“On account of two sins the ignorant masses die: for calling the Torah ark ‘the cabinet,’ and for calling the synagogue “beit am” [the house of the people].” (Shabbat 32a)
What is so terrible about this behavior? Are there no worse sins committed regularly by ignorant people?
People are good at grasping the functional purpose of things. One need not be a great scholar to recognize that a Torah ark is meant to hold and protect Torah scrolls. And even a cursory observation indicates that a synagogue is a place where people assemble together.
Yet these functional definitions are so superficial, they miss the true essence of these objects. To perceive a Torah ark as simply a cabinet, and a synagogue as a type of community center, is to lose sight of those very characteristics that make them special and a source of spiritual life.
In fact, this is a critical error. Not to recognize the holiness of the Torah ark and the synagogue is a fundamental mistake in how we look at life and our relationship with God.
When contemplating God’s infinite grandeur and transcendent eminence, our initial tendency is to view all human concerns as petty and inconsequential. All of our actions appear trite, disconnected from the infinite and the eternal.
Therefore, the most important study is precisely in this area: to properly understand how life’s external aspects, as expressions of our service of God, are connected to the highest levels of inner Divine knowledge. By binding the entire gamut of human activity with the loftiest contemplations, we can elevate and sanctify all aspects of life.
Life is not just the ’still, small voice,’ moments of calm introspection, inspired words of prayer and supplication. Life is full of conflicts and challenges. It is noisy and rushed, flowing with joy and grief, anger and satisfaction. Yet deep contemplation will help us recognize that God’s glory can find us everywhere, even in our lowly material state.
This awareness cannot come from intellectual inquiry alone, but requires deep and constant study. For this reason the words of Torah are compared to water: just as water flows from high places to lower regions, so too, the Torah does not remain only in the rarified spheres of intellectual inquiry, but ‘flows down’ to influence and elevate life’s emotional and practical aspects.
Now we may better understand the true significance of the Torah ark and the gross error of the ignorant. The ark is not just another cabinet. By virtue of the fact that it is a receptacle for a Torah scroll, the Torah ark is also a holy vessel. By recognizing the ark’s holiness, we acknowledge the sanctity of life’s external aspects — our emotions and actions — when they serve as a receptacle for Torah.
While the Torah ark reflects the holiness in the life of the individual, the synagogue is a reflection of the holiness in the life of the community. One who sees the synagogue as simply a place for people to meet fails to grasp the intrinsic sanctity of the Jewish people. They are not just a collection of individuals who pool together their resources for utilitarian purposes, for companionship and mutual protection. The value of the people is in the communal Divine soul that resides within them, a strength of collective holiness that transcends the holiness of its individual members.
This value of the community is especially expressed through the synagogue, a place of communal prayer and study. It is this elevated communal holiness that transforms the synagogue into a House of God and a mikdash me'at, a miniature Temple.
To the extent that the ignorant will be enlightened by Torah study, they will come to recognize that also the Torah ark is holy, and that life’s external aspects may be a source of holiness. They will also recognize the special collective holiness of Israel, and realize that the synagogue is not a ‘house of the people,’ but rather a house of God’s Presence.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 169-170)