Terumah 5778: A Tent to Stand for all Time

Tent pole technology keeps improving. Newer models have lightweight, aluminum poles that are flexible, threaded with elastic to keep together, and color-coded to help fit them in the right clips and sleeves. When you are trying to assemble a tent as it starts to rain, the wind whips up and the light fades, you really appreciate these little details! In a good year I spend about two weeks sleeping in a tent, and I always appreciate the attention to detail in making these mobile structures functional and hardy.

Tents are on my mind not only because the winter is winding down, but because with Parashat Terumah we have entered the tabernacle zone of the Torah. I find the entire structure fascinating—the triple-layer covering, the planks of standing acacia wood, plated in gold, the silver sockets, and especially the bars that hold the entire structure in place. These bars, called בריחים, are basically tent poles, except that they hold up wood walls instead of fabric ones.

Each of the three sides of  the tabernacle had 5 poles made of acacia wood, all overlaid with gold. Four for each wall were half-length, dividing between them the upper and lower portions of the planks, but there was a long pole that ran the entire length of each wall of the tabernacle. This central pole was “within the planks,” which the rabbis understand to refer to a slot grooved through the panels that the pole penetrated. Our ancestors devoted much attention to these mysterious middle poles, which were extremely long, apparently 32 cubits = approximately 48 feet.

First, the sages wanted to know how such long poles of wood were procured. Acacia trees look like umbrellas—they spread wide, rather than growing tall, and these poles must have come from old trees that had grown enormous. In Midrash Bereshit Rabba, Rav Nahman is reported to have speculated about the travels of Jacob near Beer Sheva. What was he up to? Apparently, Jacob was a lumberjack, and he went scouting for the trees (literally, cedars, which would work better than acacia trees to produce long straight poles) that had been planted by his grandfather Abraham. Jacob felled the trees and hid them away for his distant descendants, 4 centuries later, to use in the tabernacle. Now, that is advanced planning!

The Bavli adds a mystery at Shabbat 98b, saying that the middle pole “stood miraculously.” What was the miracle? According to Rashi, the miracle was really something—this middle bar not only ran the entire length of the long walls of the north and south, but it actually turned the corner without breaking and ran the perimeter of the tabernacle, along all three sides. One piece of wood, bending without breaking, in a U-shape. Rashi exclaims that there isn’t an artisan who could make this work, so the pole must have miraculously bent itself into this impossible configuration.

Tosfot points out that Rashi’s account disagrees with an early source, “Melekhet HaMishkan,” which makes no mention of the middle pole wrapping around the tabernacle. It was sufficient that each of the three walls had an end-to-end pole in the middle. Tosfot makes perfect sense, but what, then, was the Talmud’s miracle? Medieval commentators such as Bekhor Shor of Orleans (who was also a Tosafist, perhaps the same one who questioned Rashi), dismiss the miracle theory and claim the “p’shat” to be a more standard arrangement—each wall had four short poles and one long pole. Elegant, but not miraculous.

However, once the Talmud put the concept of a miraculous pole into the Jewish mind, it couldn’t quite disappear. The Zohar picked up the theme of this incredible twisting tent pole and made it a symbol of the Sefirah known as Tifereth, which functions as a central trunk in the Sefirotic tree. Like the middle branch of the letter Shin, Tiferet links the Sefirot of Hesed and Gevurah, Grace and Might, blending them into a harmonious whole. It also connects the upper and lower Sefirot. You can think of Tifereth as the long finger in the middle of the hand, surrounded by two fingers on one side—Hesed and Gevurah—and two on the other side—Nezah and Hod. This also works well with the walls of the tabernacle—the poles are like fingers containing the structure, with the long middle digit running the length, drawing on the strength of all of the other elements, and making the entire structure sound.

In the Zohar to Parshat VaYehi (I:224a), Jacob is understood to function like the middle bar, uniting the energies of his grandfather Abraham (Hesed) and his father Isaac (Gevurah) into a unified structure. In the Matt translation: “Jacob knew that the patriarchs were to be crowned with him—he would be crowned by the patriarchs and they would be crowned with him (like the shin, with the three branches joined by one joint). This is what we have learned: The central bar in the middle of the boards, running from end to end. The joint in the middle links this side and that, and of this is written, I will lie down with my fathers—precisely!

What are we to make of this? The middle pole symbolizes several wonderful features of the tabernacle, and indeed of our own religious lives. It represents connection between the generations. The ancestors planted the trees that become essential to their descendants. So too do we inherit the spiritual insights of our ancestors, and seek to convey wisdom and strength to generations that follow us. We also learn the importance of balance. No tent can stand with a single pole, no matter how strong it is. The miracle is all about coordination. When one person complements the talents and efforts of another, then we can build a durable and effective structure.

The tabernacle is a symbol of community. Some of us play an organizing role, running from one end to the other, but this is effective only if there are others who also lend strength to the effort. A religious community, like any team effort, requires coordination. When the middle pole runs from end to end and the entire structure stands, it is indeed a miracle. May God give us the determination and skill to build new structures that draw on the strengths of our ancestors and our contemporaries, so that holiness can enrich the lives of our descendants.

שמות פרק כו, כו-כח

(כו) וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בְרִיחִ֖ם עֲצֵ֣י שִׁטִּ֑ים חֲמִשָּׁ֕ה לְקַרְשֵׁ֥י צֶֽלַע־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֖ן הָאֶחָֽד: (כז) וַחֲמִשָּׁ֣ה בְרִיחִ֔ם לְקַרְשֵׁ֥י צֶֽלַע־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֖ן הַשֵּׁנִ֑ית וַחֲמִשָּׁ֣ה בְרִיחִ֗ם לְקַרְשֵׁי֙ צֶ֣לַע הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן לַיַּרְכָתַ֖יִם יָֽמָּה: (כח) וְהַבְּרִ֥יחַ הַתִּיכֹ֖ן בְּת֣וֹךְ הַקְּרָשִׁ֑ים מַבְרִ֕חַ מִן־הַקָּצֶ֖ה אֶל־ הַקָּצֶֽה:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת ויגש פרשה צד סימן ד

ד [מו, א] ויסע ישראל וכל אשר לו ויבא בארה שבע, להיכן הלך אמר רב נחמן שהלך לקוץ ארזים שנטע אברהם זקינו בבאר שבע, היך מד”א (בראשית כא) ויטע וגו’, כתיב (שמות כו) והבריח התיכון בתוך הקרשים, אמר ר’ לוי והבריח התיכון שנים ושלשים אמה היו בו, מהיכן מצאו אותו לשעה, אלא מלמד שהיו מוצנעין עמהם מימות יעקב אבינו, הה”ד (שם /שמות/ לה) וכל אשר נמצא אתו עצי שטים, אשר ימצא אתו אין כתיב כאן אלא אשר נמצא אתו

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף צח עמוד ב

והבריח התיכן בתוך הקרשים. תנא: בנס היה עומד.

רש”י מסכת שבת דף צח עמוד ב

בנס היה עומד – שאחר שהקרשים כולן נתונין באדנים לצפון למערב ולדרום היה נותנו, ומבריח לשלשת הרוחות, ואין לך אומן יכול לעשות כן, ובנס היה נכפף מאליו.

תוספות מסכת שבת דף צח עמוד ב

תנא בנס היה עומד – אומר ר”י דהכא דקאמר שבריח התיכון היה מסבב ג’ רוחות פליגא אברייתא דמלאכת המשכן דהתם אמר שלא היה נס אלא היו שם חמשה שנים למעלה אחד מתחיל מתחילת אורך המשכן עד חציו והשני מתחיל משם ואילך עד סוף הרוח וכן למטה היו שני בריחים כזה הענין אבל האמצעי היה הולך מרוח מזרח עד רוח מערב והיינו מן הקצה אל הקצה ולא היה מקיף כל שלש רוחות.

ר’ יוסף בכור שור שמות פרשת תרומה פרק כו

(כח) והבריח [התיכון] בתוך הקרשים: אמרו רבותינו על ידי נס. ולפי הפשט בכל כותל וכותל היה אחת.

זוהר כרך א (בראשית) פרשת ויחי דף רכד עמוד א

אלעזר יעקב הוה ידע דהא עטורא דיליה באבהתיה הוא דהא עטורא דאבהן עמיה הוא והוא עמהון, ועל דא באתוון גליפין תנינן ש תלת קשרין תרין קשרין חד מהאי סטרא וחד מהאי סטרא וחד דכליל לון ודא הוא דתנינן (שמות כ”ו) והבריח התיכון בתוך הקרשים מבריח מן הקצה אל הקצה וההוא קשרא דבאמצעיתא אחיד להאי סטרא ולהאי סטרא ועל האי כתיב ושכבתי עם אבותי ודאי, ושכבתי עם אבותי וגו’

Rav Yosef Bechor Shor (Rivash) was apparently the twelfth century Baal HaTosafot Rav Yosef ben Rav Yitzchak of Orleans, France. He was a student of Rabbeinu Tam, and was known primarily for his commentary on the Torah which closely follows the simple interpretation.