Teruma – The Half Measurements of the Ark

Beneath the seemingly mundane description of the vessels of the Tabernacle, the commentaries find great symbolism and depth in the details of its construction

Teruma – The Half Measurements of the Ark
“They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and half cubits its length; a cubit and a half its width; and a cubit and a half its height.”[1]
Beneath the seemingly mundane description of the vessels of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the commentaries find great symbolism and depth in the details of its construction.  One striking example of this pertains to the Aron HaKodesh (Ark):  Of all the vessels in the Mishkan, only the measurements of the Aron Hakodesh are incomplete numbers – two and a half, or one and a half cubtits.  We know that all the vessels represent various aspects of Avodas HaShem (Divine Service) and that the Aron represents the Torah, and Torah learning in particular.  A number of commentators write that the half measurements teach us the correct attitude for someone learning Torah:  He should feel that he is incomplete in his Torah knowledge and never feel satisfied that he knows ‘enough’ Torah.[2] 
There are a number of applications to this principle: Maran HaRav Aryeh Yehuda Leib Shteinman, Shlit’a, writes that everyone needs helps from his fellow to help him grow in his Torah learning, even from people on the same or lower level than oneself, as is taught in the Gemara, ‘I have learnt a lot from my teachers, and more from my friends, and the most from my students.’[3]   This teaches us that a person cannot learn in isolation, relying on Sefarim alone.  Rather, the give-and-take with others enables a person to see other ways of looking at a Torah topic from his own, and enables him to attain a far wider perspective.
A second aspect of the idea that a person is incomplete in his Torah learning is that, no matter how learned a person thinks he is (even in one particular area), he must maintain a feeling that there is so much more to know, and even if he does think that he has a complete grasp of a sugya (topic), reviewing it one extra time can take him to a whole new level of understanding.  This is perhaps one understanding of the Gemara that says there is no comparison between a person who reviewed a sugya one hundred times and one who reviewed it one hundred and one times.  In that vein, every time, the great Vilna Gaon zt’l reviewed a Mesechta (Tractate) of Gemara, he derived numerous new insights. 
This is also why a Torah scholar is described as a Talmid Chacham, which literally means that he is a wise student[4].  This demonstrates that no matter how much Torah a person has learnt, he should still view himself as a student who has more to learn.  This approach is alien to an outlook that is not grounded in Torah – one Talmid Chacham became the Rabbi of a shul of unlearned men, and they noticed that he was continually learning when not involved in his Rabbinic responsibilities.  This concerned them, because they thought that he was a learned man, but the fact that he kept on learning, proved to them that he couldn’t be so knowledgeable, because if he was, then why did he need to keep learning so much! 
One Gadol who epitomized the attitude of feeling lacking in Torah, despite his all-encompassing knowledge of all aspects of Torah was Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l .  It is well-known that he learnt at every available moment even throughout his life.  On one occasion, he was requested to stop learning for a certain matter that he did not consider to be sufficiently important to close his Sefer.  He asked, rhetorically in all seriousness something to the gist of; ‘Do you want me to remain an Am Ha’aretz (unlearned person) all my life?!”  If Rav Ovadia had that attitude, then all the more so, the rest of us, need to develop the same mind-set.
One final application of this idea is that a person should never feel that he is completely correct in his view on a certain topic to the extent that he is unwilling to hear contradictory opinions or questions on his approach.  Rather, one should be ready to consider that he may be incorrect and to admit this if the evidence backs up the opposing opinion.  This is extremely difficult as it requires a great deal of humility to consider a way of viewing a topic in a conflicting manner, and even more so to actually admit the error of one’s thought out approach.  Yet the obligation to do this is clearly demonstrated in the following Gemara:
The Tanna, Shimon HaAmsoni used to explain every word ‘es’ in the Torah as providing a secondary meaning to the object mentioned. [5] For example, in the Mitzva of honoring parents, there is an ‘es’ from which he derived the inclusion of older siblings, and consequently, a person must honor his elder sibling as well as his parents.  However, when he came to the verse, “Es Hashem Elokecha tira” (Fear HaShem, your G-d), he was unable to find a secondary recipient of the fear that we must feel for HaShem.  His students asked him, “what will come of all the instances where you have explained the word ’es’”?  He replied, “just as I have been rewarded for expounding them, so shall I rewarded now for abandoning them.”  Then Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the ’es’ in the verse teaches us that a person must fear G-d and also Torah scholars.  The Alter of Kelm notes the greatness of the Tanna, Shimon who did not hesitate to abandon the theory that he had held and developed throughout his life when he felt that he could no longer justify it.  Moreover, he taught his students a priceless lesson - that his abandoning of his theory which was done in a moment was as great as all the investigating and explaining he had done all his life[6]!   Shimon HaAmsoni’s example serves as conclusive proof that no matter how much research and effort a person has put into a certain topic, he is never exempt from questions on his conclusions and should consider with humility the possibility that he was wrong, even though that requires a seemingly humiliating abandonment if his prized belief.  Indeed, we learn from the Alter of Kelm, that such an admittance is not humiliating at all, rather it is deserving of the highest praise.
To end with a final example of a Gadol who epitomized these teachings, Rav Elazar Menachem Shach zt’l was known on more than one occasion to stop a shiur (Torah lecture) in the middle if he was asked a question that repudiated the whole basis of his teaching.  May we emulate our Gedolim in recognizing our incompletion in our Torah learning, and in that way, we can come to grow exponentially in our Torah knowledge.

Notes and Sources
[1] Shemos, 25:10.
[2] See Rabbeinu Bechaye, Baal HaTurim, Kli Yakar, and Ayeles Haschachar for approaches that are  related to this idea.
[3] Taanis, 7a, Makkos, 10a.
[4] This meaning is lost in the English translation of ‘Torah Scholar’.
[5] Kiddushin, 57a.
[6] Rav Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar, p.68.
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