This week’s Torah portion focuses on the the miskan, or “dwelling” that was built in the desert, a holy place of prayer where G-d could dwell among the Jewish people. The instructions for building the Mishkan were very detailed, with an outline of 15 materials that should be used:
And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; and turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool; linen and goat hair; red-dyed ram skins, tachash skins, acacia wood; oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and the aromatic incense; shoham stones and stones for the settings, for the Ephod and the Breastplate (Shemot 25:3-7, translation by Artscroll Mesorah).
While this list of materials may seem random on the surface, Torah commentators have studied the symbolic meaning of each of these items. In the Midrash Hagadol, there are two interpretations of what the materials represent. According to one perspective, the materials represent the human body. For example, the red, blue, and purple correspond to the blood, veins and flesh, while gold, silver, and copper represent the soul, body and voice. The wood, oil, and spices then correspond to the bones, eyes, and the nose. However, the Midrash Hagadol also cites Rabbi Shmuel, who says that the materials represent the heavens. For instance, gold and silver correspond to the sun and moon, while copper represents sunset (Midrash Hagadol).
These two views may seem contradictory, but they complement each other quite beautifully. The human body is from the physical world, but we also have a connection to the heavens, the spiritual realm. The two worlds are inextricably linked. G-d created all the resources we see in the physical world which nurture us, and we would not survive without these. It is often easy to forget that the ultimate origin of the earth’s resources is G-d. G-d gave us gifts from the natural world we can in turn use to fulfill mitzvot, and it is our job to maintain the resources we were given. The Mishkan is an example of taking earth’s resources and reconnecting them with the spiritual.
Delving into the story surrounding the acacia wood, the midrash Tanchuma explains how it was obtained in the desert, which teaches a wonderful lesson of sustainability and foresight. When Jacob went down to Egypt, he had a prophecy that his descendants would be freed from Egypt and would be commanded to build a sanctuary in the desert. So, Jacob instructed his children to build acacia trees in Egypt, which grew into large trees. The Israelites then cut down the trees and brought them into the desert (Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Terumah, Section nine). Then, when the trees were used, they sang out jubilantly before God, as it says in Psalms, “then all the trees of the forest will sing with joy before Hashem” (Psalms 96:12-13, Artscroll translation). Although normally cutting down trees is not considered to be good, these trees were being used for a higher purpose. This demonstrates that it is perfectly acceptable to use the resources of the earth if we use them responsibly. Yaakov had the wisdom to foresee the need for large amounts of wood in the Sinai desert. He was then able to create a sustainable solution for the sacred needs of the Israelites.
How can we connect these ideas embedded in the parsha to our lives today? The first step is to recognize that everything in the physical world is imbued with spiritual significance, which should motivate us to protect it. Not only do we depend on resources to live, but to perform nearly every ritual. For example, we build sukkahs and shake the lulav and etrog on sukkot, eat apples and honey on rosh hashanah, eat the seven species on tu b’shvat, and use oil for lighting the chanukiah. Using gifts from the earth to do fulfill meaningful mitzvot is very powerful, while it helps us realize that a lot of our resource consumption is wasteful. Try and think about the purpose physical things are serving in your life. Are there ways you can reduce your wastefulness by recycling or donating? Consuming less? The second step involves having foresight like Jacob, and thinking about the future of resources. How can we as a group ensure the next generation has the same access to the earth’s bounty as we do? Ensuring this will involve deep thought on the individual, national, and global level. Although you cannot make the planet sustainable alone, you can contribute to the solution in small ways. As Rabbi Tarfon wisely remarked, “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16, Hillel translation). Everyone can play a role in making this planet more sustainable, even if they can’t solve the problem on their own.