At about the midpoint of Parshat Ekev, Moses recounts the episode of the Golden Calf and his subsequent re-ascending of Sinai: “At that time, God said to me, ‘Carve yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make yourself an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first ones that you broke. And you will put them in the ark. And I made an ark of acacia, and I carved two stone tablets like the first, and I went up the mountain with the tablets in my hand. And He wrote on the tablets like the writing on the first ones, the The Commandments that God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of assembly. And God gave them to me. And I turned and went down from the mountain, and I put the tablets in the ark I had made, and they were there just as God commanded.'” (Deut. 10:1-5).

This account immediately poses some challenges when compared with the account of the same events in Exodus. Rashi points us to one: According to one view (Rashi’s), work on the Mishkan didn’t begin until after Moses had come down from the mountain. So how is it possible that Moses built the ark before he went up, since the ark is part–the centerpiece!–of the Mishkan? Answer: There were two arks, one that went out to war and one that stayed in the camp. This was the latter.

Ramban, unsurprisingly, disagrees: “This is a sole opinion. Throughout the Talmud, the Rabbis’ consensus view was consistent: There was one ark. The second tablets and the remnants of the first tablets were both put into the ark… This ark that Moses made: when Bezalel made his ark (the one that would enter the Mishkan), Moses buried his ark, according to the law regarding holy objects.”

Fascinating: Both commentators see an issue in the text, namely the apparent existence of two arks, and they come to strikingly different conclusions. Rashi argues for the existence of two arks, a view which, among other things, emphasizes that that which is holy cannot go out to war–death being the antithesis of the Holy of Holies. Ramban likewise maintains that the ark could not go out to war, but he goes a different route, saying that there was never a second ark. The ark mentioned here by Moses is a temporary ark, but bears a continuity of relationship with the ark that would ultimately be created by Bezalel and put in the Holy of Holies. “For Moses was commanded to build the Mishkan from the beginning [of his time on Mt. Sinai], and building the ark was the first commandment [in the building process]… For this was the entire purpose of the Mishkan, to enable God to sit on the cherubs.”

A striking feature of this early ark is its simplicity: it is not gilded, as the later ark would be. It is a plain box–much like the coffin in a traditional Jewish burial. And in this it seems to highlight one of the larger themes of Parshat Ekev: the humility and simplicity at the heart of a life of the service of God. Throughout the parsha, Moses exhorts the people to listen to God, to love God, and to serve God simply and humbly. In particular, he highlights the paradox of physicality: our existence in, and attraction to, the material world on the one hand, and the potential of the material world to trap and enslave us on the other.

You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut. 8:2-3).

This same theme is evoked time and again in the parsha: we are to live in the material world and transcend it at the same time. While this paradox propels the episodes of the Golden Calf and the spies, which receive extensive treatment in the parsha, our most constant reminder of it is in our eating. Thus the parsha contains the commandment to bless God when we eat: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). The next line reminds us of why: “Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today.”

It is too easy to forget, to be lulled into the sense that all this is all there is, and that we have full control over it. Moses reminds the people, again and again, that in order to become all that they (we) can be, we must embrace the materials of the world, and live with them simply, humbly, and with a greater sense of awareness and gratitude.

Shabbat shalom.