Parshat Terumah: Exodus 25:1-27:19; I Samuel 15:2-34. (Shabbat Zachor)

While not often considered an architectural design manual, the Torah has several examples of artful and practical construction instructions.

Noah’s ark is described with dimensions and floor structure. There are building codes requiring a rail for a porch to prevent a fatal fall. There is a description of house demolition in case of a tzara’at (skin disease) outbreak. And, in this week’s portion, there is the design of the Tabernacle and its furnishings.

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen
Rabbi Azaryah Cohen

Though an immense undertaking, the Tabernacle was only meant to serve a purpose at a particular time and place. It provided the Israelites with a religious center, where God’s presence rested throughout the travels in the wilderness; the initiative to fund, design and construct the Mishkan was a massive amount of work for a structure that would eventually be retired. 

One of the Tabernacle details is the design of its walls. They were made of planks of shittim (acacia) wood. The instructions for the courtyard planks are curious. “You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright.”

Why does the Torah specify that the boards be laid out vertically standing upright? Is there some advantage to having a wall made of vertical rather than horizontal boards? The Talmud (Yoma 72a) teaches that the boards of the Mishkan were to be constructed in the same manner they had grown. The end bearing its roots should provide support and stability, and its side bearing branches should rise up. The Torah’s directive that they should stand erect serves as a reminder that it will endure forever; its roots — of sanctity, reverence and worship — are firmly embedded in our collective religious and national consciousness, even when the Mishkan itself is no longer in use.

But where did these planks come from? The midrash (cited by Rashi) teaches that this was not just any acacia. It is the acacia planted by Jacob. Ya’akov planted them for this very purpose, so the Israelites could avail themselves of this resource when called upon by God to construct a sacred Tabernacle. According to the midrash, the foresight and deeds of Jacob provided his descendants generations later with the means to serve and worship God. His planning and effort supported his descendants long after he was gone.

Long after the Mishkan is gone, we read of the acacia wood standing erect reminding us that our strong and steadfast legacy and traditions continue within each of us. And when Jacob planted the seeds that grew the materials used in his descendants’ sacred undertaking, his work outlived him by millennia.

Our virtuous and religious efforts today, how we educate and what we model, will mean our children and their children, for generations to come, can continue to stand tall and proud like the acacia of the Mishkan.

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen is head of school at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.

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