In describing the way that one must build the Aron Kodesh for the Mishkan, the Torah commands, “VeAsu Aron Atzei Shittim” (Shemot 25:10), decreeing that the Aron Kodesh be built out of wood. However, the Torah further specifies “ViTzipita Oto Zahav Tahor MiBayit UMiChutz Titzapenu” (25:11), mandating that the Aron Kodesh be covered on both the inside and outside with gold. This seemingly odd commandment provokes a simple question: why was it so essential that the Aron be completely covered with gold?
The Gemara (Yoma 72b) explains that the Torah is teaching us that a Talmid Chacham must be “Tocho KiVaro,” meaning that one cannot outwardly pretend to be very religious while truly feel no connection to Hashem. The ideal Jew should serve Hashem with heartfelt sincerity both outwardly and inwardly. If, however, the Aron Kodesh is meant to represent the ideal, uniformly sincere Jew, it is very strange that we find that while the Aron Kodesh was to be completely covered with gold, its base was indeed wood. Would it not have been better for the Aron to be comprised solely of gold, completely devoid of wood, a material which represents physicality?
Perhaps one can understand the Aron Kodesh as telling us that in this world one cannot be completely gold. While it is certainly true that one must surround oneself with Torah, one must also retain a little bit of this world within himself. One must participate in the material world; Jews do not endorse the concept of completely separating oneself from society and not partaking of the world at all.
Conversely, the Chizkuni, in his explanation of why the Aron Kodesh required a base of wood and a covering of gold, explains that ideally, the Aron should in fact have been made from all gold, but it had to contain some wood as well due to the difficulty of transporting such a large structure made completely out of gold. It is apparent from the Chizkuni that the Aron Kodesh, which represents the ideal Jew, really should have been all gold implying that the “ideal” Jew, like the “ideal” Aron, should in fact be completely “gold” and have no relationship with the outside world.
In order to reconcile these two explanations, one may suggest that there are two ways of living in this world. Firstly, one can live in the “real” way, in which unfortunate circumstances do not permit man to achieve perfection or live in a world of perfection. Additionally, there is the “ideal” way to live. This is the way of life that Klal Yisrael hopes to one day live, but a way of life that cannot currently be achieved. Perhaps one can argue that this is the difference between Chazal’s explanation and the explanation of the Chizkuni. Chazal are explaining that the practical way of life nowadays is to participate in this world. There is no option to ignore this world and pretend that it does not exist; the only way to live in the world we currently live in is to have “wood” within ourselves, not to be only gold, and to interact with the world. Conversely, the Chizkuni is teaching us the ideal way of life and telling us that while Chazal are correct that practically one cannot live his life in isolation away from all physicality, the ideal is indeed to lead such a life.
This idea can also be related to the famous essay entitled The Lonely Man of Faith written by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik to explain the difference between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of Sefer Bereishit. The two chapters seem to have contradictory accounts of the story of the creation of the world. Based on Rav Soloveitchik’s approach, we can explain that Chapter 1 depicts “Adam I,” a person who must participate in the world according to the Pasuk “ViChivshuhah” (Bereishit 1:28), meaning that man must “conquer” the world. Conversely, Chapter 2 depicts “Adam II,” a man who lives in the ideal world (Gan Eden), in which there is no worry of the physical world and man can live a completely spiritual life.
Like the “ideal,” hypothetical Aron, Adam II also represents an ideal human being and a life that is impossible to lead in the contemporary world. Food is not provided to man so easily, and thus we can no longer focus all of our attention on spiritual endeavors. In fact, Adam’s punishment was “BeZeiat Apecha Tochal Lechem,” “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Bereishit 3:19). He would specifically have to work hard for his food, thereby becoming an Adam I. Despite the flawed world in which we live, we can, nevertheless, look forward to the time of Mashiach, at which point the world will return to an ideal one, according to many Rishonim. May we all live to see the return to the ideal world with the coming of Mashiach.