The focal point of the Cohen Sanctuary is the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark, in which rests our Torah scrolls. The artist, Efrem Weitzman (1925-2012) of New York state, designed this unique structure around the theme of Divine Guidance. It reflects his understanding that God’s presence was overt and external in Biblical times, and is primarily subtle and internal today. The wood was carved and installed by Peter Brough of East Calais, Vermont.
On either side of the doors rise the towering pillars which guided the Israelites through the wilderness – the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night. The lower sections of the pillars recall the parting of the sea, effected by the staff of Moses which is represented in the handles on the doors. The staff, Moses’s symbol of authority, splits as the waters when the doors open.
The gold drops on the background above and within the ark were conceived as manna, the evidence of God’s nurture in the wilderness. They “fall” around the Torah scrolls and the lights (a synonym for Torah in the tradition), symbolizing the heavenly origin of the teaching. (Others have seen the drops as stars, symbolizing the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham.)
Sinai figures prominently in the motif of our bima. The table holding the scrolls in the Ark carries a representation of the mountain, as do the pulpits on either side. The many locations of the mountain reflect the midrash (legend) which depicts God as holding Sinai above the heads of the Israelites as they accepted Torah. (Others have seen the two mountains as representing Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival, between which the tribes passed on their way into the Promised Land.)
The Ten Commandments are represented on the Ark doors and on the reading table. The letters stand out in relief on the former and are engraved into the latter, reflecting the discussion in the Talmud about the nature of the revelation. The full text of the Ten Commandments is mounted above the bima on the left, preserved from the former sanctuary.
The unique Ner Tamid / Eternal Light represents the pillars on which the world rests – according to one source Peace, Truth and Justice, according to another Torah, Worship and Acts of Lovingkindness. It also represents the three crowns which may be bestowed upon a person – royalty, priesthood and learning. However, the crown of a good name exceeds them all. The best name with which one might associate is God’s name. By heeding God’s word – represented by Sh’ma Yisrael, emblazoned over the lintel of the Ark – and searching for the spark of guidance within, we find God’s good name – represented by Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, emblazoned within the Ark.
Most intriguing are the shapes which surround the lights and the tablets. The artist sought to represent the light of Torah increasing in intensity, complexity and variety as it comes into human contact. No flame is diminished by kindling others. Others have seen doves of peace, the shofarot which sounded at Sinai, and even tears in these shapes. The Ark is designed to provoke and inspire.