TERUMAH: Can you see the wood from the trees?

“There’s no place like home”

Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

There are many outstanding accomplishments for us as a natio,  but building is certainly not amongst them. It may come therefore as somewhat of a surprise  to discover that  from the sedra of Terumah onwards the rest of  the book of Shemot centers around the building of the tabernacle – a physical home  for G-d’s presence to reside in this world. In fact the Chassidic literature notes the incongruency in the command to “build for me a tabernacle and I will dwell in them” rather than “ I will dwell in it”. The notion they suggest is that each and every jew should see themselves with the capability for holiness and by elevating themselves  they create a space for G-d to dwell in each person’s life and in this world. As we shall discover this insight goes to the core of the essence of the  Mishkan.

Many of the greatest scholars have questioned what was the initial necessity for establishing a house for G-d in this world ? Why would G-d need for us to build a physical home here on earth? The origins of the purpose for the Mishkan are itself cloaked in mystique.

One school of thought is the Midrashic works and the Sforno who point to the fact initially there was not perceived a need for such a structure in this world. After all, Melo kol Haaretz kovod -G-d’s  presence filled the world. 

The Jewish people at the time had recently  experienced both individually and collectively  Revelation at Sinai, naturally  they felt a constant closeness to G-d. That palpable awareness of G-d’s presence, gradually dissipated and led in turn to the sin of the golden calf, a low point in Jewish history. 

According to the medieval commentator Ramban, the origins of the golden calf  stemmed from a psychological  mistaken belief by the people. It occurred when Moshe failed to descend from Sinai at  the appointed time the people became filled with tremendous insecurity. Moshe  had been their rock, he was everything  and they  saw themselves as  nothing. The people saw Moshe having redeemed them from slavery splitting the sea and receiving the Torah. Their mindset was that great spiritual achievement was for the few those of the lofty calibre but not for the masses. It was to counter such a mindset that had led to the Golden calf that the people were called to action by G-d to build for Him a home. 

 The people  felt  and G-d realized they now had a  need for a tangible symbol to relate to the Divine. It was  that the command of the tabernacle was proclaimed, the people were called to  collectively built a home a tangible   focal point of G-ds presence in this world to reside. G-d said kol is hasher yidabenu libo everyone should donate what their heart desires. This faith by G-d in the jewish people fortified their belief in G-d and more importantly their belief and self esteem in themselves.

It was to heal this  fracture in the psyche of the Jewish people, a  lack of  self belief and self worth that  led to the Mishkan being introduced. G-d asked every member of the the jewish people. 

G-d told the people give me of what you have, there is no one that doesn’t have something worthy to contribute be it rich or poor,  big or small whatever size what your heart desires. 

This was in marked contrast to the  earlier experience by the sin of the Golden calf. There those of the  people that contributed gave only gold, believing G-d only wanted and valued gold, a symbol of perfection but that  anything short  of that gold standard would not curry favour in the Heavenly realm. Nothing could have been further from the truth as reflected in the contributions that were made  by the Tabernacle, be it big or small all were equally precious in G-d’s eyes, the message was clear every Jew could be a builder of the Tabernacle all that was required was a nediv leiv, a sincere willingness from the heart.

This theme was illustrated most profoundly in one of the key aspects of the building of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle consisted of wooden boards. The origins of these boards is itself a story not often appreciated. At the end of the book of Bereshit, we may recall  Joseph being reunited with his brothers after 22 years of being estranged. He invites his father Jacob to come down to Egypt and to be reunited with him. Jacob knew his descent to Egypt was not merely a journey to meet Joseph his son; it was a  descent into exile for his family and the Jewish people.  Along the way, Jacob made an important detour to Beersheva. There he finds the trees planted generations earlier by his grandfather Abraham, he cut them down and  took   them with him to Egypt where he replants them.

It was these trees that would be transported by the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus. Jacob prophetically foresaw the eventual emergence from  long darkness of the Egyptian servitude and exile of his children. For Jacob it was critical  to impress on his children their self worth and self belief that despite our people coming from the humble beginnings of  Egyptian slavery and an idolatrous, that  that did not have to define their future. It was the wood of these trees that became a symbol of this idea in the Tabernacle. The lumber that they carried they were instructed, was to be positioned in the way that it grew naturally, so the part that grew closer to the ground would be at the  base of the Tabernacle. This was to impress on the Jewish people, the Mishkan which would bring Hashem’s presence into this world had to be built the way each person developed and grew naturally. We have natural gifts and potential and God was teaching our people that He wanted in life for us to to be us and not try to become someone or something that we are not.  The positioning of the wooden planks indicated we were to serve G-d in our own inimitable way. It was for this reason that Jacob planted the trees in preparation for their emergence from the exile of egypt. The children of Israel were not to forget on the one hand that they had came come from the slavery of  Egypt, but they were not to define and  judge themselves as merely slaves from Egypt. It was incumbent upon them to see beyond  where they had come from. No one  had embodied this idea more than Abraham who had planted initially these trees for the Tabernacle. Abraham our forefather who grew up in a home of idolatory and yet he relentlessly challenged himself to move ahead in searching for meaning and faith.  

After WWII, the Poles decided to build a highway through an old Jewish cemetery. The local Burial Society had to remove all the bones to a new resting place. To their amazement, they found one body that had not decomposed! It is considered a sign of great righteousness. But even more to their wonderment, he was buried in the robes of a priest!! They quickly made enquiries among the elders of the town, and this is the story that was revealed.

Reb Naftali was the Gabbai Tzedakah of the town. He was well respected and he would always distribute the funds fairly. One day, after he had already collected quite a sum of money for a dire emergency, a man knocked on his door. “Naftali, please you must help, I have nowhere else to turn”, he begged. The man, already burdened by the expenses of a large family had a child who was very ill, and the medical bills were putting the family under undue financial distress. Naftali went out to collect again; and people helped, but not like the first time. He returned home exhausted, but satisfied that he had done the right thing. Then there was a knock on the door again. A man whose roof had caved in on his house was in the doorway. The family of 10 souls was homeless. Naftali couldn’t go around collecting three times in one day…but he did.

He went to beseech the young son of a wealthy merchant who was entertaining some of his friends at the local pub.

“Don’t tell me that you are collecting again”, he screamed in disbelief. They all began to ridicule Naftali mercilessly.

Suddenly, the young man had an idea. “Naftali, we will give you the entire amount of 20 zlotys that you need. All you have to do is to walk through the main street of town wearing priest’s robes.” Naftali agreed.

They all walked behind him singing hooting. Other townspeople, seeing Naftali, shouted curses and pelted him with eggs. But he got the 20 zlotys, plus an extra 20 so that he didn’t have to go collecting again that day.

Naftali went home to a broken man. He threw the priest’s robes in the back of his closet and collapsed into bed.

A year later, the Divrei Chayim,  R’ Chaim of Sanz passed through that same town. As he was passing the house where Naftali lived he exclaimed, “I smell the fragrance of Gan Eden (Paradise) here.” They went into the house and began to question Naftali, what did he ever do that would cause the fragrance of Gan Eden to descend upon his house. Naftali remembered the incident of the priest’s robes. R’Chaim commanded the Burial Society that when Naftali’s time comes, he should be buried in those same priest’s robes. The angels of destruction will not dare to touch him.

One of the greatest tragedies and sins for us all is not that we err or we sin in life, that is part of our human psyche, but it is when  we suffer from the golden calf malady, the false belief that we are not worthy of contributing and serving G-d in this world. This comes from low self esteem in a certain area of life which leads to a feeling of being scared  and embarrassed by our past and a feeling of worthlessness. The building of the Tabernacle and its wooden beams are a timeless reminder as to the precious and unique contribution we all have as builders in the individual and collective tabernacle of life. 

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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