This week’s parsha, Terumah, talks about the construction of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle which accompanied the Jewish people in the desert and became the prototype for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem years later. Before the actual building instructions for the Mishkan are given, the materials to be used in the construction are listed – the gold, silver and many others. One of the materials listed is cedar wood – the atzei shittim – which was used for constructing many items; for example, the aron, the Holy Ark, as well as the shulchan, the table for the Show Bread. There were also vertical and horizontal planks of cedar wood surrounding the Mishkan.
How did the Jews, who had just left Egypt and were now travelling through the desert, get hold of cedar trees?
Some of the commentators, like the Ibn Ezra and the Chizkuni, say that there were forests of cedar trees – not in the drier parts of the desert, but certainly on the periphery, and so it was available to them. Rashi, however, brings a very interesting Midrash which says that they actually had the wood with them in Egypt, from the time Yaakov and his family went down to Egypt and were reunited with their son and brother, Yosef, who had become the viceroy of Egypt and had dispensed food to everybody, enabling them to survive the years of the famine. Yaakov and his family had come ostensibly just for the duration of the famine but they ended up staying there, leaving Egypt only after many years of enslavement and the subsequent ten plagues and miraculous Exodus.
On his way down to Egypt, Yaakov stops in Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel. According to the Midrash, there were cedar trees in Be’er Sheva, and Yaakov took them and brought them to Egypt where they were replanted. Yaakov had a prophetic vision in which G-d told him that one day they were going to need the cedar wood to build the Tabernacle, and so he told his children, when you are eventually redeemed from Egypt, take this wood with you.
How did the cedar trees get to Be’er Sheva in the first place? The Midrash explains that these trees were actually planted there by Yaakov’s grandfather, Avraham, as it says in the book of Genesis (21:33), Vayita eishel b’ve’er Shava, “and he [Abraham] planted in Be’er Sheva.” According to one opinion in the Midrash, Avraham planted these cedar trees because he was looking after the welfare of wayfarers. Avraham was a person of great kindness and he planted the cedar trees in Be’er Sheva so that they could be used for shade for the people he hosted. So Yaakov goes down to Be’er Sheva on his way to Egypt, takes the trees with him, and when his descendants leave Egypt generations later they take the trees with them to be used in the Mishkan.
Why did Yaakov go to such trouble? Why did Yaakov want to take specifically the trees which Abraham had planted? Why did he take them down to Egypt and tell his children to look after those trees for hundreds of years till they leave? And when they left, they had so many other things to worry about – why make them carry around the heavy cedar wood for the construction of the Mishkan?
G-d’s house is founded on loving kindness
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, two of our great rabbinic scholars of the twentieth century, discuss the significance of this cedar wood and many of the ideas below are based on their writings.
The Mishkan was about building for the future, about creating a dwelling place for G-d in the world and living with Torah values. The foundation of such a sanctuary has to be chesed, loving kindness, and that is why Avraham’s trees were used. These trees represented loving kindness, as Avraham had planted them to benefit the wayfarers. These trees served as the foundation for building a place for the Divine Presence to dwell.
We no longer have the Mishkan or the Temple, but we do have a modern-day Mishkan: each shul, which serves as a miniature sanctuary for G-d and a place of holiness. The building of a shul, a community and a family, has to be based on that quintessential Torah value of chesed, compassion and caring for other people. That is why Yaakov wanted to take specifically these trees that Avraham had planted.
Living with the future in mind
But there is another message in these trees, and that is foresight and living with hope and faith in the future. G-d gave them the prophetic vision that one day their descendants would need to build a Mishkan and would need to have this wood. Avraham and Yaakov lived this great vision; they were not just living for themselves, but for all future generations. Avraham planted those trees just after the vision that he had from G-d in the covenant described in the book of Genesis in chapter 15, where G-d says to him your children are going to be strangers in a land that is not theirs and they will be enslaved and afflicted; and in the end I will judge the nation that has harmed them and they will go out with great signs and wonders. Abraham saw that vision and wanted to pass on to his children the hope in the future and the faith that the redemption would one day come. So he planted these trees representing that vision for the future and the belief that one day they would be redeemed and would build a Mishkan.
Years later, on his way down to Egypt, Yaakov is worried: what will become of his children? Are they going to assimilate and disappear? Will they be lost in their suffering and enslavement? So he takes these trees and he says to his children, these trees were planted by my grandfather, Avraham. I am giving them to you now and they must be replanted in Egypt because one day you are going to leave and you are going to build a great home for Hashem, to bring holiness into the world in accordance with His will. The trees represented the faith and hope for the future. In their darkest moments in Egypt they would look at those trees and remember the promise of their great-grandfather Yaakov, that one day this will end.
This links to an idea which Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky speaks about elsewhere, where he discusses the psalm we say in shul on Friday nights – Mizmor shir leyom haShabat, “the Psalm for the day of Shabbos.” The Talmud states that Moshe composed this psalm for the Jews while they were in Egypt. Rav Kaminetsky explains that Moses composed this psalm for them to give them hope and faith during their enslavement and suffering. Hence the psalm says, when you see the wicked flourish like grass, don’t worry because Tzaddik k’erez bal’vanon yisgeh, “the righteous will flourish like a great cedar tree.” This was the psalm they turned to for hope: grass grows very quickly, but it dies just as quickly. A cedar tree takes a long time to grow but it is there forever, strong and powerful. Yaakov’s message to his children was, don’t worry, because k’erez bal’vanon yisgeh “The righteous will be like the giant cedar trees” – like these very trees which you will take with you when you leave Egypt.
This hope and faith was necessary for the construction of the Mishkan, and it is necessary for all future generations as well: if we want to build a place of holiness for G-d in the world, it has to be based on hope and faith in the future, and the belief in G-d’s promise that the redemption will one day come.
Torah is a tree of life
Thus we see that these cedar trees had great historical significance. Yaakov transplants them in Egypt, instructing his children to take these trees with them when they go out and it was these trees which gave them faith in the future and an awareness of their destiny. What are our trees today? What gives us hope?
The truth is that today we don’t need cedar trees because, as the verse in the book of Proverbs says in chapter 3 – and which we say whenever we put a Sefer Torah back into the ark – Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim ba, “It [the Torah] is a tree of life for those who hold onto it.” We have something far greater than trees; we have an entire Torah. When Jacob and his family went down to Egypt he had to give them something to hold onto that would give them the inspiration and the courage to survive the exile. We have the Torah, the eitz chayim, a tree of life. The Torah brings together the values represented by those trees that Abraham planted – loving kindness and sensitivity to all people. But it also represents the sustainability and endurance of Jewish people throughout history.
Growing with Torah
There is another virtue symbolised by the trees, and that is growth. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh explains that wood differs from the other materials in that it grows. Gold is durable, eternal and perfect, and therefore represents Torah values. Wood, on the other hand, represents us – dynamic and growing human beings. We have our principles which don’t change, represented by the gold; but we have to grow and develop with these principles, and that is represented by the wood. The Torah sustains us and gives us life but we have to grow with it and become better people, and not just remain where we are. Judaism is not just about holding on to the past but about looking toward the future, about growth and change and becoming better people. The Torah is a living Torah. This is why one of the great Jewish expressions is LeChaim, “to life.” The Torah is a tree of life, what gives us the vitality, energy, and inspiration to change and grow.
We are all called upon to build our own Mishkan, our own sanctuary. Each one of us is building a sanctuary – in our homes, in our communities, and in our private lives. The Tabernacle was built with wood and precious metals. We build our sanctuary with chesed, loving kindness; with hope and faith in the future; and with a dynamic, living Torah which inspires us every day.