Towards the beginning of Parashat Teruma we read about the aron, the gold-plated, wooden ark which was situated in the inner chamber of the Mishkan. After outlining the specifications of the ark, God instructed Moshe that he should place in it the stone tablets which he would be receiving, and upon which the Ten Commandments would be engraved (25:16). God then proceeded to describe the kaporet, the golden covering over the ark, concluding, “You shall place the kaporet over the ark, on top, and you shall place inside the ark the testimony which I will be giving you” (25:21). As Rashi notes, God here repeated the instruction to place the stone tablets (“the testimony”) inside the aron – an instruction He had just given several verses earlier. To explain the redundancy, Rashi suggests that in this second verse, God emphasized to Moshe that the luchot (tablets) were to be brought inside the ark when the ark was still open, before the kaporet was placed on top of the ark to cover it.
The obvious question arises as to why this needed to be said. It goes without saying that Moshe would not have been able to place the luchot inside the ark while it was covered. Seemingly, Moshe did not need God to tell him to first place the tablets inside the ark before covering it.
The Rosh, in his Torah commentary (cited in Torah Sheleima to 25:21, note 145), explains that God commanded Moshe not to even temporarily cover the ark before placing the luchot inside. Moshe might have wanted to first position the kaporet above the ark to ensure that it sat properly, before placing the tablets inside, and thus God emphasized that the aron should never be covered without the luchot.
A different answer is cited in the name of the Imrei Emet (by his grandson, Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib Heine, in Likutei Yehuda), suggesting, very simply, that Moshe might have considered inserting the tablets into the aron in miraculous fashion. Chazal identify several miraculous features of the aron, and therefore, as the ark was a supernatural object, it would have been possible to place the tablets inside it even after it was covered. God therefore needed to clarify that the tablets should be placed inside normally, before the ark was covered.
What might be the significance of this command? Why would the possibility have been entertained to place the luchot inside the aron in supernatural fashion?
The luchot were prepared by God Himself (“ha-luchot ma’aseh Elokim heima” – 32:16), and were brought down from the heavens to this world. As such, they did not, in principle, need to be confined to the restrictions of nature. Originating from the heavens, the luchot were entirely supernatural, and there was thus no reason to assume that they should be handled in a manner conforming to natural law – such as placing them in the aron though the open top, as opposed to penetrating the ark’s walls. God therefore had to emphasize to Moshe that the heavenly luchot were to be brought into the earthly aron naturally, and not miraculously.
Chazal viewed the aron as the symbol of a student of Torah (and thus, for example, the gold plating on the ark’s interior and exterior represents the obligation for a Torah scholar to be “golden” and pure both internally and externally – Yoma 72b). Just as the luchot with the Ten Commandments were given from the heavens at Sinai and then stored in the aron, the Torah was given to us from the heavens for us to study, absorb and internalize. And just as the placement of the luchot in the ark could not be done miraculously, similarly, there are no shortcuts for the process of bringing the Torah into our minds and into our beings. At Sinai, the heavens opened and God gave us the Torah; thereafter, we need to open ourselves, our minds and our hearts, to receive the Torah, just as the aron needed to be open to receive the luchot. We cannot expect our minds to absorb the knowledge and comprehension of Torah, or our hearts to absorb the values and ideals of Torah, “miraculously,” without hard work. We must take the initiative and invest time and effort in the pursuit of Torah knowledge and in the development of a Torah personality, realizing that there is so quick or easy way to bring the Torah into our beings.