The Israelites are commanded to bring all sorts of materials – gifts of their hearts – to build the Tabernacle. They bring gold, silver, and linens, even animal skins. Our rabbis clarify that, just in case you were concerned where they were getting these materials from, there was plenty of wealth from what they took with them when they left Egypt. And Shemot Rabbah even explains that for the righteous, when manna fell from the heavens, it also rained down precious stones, gems, and rubies for them.
But what is most challenging to make sense of is not the precious stones or gold or silver. It’s not even the crimson yarn, or the tachash, the skin of a dolphin – or even a mystical creature that no longer exists as one Talmudic section suggests. What doesn’t make sense to me is all the acacia wood, the atzei Shittim, that was needed to build the Mishkan.
Most suggest that acacia wood is native to Australia and southeast Asia. So how did the Israelites get their hands on it? Truthfully, how did they get their hands on any wood in the midbar, in the desert? They were not wandering through the rain forest. They were in the desert, without the shade that trees create. So where did all this wood come from?
Breishit Rabbah says that when Jacob was on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt, he had a vision that the Israelites would need acacia wood to build the Tabernacle. He stopped in Beer Sheva, to pick up plants that Abraham had planted long ago and brought them with him to Egypt to replant them, so the Israelites could take the acacia wood with them when they left Egypt.
I think we are overthinking this though, because we will never be able to explain all the wood the Israelites had in the wilderness. Maybe Atzei Shittim isn’t a special type of wood at all. Midrash suggests that the Hebrew word Shitim, is actually an acronym. The Hebrew letters of this word, Shin, Tet, Yud, and Mem, represent Shalom (peace), Tova (goodness), Yeshua (redemption), and Mechila (forgiveness). It is not that we needed to build the Tabernacle with these specific materials, but instead we needed to build it with these values: peace, goodness, redemption, and forgiveness.
I often think about the magnificent spaces that we pray in, that we make our houses of worship. How lucky we are to take these holy spaces and create holy community within them. But we must be reminded that holy community can exist no matter the space we are in. And just because we are in holy space, that does not mean we create holy community. Midrash is suggesting that for God to reside in any space, within the Tabernacle or our own sanctuaries, our communities need to be built on our values and ideals. Cavernous gorgeous spaces will remain empty, no matter how packed the pews are, if they are devoid of the values that we hold dear. May we also never forget that ultimately, it is our values that guide us, not our buildings.
No matter the infrastructural challenges that any building faces, challenges with heating or cooling, or even a leaky roof, the building does not make holy community. We make holy community. The book of Exodus ends with God filling up the space of the Tabernacle. God didn’t do this because the building was finally complete. Rather, God did so because the community was finally living up to the values it was supposed to. A building must be based on how we treat each other, and what we stand for. May our builds always be rooted in the values we stand for – and that is what matters most about them.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky