Terumah: Wood Inside

February 6, 2019 at 4:19 pm | Posted in Terumah | Leave a comment

From everyone whose heart urges him on, you shall take my donation.  And this is the donation that you shall take from them … (Exodus/Shemot 25:2-3)

All the materials to make the portable sanctuary for God, and all its furnishings, must be given voluntarily.  The necessary materials are then listed in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donation”):

Acacia nilotica leaves and flowers

shittim (שִׁטִּים) = trees tentatively identified as one of the taller species of acacia, acacia nilotica (also called a gum Arabic tree or a thorn mimosa).  Native to India, the Middle East, and Africa, they thrive in arid conditions.  The trunks are a source of hardwood, the bark exudes medicinal gum, and the seed pods are used for livestock feed.  These acacias can reach a height of 30 meters (98 feet), though short trees are more common.

Why use acacia wood?

All the wood used to make the pieces of the portable sanctuary is shittim.  The word shittim shows up in one other context in the Torah, as the place-name for where the Israelites camp on the east bank of the Jordan, before they finally cross into Canaan to conquer their “promised land”.1

And Israel was staying at the Shittim, and the people began to be unfaithful with Moabite women. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1)

What do the Israelite men do with the Moabite women on the acacia-covered plain?  They worship the local god, Ba-al Pe-or.  (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.)  The God of Israel punishes them for this act of infidelity with a plague that kills 24,000 people.2

Since acacias were plentiful throughout the ancient Near East, it could be a coincidence that the place where Israelites first worship another god bears the same name as the wood in God’s sanctuary.  But it is hard not to read more meaning into the name Shittim.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 CE that the shittim wood of the portable sanctuary atones for the people’s sin at Shittim because “G’d arranges for the cure before the onset of the disease”.3

Perhaps this wood can be viewed two different ways.

What did they make from the wood?

an Egyptian ark with poles

And they shall make an ark of shittim wood, a pair and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide and a cubit and a half high.  And you shall plate it with pure gold, inside and outside …  (Exodus 25:10-11)

The divine instructions for the sanctuary also call for shittim wood to make the carrying-poles attached to the ark, the bread table and its poles, and the incense altar and its poles.  All three items will be gold-plated so the wood is hidden.  Out of all the furnishings inside the tent, the only items that are not gold-covered wood are solid gold: the lid of the ark (with keruvim),4 the solid gold lampstand/menorah,5 and the solid gold utensils for the bread table and the menorah.6

This week’s Torah portion also describes the fabrics and leathers that will be hung to make the walls, curtains, and roof of the tent.  The rigid framework to hold these in place will be made of planks, bars, and pillars of shittim, all of them covered with gold, their tenons inserted into silver sockets.7

The altar for animal offerings, to be placed in front of the tent, will be made of shittim covered with copper (or bronze).8  The curtain-wall defining the courtyard around the tent will be supported by wooden posts, probably also of acacia, though the Torah does not specify the wood.  Instead of being completely overlaid with metal, these posts are merely bound with silver bands.9

Why is the wood in the tent sanctuary covered with gold?

Acacia on the Sinai Peninsual

Acacia wood is naturally water-resistant, and in the desert it would not need another covering to protect it from rain.

But appearances matter. The Israelites probably found gold more impressive and more likely to elevate the soul than mere wood, which could be seen anywhere an acacia tree cracked or was cut into firewood.  The God of Israel deserved a sanctuary in which every exposed surface is either brilliantly colored fabric or gleaming with gold.  Gold was the most precious of the precious metals, and it shines like the sun.  When the Israelites make an idol to represent their God, they make a calf out of gold.10

Acacia wood

Yet the strength of wood is necessary to hold up the structures that soft gold could not support.  The ark lid with its keruvim and the menorah could be made of solid gold because they were relatively small.  According to this week’s Torah portion, the ark lid was only one meter (just over 3 feet) by 2/3 meter (just over 2 feet), and the extra weight of the gold keruvim on the two ends would be supported by the gold-plated boards underneath.

The height of the menorah is not given in the Torah, but the Talmud (Menachot 28b) says it was 18 handbreadths: about 1½ meters (just over 5 feet).  Pure gold cannot hold its shape, or support any additional weight, if it is taller than two meters.

According to the portion Terumah, God would speak from the empty space between the keruvim and above the lid of the ark.11  Thus the lid and its keruvim are made entirely from gold, the metal associated with God.

But the ark itself, like the bread table and the incense altar, only looks ethereal and golden from the outside.  The ark can support the weight of the keruvim, the table can support the weight of the gold bowls, jars, and jugs, and the incense altar can support the weight of the coals only because they are all constructed out of strong wood.

Similarly, the uprights and crossbars of the tent itself may shine like sunbeams, but inside the gold covering are planks of wood strong enough to support the weight of the roof-coverings and curtain walls.

*

In this week’s Torah portion, God says that after the people have donated all the materials,

Then they shall make for me a holy place, and I shall dwell among them.  (Exodus 25:8)

It is not enough for everyone whose heart urges him on” to donate the materials.  The people with generous hearts, hearts open to God, must also donate their labor.  And even when every part of the sanctuary is assembled and completed, the work is not over.  God is not something that just happens to the people; they must actively serve God by bringing all the prescribed offerings to the altar, by purifying themselves before they enter the courtyard of the sanctuary, and by feeding the priests and Levites who conduct the rituals.  They must come to God with their own bodies and hearts.

Perhaps the acacia wood in the sanctuary represents this ongoing human effort.  Human beings are like trees, growing and aging, surviving accidents and eventually dying.  We are not shiny or immutable like gold, but we are strong.  Our relationship with God will not hold up unless we apply our inner strength and persistence, unless we keep reminding ourselves to pay attention and bring the divine into our daily lives.  Reserving God for ecstatic, golden experiences does not make a place for God to dwell among us.

On the other hand, if human effort is all bare wood without a glimpse of gold, it may become deadwood.  We may forget our purpose in life when we are camped at Shittim on the bank of the Jordan River.  Then we end up imitating whoever appears in front of us—perhaps thoughtless neighbors, or famous people in the media.  We forget the inner gold standard of our own ethics.

Like the sanctuary, we need both wood and gold.

  1. Shittim refers to the same camping site in Numbers 33:49. It appears as a place-name for an unknown location in Joel 4:18.
  2. Numbers 25:9.
  3. Bachya ben Asher ibn Halawa, Shemot 26:15, following Midrash Tanchuma. Translation by Eliyahu Munk, 1998, in Sefaria, sefaria.org.
  4. Exodus 25:17-22. See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  5. Exodus 25:31-40. See my post Terumah: Tree of Light.
  6. Exodus 25:9-30, 25:38.
  7. Exodus 25:15-37.
  8. Exodus 27:1-2.
  9. Exodus 27:17.
  10. Exodus 32:1-6.
  11. Exodus 25:22.
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