How to build a house of G-d in 100 easy steps

And you shall make the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright. [Exodus 26:15]
If there’s one substance crucial to any building it is wood. Even stone structures require wood for frames, ceilings, floors, doors — you name it.
The Mishkan, or Tabernacle, was no exception. The entire frame of 15×5 meters was made of wood from an Acacia tree, also known as Vachellia seyal. The tree, found in Africa and Arabia, is no beauty — large and thorny. But it has what any builder is looking for — lots of branches, meaning lots of wood. The tree also produces substances used in drugs, inks, perfumes and adhesives.
Acacia [pronounced uh-kay-shuh] wood was perfect for a structure that would be transported throughout the desert for 40 years. It is resistant to moisture and decay. In addition to the structure of the Mishkan, the ark of the tablets, table and altar were also made of acacia.
Now comes the obvious question: Where are you going to find enough acacia trees in the barren desert of the Sinai Peninsula? How are you going to transport them. The medieval sage Rabbi David Kimche writes that Sinai was barren — no people, no roads.
Another question comes from Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi. In his commentary on the above verse, Rashi asks why the Torah uses the definite article, “the planks” rather than merely “planks.” At one point, he suggests that cedar wood rather than acacia was used in the Mishkan. That seems incongruous: Cedar and acacia do not share the same terrain. Cedars grow in rocky soil at 1,800 meters above sea level and is not found in Sinai or most of the Land of Israel.
The confusion over what tree was used in the Mishkan is part of a Torah portion, Terumah, packed with technical details. It’s the closest thing to a manual on divine construction. The length, width and height of the vessels are listed as well as their components. Even the number of clasps that connect the sections of the curtain that divide the Mishkan are recorded. The planks, including pegs and sockets, are also defined. All this for a building that would be superseded by the first and second temples.
Our sages say this is how Judaism works: The Torah focuses on the minutiae — from observance of the commandments to getting dressed in the morning. Everything is infused with the divine spirit, your food, your speech, business dealings and even bedside manners. There is no activity out of bounds. We are G-d’s children and He’s brought us a full schedule.
The bottom line is that all of the components of the Mishkan constitute a message. Virtually all of the objects in the building are measured. The exception is the two statues of cherubs that rest on the ark. The divine voice that would speak to Moses would be heard from under the cherubs. No measurement can define that.
Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides, put it this way more than 800 years ago. “Even though all of the laws of the Torah are decrees…they are worth examination. And anytime you can give a reason, do so.” [Yad Hazakah, Sefer Korbanot, Hilchot Temurah, Chapter 4]
Judaism is based on faith. But that faith is not blind. The Torah repeatedly urges the Children of Israel to understand what they’re doing, rather than behave as robots. Questions are welcome; skepticism is healthy.
Rabbi Zadok Hacohen Rabinowitz came from the Czarist Russian city of Lublin, later Poland, and lived a life of hardship and poverty during the 19th Century. But he was rich in scholarship and his books mixed Talmud with Kabbalah and Hasidism. He also wrote unpublished books on astronomy, engineering and mathematics. Until his last few years, he rejected offers to become a community rabbi, rather helped his wife operate a second-hand clothes store.
In his book Tzidkat Hatzadik, or “The Righteousness of the Righteous,” Rabbi Tzadok says the main principle in Judaism is to know G-d and then serve Him, “because it must be known whom to serve.” That is how G-d introduces Himself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, “I am G-d, your G-d, who took you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.” Then, came the Ten Commandments.
The second lesson cited by Rabbi Zadok pertains to the Mishkan. This tiny structure was meant to be temporary. Our world is no different. Our intellect is meant to remind us that everything we do is limited and, with rare exception, soon forgotten. We are visitors — meant to look, experience, all as part of our divine service.
In this world a person must settle only in a temporary home rather than permanently. When we dwell in a temporary home, it marks a time for celebration in this world. Through this we gather the good of the 70 nations and from all the strength of this world.
So where did the acacia come from? Rashi brings down the Midrash that the trees were planted more than 210 years before the Mishkan was built. As they settled in Egypt, the patriarch Jacob told his sons that they must collect the trees and bring them when they leave Egypt. “See that they should be ready in your hands,” Jacob was quoted as saying.
That is why the Torah says “the planks” when referring to the building of the Mishkan. This wood was special, prepared centuries earlier by an aging father for a people who would bear his name.
And that you won’t find in any construction manual.
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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