This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, provides a fascinating exploration of multiple layers within the verses and commentaries, the dense dialogue between the very literal analysis, the historical context, and the most profound imagery- all within the same words. Terumah means “a sacred contribution”, something which the Jewish people donated for the building of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary in the desert where G-d’s presence dwelt.
The opening verses begin with a list of the materials that were to be given: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel, have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart is inspired to give generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen… and acacia wood.”
Rashi, the commentary explaining the plain meaning of the words, proceeds to explainthe list of abovementioned materials. The last of these is the acacia wood- shittim– which is used for valuable timber. When he arrives at this item, instead of just clarifying the term, as he does the others, he quotes an account of our forefather Jacob – taking us back to the book of Genesis. It reads: “Where did they get these [trees] in the desert? Rabbi Tanchuma explained that our father Jacob foresaw with the holy-spirit that the Israelites were destined to build a Mishkan in the desert, so he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them. He commanded his children to take them with when they left for Egypt.”
Now while this explanation is intriguing, it seems to have no place when explaining the simple meaning of the verse. Could he not have chosen a more straightforward explanation of how the trees to make acacia wood were acquired? Strengthening this question, other commentators note that there were indeed cedar trees growing near Mount Sinai, not too far away. So what pushed Rashi to bring this most unusual explanation within his literal analysis?
The answer is that Rashi picks up on a subtle detail in the opening verses dealing with contributions. In content, the emphasis is on giving, while the language emphasizes taking the offering. This discrepancy hints at the process of acquiring these contributions, implying that all the materials, including acacia wood, were already in the possession of the Israelites, and that all that remained to be done was to “take”, to collect the offerings.
From this emerges the obvious question- if so, “where did they get these trees in the dessert?” The meaning of his question here is not “how did such trees grow in a barren land?’ For this there are plenty of answers. Rather, the question is: how were they so readily available while traveling in the desert.
The answer: The Israelites carried the acacia wood with them from Egypt. How did they know to do this? Jacob, their forefather had brought the trees from Israel and planted them when he arrived in Egypt, more than two hundred years earlier, and instructed his children about what to do with them. And why did he do all this? “He foresaw with the holy spirit that the Israelites were destined to build the Mishkan in the desert.”
While this is certainly a precise exploration of the text, it leads to one more fundamental issue: all this effort, only for purpose of having the wood readily available? Why not make things easier and let them cut down trees when the time came? It is within this final answer, this tiny episode, that one can uncover a gateway to a profound and relevant lesson in life.
The Jewish people endured years of pain and suffering in Egypt. The dream and promise of one day becoming a free nation lay in the back of their minds. In such a condition, a far-off promise of better times stands little chance of combating the more tangible, harsh, and bitter reality of the present in one’s mind. To make it through these toughest times and sustain hope, one needs a visible sign of the future, within the present, until eventually that day becomes a reality.
Finally, there are those who often approach these narratives with the intent to diminish our Biblical heroes, criticize them, or humanize them. Here we are presented with a fresh perspective, a true indication of the essential character of Jacob, our forefather. The ultimate leader is able to provide that clear and enduring link between the past, present, and the future. He is the man with vision, a vision he transmits in the most tangible way to his descendants. We too have our unique leaders, the guides for our generation, who plant trees in darker times to serve as a beacon of the light that will one day emerge.