“Heaven and Earth”
By Rabbi Andy Feig, ‘07
This week, the month of Shevat with its eco-consciousness-raising holiday of Tu B’Shevat ends, and Adar, with its promise of divine redemption in the form of Purim, begins! At this exciting juncture, we read Parashat Terumah recalling the concrete structures and ritual hardware of the wilderness Tabernacle, the lampstand and other accouterments.
The timing of this monthly handoff is especially meaningful, since the Mishkan (Tabernacle) reflects the meeting of both heaven and the earth. It utilizes the best resources the earth has to offer – durable acacia wood, precious minerals and metals, and animal and plant products. And, yet, its very existence is to create an abode for the divine presence, the Shechinah, to live in the midst of the Israelite camp: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
Natural symbolism is even embedded into the architecture of the Mishkan. Heavenly creatures are depicted on the parochet (the interior curtain) and above the Ark of the Covenant, natural, and the menorah (lampstand) is described as having organic and natural elements built into it. The image itself is reminiscent of a tree, with its branches extending from a center “trunk.” Here is how the Torah describes it: “On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall also be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals; so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand.” (Exodus 25:33)
While the menorah is an active reflection of the natural world, its spiritual meaning is equally powerful. Nahum Sarna, in his JPS commentary on Exodus, adds: “The inflorescence of the almond tree most certainly bears symbolic value, for that tree (Heb. shaked) is the earliest spring flowering plant in the Land of Israel… The stem sh-k-d means ‘to be watchful, wakeful, vigilant’; thus, the almond flower is a symbol of life renewed and sustained. Finally, the lights constitute the most powerful symbol of all, for light intimates both life itself and the presence of the Giver of life.”
The Menorah and the Mishkan not only remind us of God’s presence in our lives but in nature that surrounds us. Nature that is ever wakeful, reminding us of the opportunity for continual renewal and a future redemption. Of course, in order to keep the natural world safe, we in turn must act reflexively to ensure its survival, and humanity’s survival in turn. Kohelet Rabbah teaches, “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’”
Purim’s promise of redemption is only possible if we accept responsibility as caretakers of the earth and of humanity. Then we can heed Terumah’s message and bring heaven down to earth.