Mesirus Nefesh and Eternality

V’asisa es hakerashim l’Mishkan atzei shittim omdim (Shemos 26:15)

Parashas Terumah introduces us to the Mishkan that Hashem commanded the Jewish people to build as a resting place for the Shechinah. Hashem instructed Moshe regarding all the vessels for the Mishkan, specifying their appearance, dimensions and the material from which they should be made. In discussing the kerashim, the planks of the Mishkan that served as their primary structural support, the Torah stipulates that they should be made of atzei shittim omdim — acacia wood, standing erect.

The Gemara (Yoma 72a) questions the inclusion of the seemingly unnecessary detail that the planks were to be standing, and it answers that this emphasis is intended to teach us that the kerashim will stand fully intact forever, never being destroyed or even rotting. The Mishkan in general is associated with nitzchiyus (eternality), for in contrast to the two Batei Mikdash that were eventually destroyed, the Mishkan was hidden away and preserved for all time. Why did the Mishkan merit this enduring nature more than the Beis Hamikdash, and why were the kerashim specifically singled out to convey this idea more than any of the other components of the Mishkan?

In Parashas Ki Sisa (Shemos 31:17), Hashem describes Shabbos as an everlasting sign between Him and the Jewish people. In what sense is Shabbos considered more everlasting than other mitzvos? The Mechilta explains that although all mitzvos are equally eternal, the opportunity to fulfill some of them has been taken away from us over the years. In contrast, Hashem promises us that we will never lose the opportunity to keep Shabbos, and in this sense its eternality is indeed unique.

The Midrash continues and reveals to us the secret of Shabbos’ staying power, stating that any mitzvah for which the Jewish people were moser nefesh (gave over their souls), such as Shabbos, bris milah, Torah study and immersion in the mikveh, will endure forever, for our devotion to fulfilling the mitzvah creates a permanent bond that can never be broken.

Sadly, the Mechilta notes that there are also mitzvos that we have lost throughout the generations, such as the Beis Hamikdash, Shemittah and Yovel (Sabbatical and Jubilee years), and the Sanhedrin court system, and it explains that on some level our commitment to these mitzvos was somehow lacking, and therefore they were temporarily taken away from us.

In light of this Midrash, Harav Shmuel Wolman of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim suggests that it is logical to link the Mishkan’s longevity to the mesirus nefesh that the Jewish people displayed in its construction. That dedication was particularly manifested in the kerashim, about which Rashi writes (26:15) that they were made from cedar trees that had been planted by Yaakov when he descended to Egypt. Just before Yaakov’s death, he commanded his children to take these trees with them when they left Egypt, for he knew prophetically that Hashem would one day command his descendants to build a Mishkan, and he wanted to ensure that the wood for the project would be readily available.

Throughout the centuries of backbreaking slave labor in Egypt, Yaakov’s descendants, no matter how much physical pain they found themselves in, were careful to fulfill his instructions and painstakingly cared for and maintained the cedar trees he had planted. With such lofty origins, the kerashim merited an everlasting existence in which they never broke or decayed, and because the devotion of the Jewish people to the Mishkan manifested itself so clearly in the kerashim, the Torah specifically chose to convey the message of the Mishkan’s nitzchiyus through them.

Rav Wolman adds that although many people view the Mishkan as a topic that will only become relevant to us in the times of Moshiach, the commentators explain that every Jew is a microcosm of the Mishkan, and we are supposed to create within ourselves a resting place for the Shechinah.

It is human nature to strive for eternality. If we cannot be immortal, we at least desire to create a legacy, through our good deeds and our descendants following in our ways, that continues in this world long after we have departed. The Mishkan, and in particular the kerashim and briach hatichon, teach us the secret to creating true nitzchiyus: total dedication and unwavering mesirus nefesh to the lifelong mission of creating and maintaining a Mishkan within ourselves.

Q: Which animals were needed for the construction of the Mishkan?

A: In the beginning of Parashas Terumah, the Torah lists the items that Moshe needed to collect for the construction of the Mishkan (25:1-7), which include goat hair, ram skins, and skins of the tachash, a multi-colored animal that Hashem created when the Mishkan was being built, and which then became extinct.

The list also includes tola’as shani — scarlet wool. From where was this wool derived? Rashi writes that it was taken from a plant that contains worms in its seeds, but he maintains that the dye comes from the plant, not from the worms. This is also the opinion of the Rashbam and Rabbeinu Bachya.

The Yerushalmi disagrees and maintains that the dye is produced by the worm, which would be the fourth animal required for the construction of the Mishkan. This is also the position of Ibn Ezra, Kli Yakar, Noda B’Yehudah and Malbim.

The Ichud b’Chidud points out that this opinion seems to contradict the ruling of the Gemara that only items emanating from kosher sources may be used to serve Hashem. The Chasam Sofer justifies the custom to use silk to adorn the Aron Kodesh and sefer Torah based on the fact that it is spun and woven into material and is therefore considered a new creation that is no longer linked to its impure origins, an explanation that may also apply to the use of dye made from worms.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.