Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Can you see the wood from the trees?

“There’s no place like home” — Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

There are many outstanding accomplishments for us as a nation, but building is certainly not amongst them. It may come therefore as somewhat of a surprise to discover that from the sedra of Terumah onwards the rest of the book of Shemot centres around the building of the Tabernacle – a physical home for G-d’s presence to reside in this world. In fact, the Chassidic literature notes the incongruency in the command to “build for me a tabernacle and I will dwell in them” rather than “I will dwell in it”. The notion they suggest, is that each and every Jew, should see themselves with the capability for holiness and by elevating themselves they create a space for G-d to dwell in each person’s life and in this world. As we shall discover this insight goes to the core of the essence of the Mishkan. (Tabernacle)

Many of the greatest scholars have questioned what was the initial necessity for establishing a house for G-d in this world? Why would G-d need for us to build a physical home here on earth? The origins of the purpose for the Mishkan are itself cloaked in mystique.

One school of thought originates from the Midrashic literature and the Sforno, who point to the fact initially there was not perceived a need for such a structure in this world. After all, Melo kol Haaretz kevodo– G-d’s presence filled the world.

The Jewish people at the time had recently experienced both individually and collectively Revelation at Sinai, naturally they felt a constant closeness to G-d. That palpable awareness of G-d’s presence, gradually dissipated and led in turn to the sin of the golden calf, a low point in Jewish history.

According to the medieval commentator Ramban, the origins of the sin of the golden calf stemmed from a psychological mistaken belief by the people. It occurred when Moshe failed to descend from Sinai at the appointed time the people became filled with tremendous insecurity. Moshe had been their rock; he was everything and they saw themselves as insignificant in terms of their service and contribution. The people had seen Moshe their leader having redeemed them from slavery, splitting the sea and receiving the Torah. Their mindset was that great spiritual achievement was for the few those of a lofty calibre but not for the masses.

It was to heal this fracture in the psyche of the Jewish people, a lack of self-belief and self-worth that led to the Tabernacle  being introduced. The people felt and G-d realised they now had a need for a tangible symbol to relate to the Divine. It was then that the command of the Tabernacle was proclaimed, the people were called to collectively build a home, a tangible focal point for G-d’s presence in this world to reside.  What was imperative, was not so much what they gave but how they gave. The instruction was clear everyone can and should contribute “kol asher yidvenu libo”. This faith by G-d in the Jewish people fortified their belief in G-d and more importantly their faith and self belief in themselves.

This was in marked contrast to the earlier experience by the sin of the Golden calf. There those of the people that contributed gave only gold, believing G-d only wanted and valued gold, a symbol of perfection but that anything short of that gold standard would not curry favour in the Heavenly realm. Nothing could have been further from the truth as reflected in the contributions that were made by the Tabernacle, be it big or small all were equally precious in G-d’s eyes, the message was clear every Jew could be a builder of the Tabernacle all that was required was a nediv leiv, a sincere willingness from the heart.

This theme was illustrated most profoundly in one of the key aspects of the building of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle consisted of wooden boards. The origins of these boards are itself a story not often appreciated. At the end of the book of Bereshit, we may recall Joseph being reunited with his brothers after 22 years of being estranged. He invites his father Jacob to come down to Egypt and to be reunited with him. Jacob knew his descent to Egypt was not merely a journey to meet Joseph his son; it was an emotional descent into exile for his family and the Jewish people.  Along the way, Jacob made an important detour to Beersheva. There he found the trees planted generations earlier by his grandfather Abraham, he cut them down and took   them with him to Egypt where he replants them.

It was these trees that would be transported by the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus. Jacob prophetically foresaw the eventual emergence from the long darkness of the Egyptian servitude and exile of his children. For Jacob it was critical to impress on his children their self worth and self belief that despite our people coming from the humble beginnings of Egyptian slavery and an idolatrous past, that did not have to define their future. It was the wood of these trees that became a symbol of this idea in the Tabernacle. The lumber that they carried they were instructed, was to be positioned in the way that it had grown naturally, so the part that had grown closer to the ground would be at the base of the Tabernacle. Like the Mishkan the builders of the Tabernacle were to build and develop themselves using and building on their past and natural gifts and talents.  We have natural gifts and potential and God was teaching our people that He wanted in life for us to be ourselves and not try to become someone or something that we are not.

It was for this reason that Jacob planted the trees in preparation for their emergence from the exile of Egypt. The children of Israel were not to forget on the one hand that they had came come from the servitude of Egypt, but they were not to define and judge themselves as merely slaves from Egypt. It was incumbent upon them to see beyond where they had come from. No one had embodied this idea more than Abraham who had planted initially these trees for the Tabernacle. Abraham our forefather who grew up in a home of idolatry and yet relentlessly challenged himself to move ahead in the search for meaning and faith.

After WWII, the Poles decided to build a highway through an old Jewish cemetery. The local Burial Society had to remove all the bones to a new resting place. To their amazement, they found one body that had not decomposed! It is considered a sign of great righteousness. But even more to their wonderment, he was buried in the robes of a priest!! They quickly made enquiries among the elders of the town, and this is the story that was revealed.

Reb Naftali was the Gabbai Tzedakah of the town. He was well respected, and he would always distribute the funds fairly. One day, after he had already collected quite a sum of money for a dire emergency, a man knocked on his door. “Naftali, please you must help, I have nowhere else to turn”, he begged. The man, already burdened by the expenses of a large family had a child who was very ill, and the medical bills were putting the family under undue financial distress. Naftali went out to collect again; and people helped, but not like the first time. He returned home exhausted but satisfied that he had done the right thing. Then there was a knock on the door again. A man whose roof had caved in on his house was in the doorway. The family of 10 souls was homeless. Naftali couldn’t go around collecting three times in one day…but he did.

He went to beseech the young son of a wealthy merchant who was entertaining some of his friends at the local pub.

“Don’t tell me that you are collecting again”, he screamed in disbelief. They all began to ridicule Naftali mercilessly.

Suddenly, the young man had an idea. “Naftali, we will give you the entire amount of 20 zlotys that you need. All you have to do is to walk through the main street of town wearing priest’s robes.” Naftali agreed.

They all walked behind him singing hooting. Other townspeople, seeing Naftali, shouted curses and pelted him with eggs. But he got the 20 zlotys, plus an extra 20 so that he didn’t have to go collecting again that day.

Naftali went home to a broken man. He threw the priest’s robes in the back of his closet and collapsed into bed.

A year later, the Divrei Chayim, R’ Chaim of Sanz passed through that same town. As he was passing the house where Naftali lived, he exclaimed, “I smell the fragrance of Gan Eden (Paradise) here.” They went into the house and began to question Naftali, what did he ever do that would cause the fragrance of Gan Eden to descend upon his house. Naftali remembered the incident of the priest’s robes. R’Chaim commanded the Burial Society that when Naftali’s time comes, he should be buried in those same priest’s robes. The angels of destruction will not dare to touch him.

One of the greatest tragedies and sins for us all is not that we err, or we sin in life, that is part of our human psyche, but it is when we suffer from the golden calf malady, the false belief that we are not worthy of contributing and serving G-d in this world. This comes from low self esteem in a certain area of life which leads to a feeling of being scared and embarrassed by our past and a feeling of worthlessness. The building of the Tabernacle and its wooden beams are a timeless reminder as to the precious and unique contribution we all have as builders in the individual and collective tabernacle of life.

Co-authored with Dan Sher

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.
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