Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Wood

A large portion of the Book of Exodus describes the lengthy instructions for the building of the Mishkan/portable Tabernacle and its actual construction. Among the many fascinating materials required for the Mishkan was atzei shittim, acacia wood. This specific wood was required for the Ark of the Testament, the inner and outer altars, the table for the showbreads and the walls of the Tabernacle. 

One of the first questions that one might ask is: Where did the Israelites get acacia wood while wandering in the desert? The medieval commentator Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma: “Our father Jacob foresaw through the Holy Spirit that the Israelites would build a Mishkan in the wilderness, so he brought cedars* to Egypt and planted them. He commanded his sons to take them with them when they left Egypt.”

The sages derived two particularly interesting lessons from the acacia wood, specifically from the fact that the acacia is not a fruit tree. The first is an understanding of Pharaoh. The Midrash compares Pharaoh to an acacia tree from which benefit cannot be derived unless it is cut down. So too, Pharaoh could only be made to yield (and thus benefit the Children of Israel) if he was cut down by the plagues (Exodus Rabbah 6:5).

A more utilitarian understanding of the meaning of the acacia wood is as follows: “God set an example for all time, that when a man is about to build his house from a fruit-producing tree, he should be reminded: If, when the supreme King of kings commanded the Temple to be erected, His instructions were to use only such trees as are not fruit-bearing-- though all things belong to Him;--how much more should this be so in your case?” (Exodus Rabbah 35:2).

*Acacia are considered a subset of cedars in Jewish tradition.

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