Parshat Trumah opens with God’s instructions to Moses to collect the materials for building the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, and its furnishings: gold, silver, and copper; richly dyed fibers, linen, and skins; fine wood, fragrant oils, and spices; and precious and semi-precious stones. And the people give generously. In fact, as we will read in a few weeks, the people brought so much that Moses had to tell them to stop.
Where did all this material come from? Right before the Israelites left Egypt, Moses instructed them to ask for objects of silver and gold and clothing, and God disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people so they gave them what they requested.
This would surely account for the metals and fabrics, and possibly the spices and gems as well. But there is a problem — where did they get the acacia wood? The Torah says the Mishkan required some 50 wooden planks measuring 10 cubits by 1.5 cubits. Since a cubit is approximately 18 inches, each plank would be 15 feet by two feet. It’s hard to imagine that people fleeing for their lives — so hurried that they had no time for their dough to rise — could have managed to acquire and arrange transportation for all the lumber they would need.
So where did it come from? The Midrash Tanhuma says: “Jacob our father had planted these trees when he went down to Egypt because he knew through his gift of prophecy that in the future his descendants would be redeemed from Egypt and God would instruct them to build a tabernacle for them.”
Of course, the notion that Jacob planted acacia trees in the wilderness is fanciful at best. However, there is more midrash, this from Shemot Rabbah:
“Why ‘acacia wood?’ God taught proper behavior to the generations to come. When a person is about to build his house using wood from a fruit-bearing tree, say to him, ‘If the supreme King of Kings, to whom all things belong, instructed that the Mishkan should be built from trees that do not bear fruit, how much more should this apply to human beings.’”
Similarly, in parshat Shoftim, the Torah lays out the laws of war and teaches, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees…. Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks….” (Devarim 20:19-20)
At the beginning of the Torah, we learn that after God created the first human being, “the Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” In other words, while we are permitted to use the earth and all it contains for our benefit, we may not do so thoughtlessly or wastefully.
As the psalmist says, “The earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.”