G-d established the whole framework of a holy Temple, holy objects and holy people (Kohanim and Levi'im) to create a miniature world, perfect and complete, holy and pure. It was meant to symbolize the larger world and to guide us in how our world is supposed to look. One of our most important principles is: “To the L-rd belongs the earth and everything in it” (Ps. 24.1). Everything belongs to G-d, and nothing that ostensibly belongs to man is really his. Rather, it is only given to him to use. The concept of holiness provides a concrete example to help us understand the essence of property here on earth – that it belongs exclusively to G-d and not to man.
The ark is the essence of the Tabernacle and the Temple, both of which were established for its sake. As Rashbam wrote (Ex 25:10), “For the sake of the ark, which is the essence of “they shall make Me a sanctuary”(Ex. 25:8), it was necessary to make a Tabernacle.”
This accords with Shemot Rabbah, 34:2: First it says, “Have them bring Me and offering” (Ex. 25:2), and then, “Make an ark of acacia wood” (v. 10). Just as the Torah preceded everything, so too, in the fashioning of the Tabernacle, the ark preceded all the other vessels.
The reason that the ark came first was that the two tablets and the Torah scroll were inside it. The ark was the only object standing inside the Holy of Holies behind the partition [parochet]. G-d made it the holiest object on earth, when He confined, so to speak, His Divine Presence, and spoke to Moses from between the two cherubs: “I will commune with you there, speaking to you from above the ark cover, from between the two cherubs that are on the Ark of Testimony”(Ex. 25:22); and, "Moses would hear the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubs on the ark cover over the Ark of Testimony. The L-rd thus spoke to him”(Num. 7:89).
G-d made the Ark “His place”, so to speak, in this world, thereby making it a symbol of His omnipotence, isolation and aloneness, a symbol that we must trust in Him alone, as Hezekiah said when he prayed to G-d to save the city from Sennacherib (II Kings 19:15): “O L-rd, G-d of Israel, Who sits upon the cherubs. You are G-d, alone, of all the kingdoms on the earth. You made heaven and earth.”
Indeed, the ark was the earthly seat of G-d, “Who sits upon the cherubs”, and it became a symbol of G-d's omnipotence and Israel's obligation to trust in Him. R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said (Pesikta DeRav Kahana 123a): Wherever Scripture uses the term “Master” [adon], it alludes to G-d's uprooting one group and bringing in another. The prototype is, “Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Master of all the earth” (Josh. 3:11). There G-d uprooted the Canaanites and brought in Israel. Thus the Ark is the symbol of the L-rd of all the earth, its Creator and Master, Who removes nations from lands – the Canaanites and Ishmaelites – and brings in other nations – Israel – and none can protest.
Yet the ark symbolizes more than that, for it also symbolizes G-d's ability to control and alter all the laws of nature, laws He established. Following is Bereshit Rabbah, 5:7: “Joshua said to the Children of Israel, 'Come hither'” (Josh 3:9): R. Huna said, “He made [the Children of Israel] stand between the two poles of the ark.” R. Acha bar R. Chanina said, “He made them lean between the two poles of the ark.” The Rabbis said, “He made them fit precisely between the two poles of the ark.” Joshua said to them, “From the fact that you all fit between the two ark poles, you know that the Divine Presence is among you.” G-d transformed the ark into the symbol of His control over the laws of nature, for here, the smaller contained the larger. Where was this? “Between the poles”, the poles with which the Levi'im carried the ark.
Our sages likewise said (Sotah 35a): As soon as the last Israelite ascended from the Jordan, the water returned to its place: “As the Kohanim who bore the ark of the covenant of the L-rd came up out of the Jordan, as soon as the soles of their feet were drawn up onto dry ground, the water returned to its place” (Josh. 4:18) [...] It turns out that the ark and its carriers and the Kohanim were on one side, and the rest of Israel were on the other. The ark carried its carriers, and it crossed... For this Uzza was punished, as it says, “When they came to the threshing-floor of Chidon, Uzza put forth his hand to hold the ark” (I Chron. 13:9). G-d said to him, “Uzza, if the ark carries its carriers, surely it can carry itself!” And the L-rd's anger was kindled against Uzza, and He smote him there for his error” (II Sam. 6:7).
Thus, here, too, the ark took control of the laws of nature when it carried its carriers, demonstrating to Israel the Law of Faith and Trust: G-d's ark does not need carriers. Rather, it carries itself as well as all those who ostensibly carry it. For this reason, it was forbidden to carry the ark in a wagon. Being able to carry itself, it needed no help. Yet, G-d decreed that the ark must be carried on shoulders to emphasize that if Israel “carried it on their shoulders” (i.e. accepted the yoke and burden of the ark), then the ark would carry them always. Whoever forgets this law and tries to “help” G-d is punished, all the more so that someone who thinks the ark and its Master lack the power to help, and instead trusts in the nations, commits an unbearable sin.
The ark is the symbol of G-d's place int the world, and the poles that carry it are the concrete symbol of G-d's unlimited power, His omnipotence, greatness and majesty.
G-d desired that these poles – symbolizing G-d's greatness and our duty to trust in Him infinitely – would be before the eyes of Israel always. He therefore decreed a wondrous decree: The Kohanim brought the ark of the covenant of the L-rd to its place, into the Temple sanctuary, into the Holy of Holies, even under the wings of the cherubs... The ark poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place, even before the Sanctuary, but they could not be seen outside. (I Kings 8:6, 8) Our sages comment (Menachot 98 a): “The ark poles were long”: I might think they did not touch the partition. It therefore says, “They were seen.” If they could be “seen”, I might think they tore through the partition to the other side. It therefore says, “They could not be seen without.” How can this be? They pushed and protruded against the partition like a woman's two breasts, as it says, “My beloved is unto me as a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (Song of Songs 1:13) The Talmud's point is that G-d wished every Jew who came to the Sanctuary to always see the poles and remember what they symbolized: that we are obligated to have perfect, complete faith in G-d's omnipotence. Yet since the partition separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, G-d established that the poles should stretch so far that they abut the partition, protruding like a woman's breasts. Thus, whoever passed by saw the protrusion and drew the lesson.
[...] Woman is the symbol of man's love and desire, for there is no love in man's nature greater than his love for woman. Precisely for this reason G-d created man and woman, so they would be bound together with fierce love and desire, ready to sacrifice for each other and to give of themselves to an extent unheard of in any other relationship. They would be willing even to sacrifice their lives for each other, so strong is that love. Being so fiercely bound to another human being is the apex of man's breaking down his selfishness, arrogance and evil impulse. G-d created this bond so that man would understand from it – at least in part – how powerful must be his love for G-d. Thus, if a husband is ever unfaithful to his wife, it constitutes betrayal of the true concept of love and a dreadful lie looming over the marital relationship. G-d decreed that this must be an exclusive relationship founded on mutual trust, a symbol of the prohibition against the dreadful sin of polytheism, worshiping idols as well as G-d (Ex.20:3).
Observe the fierce love between Israel and G-d, which is always compared to the love between a man and woman, the fiercest love man can imagine. G-d compared the ark poles to a woman's breasts. This would seem to be the reason that one of G-d's names is Shad-dai [Hebr. shad = breast]. Likewise, as we have written, the cherubs hug each other, like the love between man and woman. How fortunate one would be to reach this level of love for G-d!
How fortunate one would be to reach this level of love for G-d!