Rav Saadiah Gaon was living in Egypt when he was invited to become the head of the yeshivah in Sura in what is now Iraq (and thereby assume the honorary title of Gaon). His first immediate responsibility as the new rosh yeshivah, one all too familiar to modern-day roshei yeshivah, was to raise money for his yeshivah.

Rav Saadiah wasted no time. He approached one of the wealthy Jewish merchants of the Egyptian Jewish community and secured an extremely large donation. The man had one request. He wanted a plaque bearing his name affixed to the aron kodesh, the holy ark of the great and famous yeshivah of Sura. Rav Saadiah agreed, and the man turned over the funds.

When he arrived in Sura, Rav Saadiah discovered that a plaque bearing someone else's name was already affixed to the aron kodesh. Someone else had already dedicated the aron kodesh!

Rav Saadiah wrote a letter to the donor from Egypt in which he explained that the Aron Kodesh had a dual significance, symbolizing both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. It was the receptacle of the Luchos, the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. And it also symbolized the Torah scholar. Our Sages tell us that a person who wants to progress in Torah study should incline his head toward the south when he prays, because the Aron Kodesh was in the southern part of the Heichal, the Sanctuary.

"The aron kodesh in the yeshivah is the place of the Written Torah," he wrote to the donor in Egypt. "It contains the Torah scrolls. But where is the Oral Torah in the yeshivah? It is certainly not in the aron kodesh. It is in the hearts and minds of the rabbis and the students. It is to be found wherever someone is sitting and studying the Torah. By giving a contribution that enables people to sit and learn, you are, in effect, dedicating the aron kodesh of the Oral Law!"

If the Ark symbolized the Torah scholar, what was the significance of the gold covering within and without? The Talmud tells us (Yoma 72b), "Any Torah scholar who is not tocho kebaro, identical inside and out, is no Torah scholar." Just as the Ark was gilded within and without, so must the Torah scholar be a person of genuine character and integrity.

Elsewhere (Berachos 27b), the Talmud relates the famous story about Rabban Gamaliel's dispute with Rabbi Yehoshua. While Rabbi Gamaliel was head of the yeshivah he had followed an exclusive admission policy, accepting only those students who were tocham kebaram, who were identical inside and out. As a result of his dispute with Rabbi Yehoshua, he was removed from office, and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah took his place. Rabbi Elazar changed the admission policy. He opened the doors to all comers, and several hundred new chairs were added. When Rabban Gamaliel heard about this, he was crestfallen, fearing that he had unfairly withheld Torah from the Jewish people.

The Chiddushei Harim wonders why Rabban Gamaliel was upset. He had known perfectly well that all these prospective students wanted to join the yeshivah. He had seen their applications. He had tested them, interviewed them and rejected them. And for good reason. He was looking for students who were tocham kebaram, genuine rather than superficial people, the real thing. He could have invited them all in, but he had chosen not to do so. Why should he suddenly have regrets when Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah let them in?

The Chiddushei Harim explains that he did not have those regrets immediately. But after a while, he noticed an amazing thing. All those students who had appeared superficial when he first met them were changing. The Torah they were learning was transforming them, penetrating into their hearts and minds and making them the real thing, the genuine article, true Torah scholars, gilded within and without. This was the cause of his regrets. He had not given these young men the opportunity to be exposed to Torah. He had seen them as they were and rejected them, when he should have realized that Torah study itself would change them into the genuine Torah scholars they could have become from the beginning.

BURIED IN A DINING-ROOM TABLE

The table, as well as the ark and the altar, was made of acacia wood. This was undoubtedly an extremely fine wood, fitting for such a high purpose as forming the holy furnishings of the Mishkan. Rabbeinu Bachya finds an additional homiletic significance to the use of this wood, which is called shittim in Hebrew. This forms an acronym for the words shalom, tovah, yeshuah and mechilah, which mean peace, goodness, salvation and forgiveness. In other words, all the gifts the Jewish people enjoyed, which these four blessings encompass, came to them through the conduit of the holy furnishings and vessels of the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash.

But what about our own times, when we no longer have these furnishings and vessels? How can we continue to receive these gifts?

Rabbeinu Bachya answers this question by citing a famous passage from the Talmud (Chagigah 27a), "Now that the Beis Hamikdash is no longer standing, a person receives atonement through his own table."

Which "table" atones for us and brings us blessing now that we don't have the Beis Hamikdash? Our dining-room table! If we feed the poor, welcome the traveler and host guests at our table, then the dining-room table - or the kitchen table for that matter - becomes our own personal altar of atonement.

Rabbeinu Bachya concludes on an awesome note, "There is a custom among the pious people in France to construct their coffins from wood taken from their dining-room tables."

Think of the imagery. The people who have known the deceased, who have sat at his dining-room table, come to his funeral and see him being buried in a coffin that looks exactly like his dining-room table!

The message is clear, says Rabbeinu Bachya. A person take nothing along with him to the World of Truth except for the Torah he learned, the mitzvos he performed, the charity he gave and the goodness that he shared with other people around his dining-room table.