“And into the Ark shall you place the Testimony that I will give you” (Sh’mos 25:21). This is the second time within the instructions for the Ark that G-d told Moshe to put “the Testimony” (referring to the Luchos, the stone tablets with the “Ten Commandments” carved into/through them; it also refers to the Torah, see http://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/parashas-vayakhel-pekuday-5773/) into the Ark (see 25:16). Before suggesting a reason for the repetition, Rashi (on 25:21) says he doesn’t know why it was repeated. [It would seem that his “not knowing” meant he had no earlier source upon which to rely; he still didn’t “know” why it was repeated even after thinking of a possible explanation. V’dok.]
Rashi’s suggestion is that it was repeated in order to teach us that the Luchos must be put inside the Ark before the Kapores (its cover, which was discussed immediately prior to this verse) is put on it. Many commentators question what this means, as obviously the contents of a container must be put inside before closing it. Some (e.g. B’er Yitzchok and Rebbi Sh’muel El-Moshnainu) explain it to mean not being able to first cover the empty Ark and then partially open it in order to put the Luchos inside. However, they don’t explain why this is problematic (or why it is “partially” uncovering the Ark that is being pre-empted rather than completely uncovering it and then recovering it). Others (e.g. Rosh and Tur) say that the verse means that it is forbidden to cover the Ark if the Luchos are not inside, or, put another way (see Rabbeinu Bachye towards the end of his commentary on 21:18) that it is forbidden for the Ark to not have the Luchos inside of it. (They are not all saying that this is what Rashi meant; Gur Aryeh makes this suggestion to explain the repetition, but assumes it is not what Rashi meant.) Based on this, many (e.g. Rashash on Yuma 53b and Chasam Sofer on our verses) explain that this is why there was no Ark in the Second Temple, as the Luchos were “hidden” (or in exile, see Yuma 53b) along with the Ark from the First Temple (shortly before its destruction). This is contrasted with the Choshen, the Kohain Gadol’s breastplate, which was worn in the Second Temple even though the “Urim v’Tumim” were also lost, despite the Torah also telling us (28:30) to put the Urim v’Tumim inside the Choshen. Since those instructions weren’t repeated, the Choshen was allowed (and needed for the Temple service) even without the Urim v’Tumim, while a Luchos-less Ark was not. Some (e.g. Meshech Chachmah) point out that there is a general rule regarding Temple service that whenever a law detail is repeated, the service is not valid without the detail being fulfilled; since putting the Luchos inside the Ark was repeated, the Ark cannot be used without them.
[Although the Torah also seems to say that the Ark should be covered after it was already placed inside the inner sanctum (the Kodesh HaKadashim) rather than covering the Ark outside the sanctuary and then bringing it in (26:34, see Netziv), this contradicts what actually happened (see 40:20-21). Rather, the Torah (26:33-34) is just telling us that the Ark, including its covering, belong in the inner sanctum; after describing the curtain that divides the inner sanctum from the outer one, thereby designating the inner sanctum as the “Holy of Holies,” we are told that the “Kapores” (the covering), along with the Ark that contains the Testimony, resides in the “Holy of Holies.”]
Rashi proves his point by referencing what Moshe actually did (40:20). However, that verse does not just say that Moshe put the Luchos into the Ark before covering it; he also waited to put the poles in their rings until after he had put the Luchos inside. [This seems to contradict Tosfos’ contention that the reason the poles were not allowed to be removed is because the Ark/Luchos was so holy that G-d didn’t want it handled unnecessarily (by taking the poles out and putting them back in). If this were so, I would have expected Moshe to specifically put the poles in before the Luchos were placed in the Ark; by putting the Luchos in first, the Ark/Luchos was handled when the poles were first inserted into their rings even though this could have been avoided. Although it is possible that it’s not as problematic for the Ark/Luchos to be handled before the Kapores covered it, since the real “holiness” comes from the Luchos, this would not seem to be the case.] Interestingly, just as the second verse that says to put the Luchos in the Ark follows the instructions for the Kapores, the first verse (25:16) follows immediately after the instructions to make poles for the Ark (25:12-15). It certainly seems that this juxtaposition was meant to indicate that the instructions detailed before stating that the Luchos are to be placed in the Ark should be fulfilled after the Luchos were already inside the Ark (see Ibn Ezra on 25:21). The question becomes why it was important to have the Luchos inside the Ark before the poles were added and before the Ark was covered.
Since the purpose of the Ark was to hold the Luchos, the poles made to carry the Ark (25:14) should not have been needed at all times; the Ark is no less efficient at containing the Luchos without poles than it is with them, and they seem superfluous when the Mishkan was not being transported. Yet, as opposed to the Shulchan (table) and Mizbayach (altar), which also have poles, the poles of the Ark could never be removed. The implication is that things which support the Luchos (and by extension, the Torah) cannot be removed even if the apparent reason for them doesn’t apply. Similarly, if the Kapores (covering) could be put on the Ark even without the Luchos inside, it would have indicated that they had a purpose in and of themselves, aside from being the container for the Luchos. Just as mitzvos must be observed even when it seems that the reason for them doesn’t apply (as evidenced by the poles of the Ark always having to be attached), doing mitzvos has little spiritual value if they aren’t being done because G-d commanded them (see Rambam, Hilchos M’lachim 8:11). The structure (the Ark, and the system of law) must have the Torah (the Luchos) within it (at its center) in order for it to have any religious value.
That the Ark isn’t really considered a valid “Ark” without the Luchos inside is explicitly stated by Ramban (40:2). Since the Torah says that the poles should be attached to “the Ark,” the Luchos must already be inside before attaching them. (Although this could answer the question I raised on Tosfos, if there was a concern about handling the Ark unnecessarily, the Torah shouldn’t have required it to be a valid Ark before the poles were attached.) Similarly, since the Torah required that the Kapores be placed on top of “the Ark,” the Luchos had to be inside first.
“Into the Ark shall you place the Testimony” (25:21) follows the instructions for making the Kapores in order to teach us that without the Luchos being inside, the Ark isn’t considered a valid “Ark,” while “you shall put into the Ark the Testimony” (25:16) follows the instructions regarding the Ark’s poles — specifically the prohibition against ever removing them — to teach us that they too must be added after the Luchos are inside. In turn, these requirements teach us that the value of the structure only exists because of the Luchos; there is no need for the “un-removable” poles, nor can the covering be added to complete the container, without the Testimony that connects us with G-d being inside first.