Parshat Terumah begins the Torah’s extended discussion of the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). Many of the materials required for its construction were not readily available in the desert and the commentators offer many explanations of how B’nei Yisrael acquired the dolphin skins, yarns, oils, precious metals, etc. for this task. One of the most common materials was acacia wood (atzei shitm) used to form the planks, boards, poles and vessels of the Mishkan.
Twice, Rashi cites a Midrash which asks how B’nei Yisrael acquired acacia wood in the desert. The Midrash answers that when Jacob went to Egypt to reunite with Joseph, he saw through prophecy that his descendants would one day build a Tabernacle in the desert. Jacob brought trees and planted them in Egypt so the wood would be ready for his descendants when they needed it. Thus, the trees of the Tabernacle were due to the foresight of Jacob. While this teaches a beautiful lesson about planting for the future, the story of the acacia wood does not end here.
The Torah notes that on his way to Egypt, Jacob stopped in Be’er Sheva to offer sacrifices to God (Genesis 46:1). The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) explains that Jacob had another reason for stopping in Be’er Sheva — previously, Abraham had planted an eshel in Be’er Sheva (Genesis 21:33). The meaning of the word eshel is unclear, and the commentators offer many suggestions including: an orchard of fruit trees with which to feed guests; an inn to host travelers; an orchard of trees where Avraham would pray; the word is an acronym for ochel, shetiya, leviah — food drink and escort. Avraham taught that to properly welcome guests requires these three things.
Whatever the exact meaning of the word eshel, clearly the Midrash wants to connect the trees prepared by Jacob for the construction of the Mishkan with the eshel planted by Abraham. While this creates a powerful historical connection, it also emphasizes that the same values stressed by Abraham — hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) — are integral to the Mishkan as well. In the eyes of our sages, a Mishkan in which Hashem dwells among the Jewish people is possible only if it is built with a commitment to the values and lessons instilled by Abraham.
Though we no longer have a physical Mishkan, the lesson rings true as we participate in and build our own community. We must combine our commitment to ritual worship with a passion and commitment to interpersonal relationships and service.
Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is the spiritual leader at Congregation Netivot Shalom.