Parshas Terumah - Walking the Plank

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 02/15/18

Rashi records a fascinating tradition in regard to the bars that supported the planks that comprised the walls of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

There were two rows of bars external to the full length of each of the three walls. Additionally there was a hole bored through the middle of the planks through which the בריח התיכון, the middle bar, comprised of acacia wood, was inserted.

Rashi asserts that this bar was a single bar that was actually seventy cubits long that traversed the entire length of all the walls. It miraculously bent in a ninety degree angle as it traveled along the south side turning when it reached the western wall and once again flexing as it made its way down the eastern wall, encompassing the full distance of two walls that were thirty cubits each and the ten cubit distance along the western wall.

This was something, Rashi emphasizes, that "אין לך אומן יכול לעשות כן", no craftsman could possibly duplicate.(שבת צח:)

The source for this is found in the Targum Yehonoson ben Uziel. He describes how this bar was fashioned from the tree Avraham planted in Beer Sheva. During the course of the splitting of the sea angels cut down the tree tossing it into the Reed Sea at the exact spot where the Children of Israel were crossing. It continued to float on the water as the angels proclaimed how this was the tree Avraham had planted and called out there in prayer to G-d. The nation carried the tree and brought it with them and produced a seventy cubit long bar. When erecting of the Tabernacle it miraculously twisted like a snake wending its way on its own, embracing the entire length of the walls from one end to the next. When they disassembled the Tabernacle it extracted itself and stood upright like a staff.(שמות כו כו)

This was none other than the famed אשל, the ‘eshel’ tree where Avraham provided food, drink, lodging and escort to every wayfarer, introducing them each to the belief of a benevolent G-d of the Universe, Who provides for all. (בראשית כא לג)

What was the significance of this miracle? They could have easily supported each wall internally with three separate bars, each the length of its respective wall, as indeed other sources indicate was actually the case.

What are we to make of this analogy to the flexible quality of the snake and its standing straight like a rod?

A timely Midrash tells us that when Zeresh and Haman’s cohorts, seeking to placate the disgraced Haman, suggested he make a gallows, fifty cubits high, and have Mordechai hanged on it, G-d cried out that this shall not come to pass for “what shall I say to Avraham of whom the Torah states: “he stood over them (the angels, his guests) beneath the tree...” (ילק"ש בשלח רמז רנו)

The Midrash goes on to report how Haman had difficulty in finding lumber that long and resorted to extracting a נסר, a plank embedded within his palatial home that his son had provided for him when constructing it. The Midrash tells us that this unusual lengthy piece of wood was actually removed by his son from Noah’s ark, which had boards fifty cubits long, as the width of the ark was indeed precisely that wide.

Is the Midrash merely contrasting the selfish Haman with the magnanimous Avraham, implying that it was the kindness of Avraham that conquers the meanness of Haman?

The Prophet Yeshayahu refers to two forces that will challenge us throughout history that will eventually be defeated in the end of time. It talks of a לויתן, the leviathan, a monster of the sea. It appears in two forms, a נחש בריח, a straight serpent, and נחש עקלתון, a coiled serpent.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that the leviathan, rooted in the word לוה, connoting a bond that arises from mutual dependence, is a metaphor for a powerful society in the midst of mankind.

The straight serpent, are the nations that rule through brute force and impose their will on mankind directly, through their power. The coiled serpent, are those nations that rule through cunning and manipulation, that achieve their ends through stealth and secrecy.

Both are dangerous and both need to be kept apart. If the two forces ever mated, the whole world would be destroyed. Built into history is the inability of powerful empires to sustain themselves, because they become impressed with their own might and their own invincibility. And they usually self-destruct.

There is blind ambition that crushes all those who stand in its way. But there are those who acknowledge the need to interact and work together, connecting for the sake of improving our lives. Often though, the art of networking used to develop relationships and alliances is corrupted into a tool utilized to obtain one’s personal desires and needs.

The straight ‘upright’ serpent represents arrogance and blind ambition. The coiled serpent symbolizes the inclination of gratification in all its faces, yet most often that of carnal pleasure. The maneuvers and manipulations one uses in the courting of the object of one’s desire is not always the pursuit of healthy bonding and connection but rather a dangerous instrument for feeding selfish passion.

Achasveirosh, the coiled serpent feigned an altruistic interest in his kingdom and subjects, only to be exposed as the bumbling lecher that he was. Haman, the straight serpent, with his raging compulsion for power and control sought to create an alliance with the cunningly coiled serpent, but discovered as the prophet revealed that he would self-destruct in his blind pursuit for supremacy.

What they both lacked was an allegiance to the source of all life, the benevolent Creator who infuses our ambitions and instinct for connection with purpose and meaning by His very presence and directives.

Tradition regales over the remarkable חסד, loving-kindness of Avraham. He takes in wayfarers, exerting himself, personally attend to each guest. But we are told that before each person entered his abode they would first undergo the test of the ‘eshel’. The Zohar  describes how the leaves would bend providing shade to those deserving and pure, but would stand upright allowing the hot sun to radiate upon those unclean.(זוהר ח"א קב:)

What was his motive? Was it simply kindness or was his benevolence merely a tactic to bring them to a monotheistic faith?  Aren’t we taught that he withheld the food until they would offer a blessing?

Was he simply a missionary on a mission?

Avraham understood that what bonds humanity is the thread of godliness that weaves through every human and facet of creation. It is only when our acts of benevolence are done with that perspective in mind that we can we be assured that the natural ambition to achieve personal standing and the instinct to connect with one another will never pervert into instruments utilized to attain raw power and empty self-gratification.

No wonder it is the greatness of Avraham and his mission that quashes the evil plans and devices of Haman.

Perhaps it was precisely the נסר, the plank pulled from the ark that is contrasted here. Noach exemplified unparalleled energy and devotion to the animals in the ark in restoring the world to life once again. But whereas Avraham never perceived kindness for kindness sake alone but rather as an expression of exemplifying the traits of G-d and discovering the true and deeper connection that exists between us, Noach didn’t fathom that and therefore never reached out to others in similar fashion summoning them to a higher reality.

From that diminished notion of kindness can develop a world of straight and coiled serpents, which will inevitably self-destruct in a misguided sense of reality.

The word used to describe Haman’s plank is instructive. A נסר refers to something sawed off from its source, as opposed to the עץ, the tree of Avraham, which is connected to its source of life. Haman pursued independence at all costs by cutting himself from the source of all life and found himself dangling lifelessly from the gallows constructed from that very נסר, plank.

Maybe that is what Rashi sought to teach us by accentuating the miraculous nature of the bar that ‘no craftsman can possibly duplicate’, lest anyone be misled by their own craft and skill, forgetting where it is truly sourced.

The middle bar’s serpentine nature was to remind us to root our flexibility toward one another and our personal pursuit of self-definition in the image of Avraham, that was so poignantly portrayed under the ‘eshel’ of Avraham, and never be deluded by the נחש הקדמוני, the primeval snake, the evil inclination and his futile attempts to cut us off from the source of all life.

The Mishkan, the Tabernacle is a microcosm of the universe. It is a place where we make room for G-d, permitting ourselves to express our hopes, ambitions and achievements with Him ever-present.


צבי יהודה טייכמאן