Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts. . . And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood. Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. . . They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, opens with God’s request that the Israelites offer as gifts the fine materials that will be required to construct the mishkan—the elaborate portable sanctuary that they will carry with them through the desert over the next forty years. This turns out to be the most successful building campaign in Jewish history: the people respond with such generosity that Moses actually has to tell them to stop bringing more donations!
But how does a nation of newly liberated slaves, wandering in the midst of the desert, come to possess such fine materials? Our commentators note that most of these resources are reparations gifted to the Israelites by their former Egyptian taskmasters as a kind of guilt offering.
This makes sense for the precious metals and fine fabrics. But what about the wood? The design for the mishkan will require large beams. Where do the Israelites find such materials in the middle of the desert?
Midrash Tanchuma offers a fascinating answer to this question:
Where did the wood beams come from? Jacob planted them at the time he descended to Egypt. He told his children: “You will ultimately be redeemed from this place, and the Holy One of Blessing will say to you: ‘Make Me a sanctuary.’ Therefore, go plant trees now, so that when God commands you to build this sanctuary, beams will be available.” They arose and planted as he had commanded them to do.
The historicity of this story is dubious at best, but it teaches an important lesson for our time. The midrash presents Jacob as a kind of prophet of sustainability. The wood that the Israelites use to construct a home for the Divine Presence was planted by their ancestors centuries earlier.
The Talmud echoes this wisdom. It recounts that Alexander the Great asked the Jewish sages of his time: “Who is truly worthy of being called wise?” They replied: Those who see and anticipate the consequences of their behavior (Tamid 32a).
Our challenge is to follow this example. Our world is dearly in need of the wisdom that Jacob embodies: the ability to recognize the impact of our actions on coming generations, and plan accordingly. Like our patriarch, and our sages, we must learn to constantly ask ourselves: Are we building a culture of sustainability? Do our choices secure a positive future for children, grandchildren and beyond? These questions should animate how we eat, how we travel, how we power our homes and habitations and so much more. To fail to ask them—and act accordingly—is to derogate our responsibility.
We are all building a house for the Holy One, every day and every hour. Let us build conscientiously.