Terumah: Planting for the Mishkan

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

“And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;  blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood . . . .” (Shemot/ Exodus 25:3-5)

Good morning!

This week we shift from the laws and principles governing society to the more specific instruction to build the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan was built with donation: precious metals, fabric, skins, and acacia wood. [Atzeh shittim in Hebrew.] Now, we learned back in Exodus 12 that the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver, so perhaps it’s not a mystery where the former slaves got those materials, but even our friend Rashi wonders where they got acacia wood in the middle of the Sinai desert.

Given the various miracles of water, manna, quail, etc, that the Torah reports from our ancestor’s time in the wilderness, you might think that the acacia wood, too, would be understood as a special provision from God. Yet Rashi instead brings from an earlier text a much more interesting interpretation:

“Rabbi Tanchuma explained: our forefather Yaakov saw through a Holy Inspiration that in the future Israel would build the Mishkan in the wilderness. So he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them, and told his children to take them along when they left Egypt.”

For the moment, let’s set aside the fact that the Torah text says acacia wood (perhaps this tree) and Rashi quotes Rabbi Tanchuma as referring to cedar trees. [Arazim] The point, as I see it, is not so much about which tree was used to build the Mishkan, but rather that the Mishkan reflected the hopes and dreams of the ancestors of the generation that merited to build it. Contrary to the American myth of the self-reliant, self-made and utterly independent person, no generation builds anything without building on what has come before, and we are more dependent on the foresight of our ancestors than our pride would often care to admit.

In Rabbi Tanchuma’s midrash, Yaakov envisions that his descendants will need wood for their sacred structure and plans accordingly. One wonders if the generation of the Exodus appreciated what their forefather is portrayed as doing for them- and we might ask ourselves, in turn, if we are mindful of the dreams that our ancestors had for us, as individuals and in our communities. If somebody planted a tree- or built a synagogue, or funded an endowment, or left a legacy- so that we could build sacred things, should we not be both grateful and zealous to plant for future generations?

According to Rabbi Tanchuma, the Mishkan would not have been build if Yaakov hadn’t planted cedars in Egypt. It’s a remarkable portrait of hope and faith; the saplings that Yaakov brought to Egypt must have grown through the decades of oppression that the Israelites suffered, and perhaps became a source of spiritual strength for the generations before the Exodus. Who can imagine having the faith of Yaakov, who saw that the trees planted now will become the place of the Divine Presence a few hundred years hence? We draw upon the gifts of those who came before, and are thus reminded that for somebody in the not-too-distant future, we will be the ones who came before. What shall we leave them for building the place of God’s Presence as their times demand?

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- for an ecological interpretation of the same midrash, see here.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi Neal–

    Thanks for this, it’s well said. Tanchuma’s midrash reminds me of a quote from the 20th-century Quaker author & minister D. Elton Trueblood. He’s not much read these days, but one of our classrooms at seminary had a few of his quotes on the wall. One of them went something like the following:

    “We have made at least a start on understanding what it is to be human when we plant shade trees under which we know full well we will never sit.”

    Peace to you.

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