The Aron HaKodesh was the receptacle that contained within it the first Luchos HaBris –which Moshe Rabbeinu broke as a result of the cheit ha’eigel, sin of the Golden Calf – and the second Luchos. Chazal (Berachos 8b) compare a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, who, due to no fault of his own has forgotten his learning to the Shivrei Luchos, Broken Luchos. As we are instructed to place the Broken Luchos respectfully beside the Luchos Shniim, Second Luchos, so, too, are we commanded to respect the elderly Jew whose Torah erudition is sadly now a matter of history. One may think that the scholar’s distinction is his Torah knowledge, and, once this Torah knowledge is no longer extant, the scholar is no longer a scholar, and he is no longer deserving the respect that was once accorded to him. We see from the Shivrei Luchos that this is untrue. As the Shivrei Luchos (which once were special) are placed in the Aron, likewise, the talmid chacham, who “once was,” is to be respected.
The metaphor of the “broken” next to the “whole” has been the topic of much commentary. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, was wont to say, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” This lends us much insight into the true meaning and value of brokenness. One who is presently broken, but was for the majority of his life whole, is actually transitioning from one form of “whole” to another (perhaps more poignant) form of “whole.” The Luchos without the Divinely-engraved lettering (which flew off) reverted to stone; the talmid chacham whose Torah knowledge has left him is a mere man without the spiritual accoutrements and benefits that Torah knowledge affords a person. The Aron HaKodesh did not contain a set of “whole” Luchos and particles of the broken Luchos, but actually had two “whole” Luchos – one represented whole in the physical sense; the other represented the wholeness of a broken heart. For the Jew who confronts life amid adversity, his hope and trust enable him to cement the broken shards and make them whole again.
I think there is another connection that exists between the Shivrei Luchos and the talmid chacham who has forgotten his Torah. They both impart a similar message. When Moshe descended the mountain and saw the moral profligacy that had bewitched the nation, the perverse revelry which showed their delight in sinning against Hashem, he made a judgment call to break the Luchos. A Golden Calf and Luchos do not mix. Torah must remain pristine. It cannot collaborate in any way with anything that undermines Torah values. Torah neither brooks compromise, nor does it need embellishment. It is free-standing and requires neither assistance nor support. One who is devoted to Torah does not dance around a Golden Calf. Moshe made a major leadership decision which Hashem ratified. The Almighty thanked Moshe for his decision, and it became his epitaph as the closing words (l’einei kol Yisrael, “before the eyes of all Yisrael”) of the Torah. The Shivrei Luchos represent a solemn, awe-inspiring Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of Hashem’s Name, a lesson for future generations: The Torah does not negotiate. It must remain pristine, untouched, pure.
The talmid chacham whose learning is no longer a part of him represents a person who has devoted his life wholly to Torah. He neither sought nor cared for material benefit and physical diversion. He gave it all up in order to devote his life to the study of Torah and dissemination of Torah. Now, he is old, shattered by the ravages of time and ill health. His Torah is no longer a part of him, as the words of the Luchos were no longer a part of the Luchos. They both attest to the verity of Torah without embellishment, Torah without compromise. People might harshly view the talmid chacham in his present state as a sad relic. The Torah views him as a mekadesh Shem Shomayim. This is why he is compared to the Shivrei Luchos and accorded the same respect, because, after all, he has earned it.