains intact.

A Person’s Long and Winding Road

The Ark is in the ‘Depths of Concealment and Winding Passageways.’ Symbolically, the Ark represents the Divine spark hidden within us, the Torah’s deepest secrets as in the phrase “deep, deep, who can fathom it?” (Koheles 7:29) that are revealed through repentance.

Such deep spiritual levels are not revealed through the normal straightforward channels. This intensity is discovered only through a circuitous “winding and twisted” path that the repentant person is forced to take. No matter how low a Jew may descend, he can reach the deepest Torah (and his/her own) essence through these “winding ways.”