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In this week’s parsha, the Kli Yakar (25:10) does what he does best, noting an aspect of the various fixtures of the Mishkan that most others overlook. Specifically, he notes that the ark was made up of three broken dimensions (meaning x amot and a half), the table is made up of both broken and unbroken dimensions and the altars are made of only full dimensions.

I will only take up how he sees this with regard to the ark, but invite the reader to look up the rest. Pointing out that the Rabbis had already connected these three vessels to the domain of Torah, Kingship and Priesthood respectively, he suggests that when it comes to the spiritual domain of Torah one should always feel incomplete (just like the ark’s dimensions), and that the only way to grow is to always see what more one can accomplish. (It bears mentioning that such an understanding of the brokenness of an object as representing incompleteness is also used more famously to explain why we give a half shekel and not a whole shekel as a poll tax.)

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A nice thought, but is it rooted in the text? Kli Yakar reveals his awareness that some will not think so, by defending the concept of symbolism specifically at the beginning of the section of the Torah, where he – like many other commentaries – will provide symbolic interpretations of the various parts of the Mishkan and the priestly garments.

In fact, I think that he is being unnecessarily apologetic about something that should really be quite obvious, if one is willing to think about it more carefully.

The major difficulty people have with symbolism is the translation of an object into anything more than it is. In other words, an ark is simply a box in which to place holy items. Obviously, it attains holiness by what it contains, but ultimately remains a container and nothing else. Though such an approach may sound very rational, it is actually completely divorced from human experience. Otherwise, there would be only one type of container. Instead, we build and purchase containers of different builds, colors, ornamentation, etc., specifically because all of these differences create meanings for us.

Those skeptical of symbolism are generally more comfortable in the world of words, misunderstanding the world of speech for the world as it is. There are many reasons for us to use words to communicate, but we should never forget that our original language is, actually the world of objects and symbols. That is to say that just like someone learning a foreign language uses their own language (i.e. pomme = apple) to understand a word; so too did we, as infants, learn our first verbal language with objects as references (apple = ?). In other words, it is actually objects – with all of their associative attributes – that form man’s original and most natural and authentic understanding of his world. It is more authentic because, “apple” is a sound, it is not an apple; whereas the fruit we call an apple is the thing itself. (It is true that mystics ascribe a more intrinsic connection between classical Hebrew words and the objects they represent, but this is not something most of us have any awareness of).

As alluded to above, an apple is not just a fruit, it is a shape, it is also various colors and smells, just to name a few of its attributes. Likewise, a box is not just a box, but a shape, a color, a texture, etc.

One can argue whether in the case of a measure being fractured, it is something noticeable (which an amah might be, since it is based on an average forearm), and whether it being automatically recognized as broken is critical (which it may not). But my main aim here is not to defend this particular use of symbolism, but rather the discipline more generally.

By the same token, appreciating the inherent meaning of objects can help us consider the possibility that awareness of the broken dimensions of the ark may actually be a much more powerful way for the Torah to articulate the need to feel incomplete in the spiritual dimension than if it had been said with words!

The Torah is made up of many aspects, and while some of them may appeal more to some people than to others, we must be very careful about discarding valuable explanations of the Torah simply because we have never properly reflected on their bases.

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.