Terumah: The Power of the Palpable

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Dedicated in honor of
Berel Raichik
for his upsherenish, 23 Adar

 

By his parents,
Rabbi Levi & Chanee Raichik
Athens, Ohio

Abraham planted cedars in Beer-Sheba, Jacob transplanted them to Egypt, and the Israelites took them along into the desert. Why were we dragging cedars for four-hundred years? And what does it tell us about “being Jewish at heart”?

Finding the Literal Interpretation

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, G-d lists the items needed for the Tabernacle; “This is the offering you should take from them…greenish-blue wool, dark red wool, crimson wool, fine linen and goat’s hair. Red dyed ram’s skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood.”

Rashi comments, “Where did they get acacia wood in the desert? Rabbi Tanchuma explained: Our forefather Jacob foresaw through Divine inspiration that the Israelites were destined to build a Tabernacle in the desert, and he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them and directed his children to take them along when they would leave Egypt.”

Rashi’s commentary demands explanation. The suggestion that Jacob, on his way to Egypt, brought along cedar-wood for the Tabernacle which would be built two hundred and ten years into the future, is clearly a homiletic explanation. But why is he compelled to interpret the verse homiletically? We can suggest a far simpler explanation: The Israelites purchased acacia wood from merchants of the surrounding nations!

Secondly: Rashi usually omits the name of the rabbi who taught the explanation. When he mentions a person by name, it is because knowing the name will help us understand some difficulty in the passage. If so, in our case—why does Rashi tell us that this explanation was proposed by Rabbi Tanchuma?

Contributions – Only From What’s Available

The answer lies in Torah’s choice of words: “Have them bring me an offering…take my offering…the offering you should take from them…” These verses seem to imply that all the necessary items were already among the possessions of the Israelites. These weren’t items that needed to be obtained from other sources; Moses was merely commanded to ‘take’ it from the people. 

If some items were not available within the community and needed to be obtained from the surrounding nations, the Torah should have given this command in more general terms, using words like ‘obtain.’ 

Therefore, Rashi reached the conclusion that all the items listed in the verse were available within the Israelite encampment and needed only to be ‘taken.’ When G-d says, “Have them bring me an offering…this is the offering you should take from them,” it means that those items should be taken from among the possessions the Israelites already own.

So, Rashi must now explain how the Israelites actually owned all these items and didn’t need to obtain them from other sources.

This interpretation—that Jacob was Divinely inspired to bring cedar wood to Egypt—seems to be a homiletic explanation. It seems unlikely that Jacob began preparations for the Tabernacle two-hundred-ten years before G-d’s commandment, bringing cedars to Egypt and planting them there so that they would grow to maturity and then be fashioned into panels ten cubits tall. It would be more logical to assume that the wood was simply purchased through merchants of the surrounding nations. 

Therefore, Rashi emphasizes his question: “Where did they get acacia wood in the desert?” Meaning, all the items listed needed to be available among the Israelites themselves, without the need to search and obtain them from other sources. This brought Rashi to his question, “Where did they get acacia wood in the desert?”

He therefore came to the conclusion that “Jacob foresaw through Divine inspiration that the Israelites were destined to build a Tabernacle in the desert, and he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them and directed his children to take them along when they would leave Egypt.”

Being a Source of Comfort to Israel

A seasoned student will ask further:

Why was it so necessary for Jacob our forefather to bring and plant cedars in Egypt for the sake of a Tabernacle two hundred and ten years later?

Rashi hints to an answer by citing the source of his commentary—Rabbi Tanchuma. Tanchuma stems from the word tanchumin, which means consolation. Rabbi Tanchuma understood that Jacob’s inspiration to plant acacia wood was a form of consolation for the people of Israel.  

When the Israelites were mired in the Egyptian exile, enslaved, persecuted, and their children put to death—they recalled Jacob’s promise of redemption and drew inspiration from the sight of the cedar wood which he had personally brought and planted with the vision that they would leave Egypt and build a Tabernacle in the desert! 

In other words, the Israelites in the desert could have obtained acacia for the Tabernacle some other way. But to be a source of consolation to the Jewish people, Jacob was ‘required’ to bring along those cedars, plant them in Egypt, and instruct his children to take them along on their return trip. Thus, throughout their entire period of subjugation in Egypt, they were able to gaze at those cedars and feel hopeful. Those cedars symbolized their future redemption. 

This is a message of inspiration for our exile as well. We too, live in the darkness of exile, in our own limitations, in a spiritual desert, “a place of snakes, scorpions and thirst.” This is doubly true in the final moments before the final redemption. Yet we are told by Rabbi Tanchuma, the consoler of the Jewish people, that we shouldn’t be intimidated by our situation. The ultimate goal is “to build a Tabernacle for G-d in the desert,” to transform the spiritual desert into a sanctuary for G-d, a dwelling place for G-d in our world, and then we will merit the rebuilding of a physical sanctuary, the third Holy Temple.

Shabbat Parshat Terumah 1987
(Toras Menachem 5747 vol. 2 pg. 535)

 

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