“Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the tablets that I will give you.” (Exodus 25:21)
Let me begin with a cute story. The Pope decides to visit New York City. The Diocese arranges a limo with a driver to take the Pope to all his appearances. On the last day, when the Pope is preparing to leave the city, he turns to his driver and says, “As Pope, I never get to drive anymore. On this last day, can we switch places. Let me drive.” So the driver climbs into the back and the Pope climbs behind the wheel.
The Pope is not a very good driver and soon a police car pulls the limo over. The officer walks over to the limo, then quickly calls the precinct office. “I need your help. I do not know how to handle this. I pulled someone over who must be extremely important. I do not know who they are, but their Limo driver is the Pope.”
When I first heard that story, I thought about a course on Biblical religion I took many years ago. The professor was trying to describe Biblical holiness. He said, “Imagine a stretch limo with darkened windows. You do not know who is in there, but it must be someone extremely important, a politician or celebrity. So they keep themselves covered up.” His point is that covering up and keeping something private is a way we set things apart and make them important. We declare something is holy by covering it up.
Imagine a Torah scroll lying uncovered in a synagogue. Anybody with a minimum of Jewish knowledge would walk over and cover up the Torah. It would be improper to leave a Torah scroll uncovered. When not in use, we keep the Torah scrolls in an ark with a curtain to keep them covered. (In this sad time, many of us also keep alarms on the doors of our ark to prevent anyone from stealing the Torah scrolls, or the silver ornaments we use to decorate them.) Holiness comes from covering up.
The source of the idea is this week’s Torah portion. God commands the Israelites to build a portable tabernacle, a symbol of God’s presence as they travel through the wilderness. At the center of the tabernacle is a special ark, known as the Holy of Holies. The tablets of the Ten Commandments are kept in that ark. And over the ark is a special covering, kept over the Holy of Holies. The cover is made of pure gold, showing how valuable it is. Today in synagogue, we often make a beautiful, elaborate parochet, the curtain we hang in the ark to cover the Torahs.
In my new novel, The Rabbi’s Sex Class, I use the example of covering a Torah to teach teens the importance of covering up. The Hebrew phrase for forbidden sexual relationships is gilui arayot, “uncovering one’s nakedness.” Often in this age of casual sex and “hooking up,” we are too quick to uncover. In the book I speak about the Jewish view that sex ought to be holy. But holiness can only happen if people stay covered up, until they are with the right person in the right place. The rabbi who is the main character of the novel urges his students to stay covered up. Of course, because it is a novel, several of them do not listen to him.
The Bible speaks of the importance of kedusha or holiness. Holiness means set apart and made special, not accessible to everyone. I suppose that is the reason my religion professor used the example of the limousine with tinted windows. It certainly sets its passengers apart. According to the Bible, certain times, certain places, and certain relationships are considered holy. And holiness begins by covering up. In this age of social media, where we allow everything to hang out, where we share everything online, perhaps there is a valuable message in the gold curtain from this week’s portion. Some things belong covered up.