This week's portion summons the Israelites to make free-will offerings (t'rumah) to the tabernacle (mishkan) being built in the desert. Rather than donating money, however, they are called upon to contribute goods that will be used in the construction of the edifice, in its furnishings, and in the manufacture of priestly vestments. Of the dozen or so specific materials requisitioned, one is outstanding in the perplexity it would induce in medieval commentators: acacia trees.
Where did the Israelites obtain wood in the wilderness? Gold, silver, copper, dyed fabrics, animal hides: these posed no problem, being explicitly noted or implicitly assumed to be part of the spoils taken from Egypt. (Four-hundred years earlier, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would eventually depart the land of their oppression "with great wealth.") Trees, however, confound that proposition. How could the newly freed Israelites have taken the time or expended the effort required to bring along whole trees in their exodus?
The opinions advanced in this matter by Rashi (France, 1040–1105) and Abraham ibn Ezra (Spain, 1092–1167) present not only alternative resolutions to the specific problem raised by the trees but strikingly contrasting views on the authority to be accorded to rabbinic legend (aggadah).
Rashi, implicitly following that body of rabbinic lore, stipulates that "the patriarch Jacob foresaw, prophetically, that his descendants would build a tabernacle in the wilderness, so he imported acacias to Egypt and instructed that they be removed at the time of the exodus." In adopting this position, Rashi accomplishes two things at once. He accounts for the presence of acacia trees in the wilderness while simultaneously investing them with enormous religious significance. God's residence on earth was to be constructed not just of any trees but of trees that personified the story of the builders themselves. Transplanted from their native land into inhospitable circumstances, they had never abandoned their faith in their ultimate redemption and restoration—of which the tabernacle was a tangible symbol.
Ibn Ezra, for his part, subjects the aggadah to critical analysis and finds it severely wanting. The exodus, he reminds us, had been approved by Pharaoh (Exodus 5:3 ff.) on the pretext of a mere three-day furlough; how could the Israelites, without betraying their true intentions, have justified the removal of whole trees? Reluctant to accept the legend reported by the rabbis as incontrovertible historical fact, ibn Ezra prefers to take it instead as a questionable hypothesis. His solution: "Adjacent to Mt. Sinai, there was a grove of acacia trees."
But this approach would seem to denude the trees of the religious significance ascribed to them by Rashi. Instead of a tabernacle incorporating the very materials appointed for the task by Jacob himself, ibn Ezra would have it constructed of lumber that just happened to be readily available. What his explanation supplies on rational grounds, it takes away on emotional ones.
Or does it? In the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, ibn Ezra remarks that "the intermediary [literally, ‘messenger'] between man and God is human intellect." Seen from this perspective, ibn Ezra's constant and irrepressible preference for rational justification is not so much a cavalier dismissal of spiritual and emotional truths but a confirmation of them through other means.
Sometimes, Jews are fortunate enough to be able to weave the tapestries of their individual or communal tabernacles out of the fabric of traditions transmitted by their ancestors. But we are not always so fortunate. Does this mean we must forgo the possibility of construction? Hardly; where direct inspiration and transmission lack normative authority, there is always recourse to deliberative reason. The result in either case will be a mishkan, a place of which God declared: "I shall reside in their midst."
Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.
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