(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Mishkan (Sanctuary), the traveling “House of God” built by the Israelites in the desert, is an elaborate structure built of royal and expensive materials. Reading the passages that describe its construction, one could easily be led to ask, “What does such a grandiose and this-worldly building have to do with God?” Yet the Mishkan is the epitome of Divine presence. The word Mishkan means “dwelling place” and is also inherently connected to the word Shechina, “presence.”
Parshat Terumah opens with an elaborate list of the materials that will be used in the building of the Mishkan and instruments within. About the wood, specifically, the Midrash Tanhuma on the Parshat tells us that Jacob (Yaakov) received a prophecy that his descendents, while in the desert, would be instructed to build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for God. He subsequently planted saplings in the land of Israel and instructed his children to diligently transplant them to Egypt. By making this wise decision, Yaakov prepared a whole forest that would later supply the Mishkan with at least 800 cubic feet, or twenty tons, of usable wood.
Yaakov longed to participate in the building of the house of God, and took the necessary action to ensure his own involvement. Perhaps more significantly, Yaakov’s actions express the teaching of our sages “Who is wise? Those who foresee the consequences of their actions." Yaakov had the wisdom to project the need for large amounts of wood in the Sinai desert, an environment that could not sustain wood. He therefore looked ahead and created a sustainable solution for the sacred needs of the Israelites.
We too, must look ahead and ask ourselves if we are creating sustainable
environments for the needs of our children, our grandchildren, and our
great-grandchildren. Since the industrial revolution, our predecessors
have not taken forest management seriously enough to warrant the respect
that Yaakov earned for his foresight. In fact they, and we, have acted
all too foolishly with the resources of God’s creation. Humankind, and
in particular the industrialized West, has imprudently plundered one of
earth’s most precious and critical resources.
Scientists give us some idea of what has been happening to the world’s
forests: Half of the Earth’s land surface was once covered by forest,
yet now half of those forests are gone; of all of the original forests
that once covered the Earth, only 20 percent remain untouched; in North
America alone, half of the coastal temperate rainforests that once
stretched from Alaska to California have been destroyed...
Repercussions of such overuse and misuse include, in brief, an increase
in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, a major contributor to
the greenhouse effect; disruption of the water cycle resulting in drier
climates; soil erosion leading to the silting of water courses, lakes
and dams; and the extinction of species that depend on the forest for
The Midrash Tanhuma also analyzes the choice of acacia wood in the
construction of the Mishkan, and explains that the Hebrew root of the
word shitim, meaning acacia, shares the same root as the word shtoot,
meaning folly. A connection is made: by building the Sanctuary out of
this particular wood, we are reminded to rectify the folly that the
Children of Israel pursued with the sin of the Golden Calf.
The Midrash’s link between acacia and the Golden Calf presents an almost
funny, yet poignant connection to the current real-world correlation
between deforestation and beef production. According to the Center for
International Forestry Research, cattle ranching for beef has caused the
majority of felled forests in Latin America, tens of thousands of
square kilometers each year! The overwhelming majority of that lost
forest becomes pasture, and most of that pasture is used for grazing
cattle, intended for eventual export on the international market.
Modern-day beef consumption may thus represent the pursuit of our own
material comfort at the expense of our forests.
We must ask ourselves: “Is God present in our consumption?” If so, then
even the most ostentatious and elaborate materials that were used in the
construction of the Mishkan are warranted. But if we have no awareness
of our actions, and our consumption is a product of the pursuit of
golden and flashy gods of consumer society, then we have not created a
dwelling place for God in our actions or in the world.
Suggested Action Item:
• Seriously limit your intake of meat as part of your commitment to
avoid deforestation and other environmental “folly.” If and when you do
buy meat, choose locally produced, organic meat from a source you trust.Ariel Shalem is currently learning for Rabbinical ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Israel’s Judean Hills.