Spiritual Construction: What’s in your Mishkan?

We are always constructing and renovating our spiritual lives.  We may study sacred texts, attend inspiring classes.  We incorporate our life experiences.  We pray, in ways traditional or otherwise.  And we reflect, of necessity, on what is really a part of us, and what should never be.

In this week’s parasha, Terumah, Moshe and the Jewish people are also given a job of construction, building the mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  While the list of building materials needed comes from God, finding them and choosing which particular ones to use is a human problem.    Among these items we find atzei shittim – wood from acacia trees.  Several of the traditional commentators ask what seems to be a good question.  We know the Jewish people carried gold, silver and cloth materials out of Egypt – but where do these acacia trees come from?

Rashi brings us a midrashic  answer, and it is a profound one.  These acacia trees came from Canaan.  They were trees from our promised homeland.  When Yaakov prepared to leave Canaan to go to see his son Yosef in Egypt, he uprooted them, potted them, and brought them with him.  All through the slavery years, the Hebrews kept and cared for these trees, and now, on leaving Egypt they carried them along.  This was the acacia wood that became part of the Sanctuary

Avraham Ibn Ezra offers another important approach.  God did not give Moshe an impossible task.  If he was told to use acacia wood, it must have been available.  Therefore, growing near Mount Sinai, there must indeed have been acacia trees.  God brought the Jewish people to a place where they were able to use what they found;  in other words, God made sure they would find what they needed, in their present lives.

In the traditional Mikraot Gedolot, our Torah with commentaries, both Rashi’s opinion and Ibn Ezra’s sit together on the page.  Neither pushes the other off; neither is “right” in excluding the possibility of learning from the other. The wood we carried from Canaan and the wood we find at Sinai live together in the sefer.

Perhaps this is a model for us, a way of reminding us that both sources of wood are important.  As we each build our own “mishkan” in our hearts, our own spiritual lives as Jews, what kind of “acacia wood” do we use?  In these polarizing times, we often hear voices calling for one or the other.  “To preserve tradition, the new must be rejected.”  “To meet modern needs, tradition must be radically changed.” Is it really either or?

Or, following the Mikraot Gedolot, can we say that both are necessary.  As we pray “Our God and God of our ancestors,” declaring that our personal connection to God exists within the context of our historical and national one, so we develop our spiritual lives when both “kinds of wood” are properly used.  We build our structures of the values and teachings that we have carried for generations, but the sanctuary also contains the insights, experiences, and applications of our Torah values that confront us where we are, every day.

Our task is not to reject Rashi’s wood or Ibn Ezra’s out of hand, but to consciously and reverently blend them.  The wood we carried from Canaan gives us the structure, context and parameters of our spiritual lives.  The wood we find each moment at Sinai inspirits us to seek, to grow, to organically build.  We all have acacia of both kinds in our souls.  In our spiritual construction, the challenge is to use them wisely.

About the Author
Rabbi Richard Fagan is an education consultant, interested in creative practices in Jewish teaching and curriculum. After service in the pulpit, he worked with the Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia and as a National Consultant for PELIE. An Orthodox Jew with background in the other movements, he enjoys teaching, mentoring and storytelling across the Jewish spectrum.
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