Category Archives: Terumah

Abraham’s tree and the Jewish home

King Solomon uses the analogy of a bride and groom, to describe the relationship between the Jewish people and God respectively, in his epic poem Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs. The story of the Exodus can be viewed with the same analogy.

In exile, the Jewish people had no real connection to God. In fact, in the beginning when the Israelites were suffering from the harsh decrees of the wicked Pharaoh, the Torah does not say that the Israelites pleaded to God, but that they merely cried out (Exodus 2:23). Furthermore, the purpose of the plagues was not only to break the exile, but to make God known to Pharaoh, the Egyptians and the fledgling Israelite nation. Subsequently, the Jewish people are redeemed and brought to the foot of Mount Sinai.

To continue King Solomon’s analogy, this is akin to two individuals who as yet have no connection with one another, but start to become acquainted. As the couple’s relationship builds it reaches a point where a proposal is made. Similarly, God proposes an everlasting covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai.

The next stage is that the couple must set up home together. This is represented by the primary command given in this week’s portion. The Tabernacle is the portable sanctuary which the Jewish people will take with them on their journey through the desert on their way the Land of Israel (Exodus 25:8).

One of the details of the Tabernacle was that there was a middle bar inside the planks of the walls which extended from end to end (Exodus 26:28). The Aramaic translation attributed to Yonatan ben Uzziel notes that this middle bar was made from the wood of a tree planted by Abraham in Beersheva (see Genesis 21:33).

The Gemara cites two opinions that this tree was either from an orchard that bore the fruits which Abraham served to his guests or that it formed the inn where the guests stayed (Sotah 10a). Either way, it represented Abraham’s trait of gemilut chsasdim – acts of loving-kindness towards others.

The Mishnah states that the world stands on three things; Torah, avodah (the service of God) and gemilut chsasdim (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers 1:2). The house which brought God and the Jewish people together contained Torah with the Ark of the Covenant and it contained the service of God through the offerings brought. Yet it was the wood from Abraham’s tree, representing acts of kindness towards others that held the entire structure together.

Similarly, a Jewish family home must be based on the principles of Jewish law and customs (Torah). Secondly it must be a place where husband-wife and parent-child relationships are built and nurtured (avodah). But thirdly, it must be a place which reaches out to others in order to bolster the wider community (gemilut chasidim). With these three pillars, we help to weave the fabric for better families and in turn a better society for all.

The miniature sanctuary

Build for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them. (Exodus 25:8)

The Torah gives us the instructions for building the mishkan – the portable sanctuary or Temple used before the building of the Temple in Jerusalem by king Solomon. While it would seem that there is little relevance to these verses today, the Zohar notes that the commandment to build synagogues wherever there is a Jewish community is also included in this verse (Zohar 3:126a). The Talmud relates that since we no longer have the Temple in Jerusalem, our synagogues and study halls are like a mikdash me’at – a miniature sanctuary (Megillah 29a).

For this reason, many of the characteristics of our synagogues reflect the physical characteristics of the Temple. The Ark which holds our Torah scrolls hidden by a curtain is like the Holy of Holies in the Temple which was concealed with a curtain (Exodus 26:33). The bimah (raised platform where the Torah is read) mirrors the sacrificial altar.

Based on a verse in Daniel the synagogue should have windows which face Jerusalem (Daniel 6:11). The Shulchan Aruch adds that ideally, there should be at least twelve windows (Code of Jewish Law 90:4). The first century sage and kabbalist Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai explains that since the earthly Temple mirrors the heavenly Temple which contained twelve windows, so too our synagogues must have at least twelve windows (Zohar Pikudei 251:1). Some synagogues adopt the custom of having decorating them with symbols from the twelve tribes.

The Ner Tamid (everlasting light) is associated with the menorah (seven branched candelabra) which was lit in the Temple each day (Exodus 27:20). It is also connected with the incense altar which burned continuously in front of the ark (Exodus 30:7-8).

In particular, the Ner Tamid has become a symbol of God’s eternal and imminent Presence in our communities and in our lives. Even though we have lost our Temple in Jerusalem, we try to retain as many of its features as possible. In this way we can continue to bring light into our lives and strengthen our connection with God.

The middle bar

The middle bar inside the planks shall extend from end to end. Exodus 26:28

The Aramaic translation attributed to Yonatan ben Uzziel who lived at the turn of the last millennium, makes a rather obscure comment on this verse. He notes that the middle bar inside the planks which made up the walls of the Tabernacle was made from the wood of a tree planted by Abraham in Beersheva. This is documented in Genesis (21:33) “And Abraham planted a tree in Beersheva, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God.”

The word used for ‘tree’ in this verse is eshel as opposed to the more familiar eitz. The sages of the Gemara (Sotah 10a) disagree about the nature of the tree. Some held that it was an orchard that bore the fruits which Abraham served to his guests while others held that it was the inn where the guests stayed. The Midrash on Psalms explains that the word eishel stands for achila – food, shtiya – drink and levaya – escort. Either way, this tree represented the attribute of gemilut chsasdim – acts of kindness towards others, a trait which Abraham is perhaps most famous for.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that the world stands on three things; Torah, the service of God and on acts of kindness.

The Tabernacle contained Torah with the Ark of the Covenant and it contained the service of God through the offerings brought. Yet it was the wood from Abraham’s tree, representing acts of kindness towards others that held the entire structure together.

Torah learning and prayer are two pillars of Judaism and important ways to connect to God, but they are nothing without the acts of loving-kindness which help to connect us to one another.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.