Sunday, February 7, 2016

Parashat Terumah 5776 Deep Roots

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Terumah 5776
Deep Roots

One of the basic necessities for any successful building project is quality raw materials. A building will only be as strong as the materials used to construct it, although a stable foundation, thoughtful and thorough design plans and capable artisans are other necessary components for a solid structure. The building of the Mishkan, of a house designed for and dedicated to the worship of God, presented some very unique challenges. First and foremost: How are the requisite raw materials to be procured in the wilderness? While the plans for the Mishkan were drawn up by God Himself, and the artisans who were entrusted with bringing the plans to fruition were divinely inspired, the materials seem to pose a challenge.

The Torah explains that the precious metals and textiles used to construct the Mishkan were among the possessions, the “great wealth,” that the Israelites took with them when they departed Egypt. However, some of the other materials called for in Parashat Terumah must have been quite difficult to obtain. Where, for example, would they obtain the wood to create the main beam that held the Mishkan together?

Midrashic literature provides a fascinating answer to this question: Long before the Jewish People were given the instructions for building the Mishkan, their forefather Avraham began the process. Avraham, who had been promised by God that he would father a great nation, was also told that this nation would be exiled, abused, and eventually redeemed. How did Avraham respond to this prophecy, this promise? He planted:

Avraham planted an eishel in Beersheva, and there he called out in the name of God the Eternal Master. (Bereishit 21:33)

There is a difference of opinion regarding the nature of this eishel. Some understand the word eishel as an acronym for the Hebrew words for food, drink and lodging, and opine that Avraham built an inn at the edge of the desert, where he received parched and travel-weary guests and encouraged them to thank God for the food and drink he shared with them. Other opinions have a more straightforward understanding of this singular word, and explain that Avraham planted an orchard (eishel being a type of tree). We should note that when he planted this eishel, whatever it may have been, Avraham focused on the aspect of God the Eternal, rather than other aspect that we might have imagined Avraham connecting with, such as God the Merciful, or God the Creator.

The act of planting is an expression of belief in the future. In planting the eishel, Avraham gives expression to his own faith in a God who is Eternal, his own belief in the God who created and planted the very first tree, his belief in the God who will keep His promises to Avrahams descendants. Avraham believes in a God who is Eternal, Master of the Universe.

On the other hand, the idea that Avraham built an inn, a place where he taught travellers about God, is no less intrinsically connected to our current discussion. Avrahams eishel may be seen as the first House of God. Avraham built it as a house dedicated to the service of God, as a place in which men and women might access God. Avraham used this eishel to share his understanding of God with others. In fact, Avrahams grandson Yaakov also had a very strong connection to a House of God: As he lay on the ground in a holy place, Yaakov had a vision of a ladder reaching up to the heavens, and he vowed to build a House of God on that very spot. Unfortunately, his promise remained unfulfilled in his own lifetime.

There is a fascinating rabbinic teaching that draws a more direct line between the two visions, of Avraham and Yaakov, of the House of God: When Yaakov went down to Egypt, he collected the wood from the trees Avraham had planted years before, and made massive beams out of the eishel of Avraham. His grandfather Avraham believed in the future; he had faith that God would fulfill his promises -   and Yaakov was fully aware that he was living the first step, the beginning of the exile. But Yaakov, too, had faith. He knew the day of redemption would come as well, and in anticipation of that day, Yaakov brought the long beams, formed from the eishel planted by Avraham, down to the Egyptian exile. Before his death, Yaakov revealed to his own descendants that these beams, planted long ago by Avraham, would one day be used in a Temple, a Mishkan, a House of Worship to the Eternal God, a place perhaps imagined by Avraham long ago. In this way, Yaakovs vow was fulfilled: Yaakov donated the beams that stood at the very center of the Mishkan.

The idea expressed in this poignant midrash, the process is describes, reminds us that we are the beneficiaries of the saplings planted by our ancestors. They, too, had hopes and dreams. They believed in the future; they believed that Gods Word is true, and they never ceased to call out in the name of the Eternal God, the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Some of our ancestors carried their belief through almost unfathomable times of darkness, exile, enslavement and pain, like heavy wooden beams, in the belief that one day their children, or their childrens children, would use them to build a House of God they themselves could only dream of. They had faith that their descendants would one day serve God, Eternal God, in a place founded on their own beliefs, constructed from the beams of their ancestors’ hopes and dreams. As their descendants, we, too, must never lose faith in the future. We must craft and carry the beams that will allow our children, and their children, to continue to call out in the name of the Eternal.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

 Echoes of Eden

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