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Planning Ahead: Lessons from Rajon Rondo and Acacia Wood

March 9, 2016

Good Shabbos. This morning’s d’var Torah is inspired by a question that I was recently asked. I will come to it shortly.

In preparing my speech this week, I was reminded of a favorite story that happened several years ago. When Yisrael, our oldest child was a little baby and Toby and I were working at Brandeis, we sent him to a local daycare center. One day I went to pick him up from daycare and there was some major excitement at the center. As I went in to find Yisrael I saw three or four employees giving a tour of the center to someone. It turns out it was Rajon Rondo. That name may not mean that much to any of you, but let me assure you it was a big deal. Rondo was the point guard of the Boston Celtics. They had just won the championship and he was the team’s rising star. He wasn’t a big deal in Boston, he was a huge deal. It turns out that his daughter had just started going to the daycare center.

Well, all of the parents and teachers were awestruck at seeing this celebrity, myself included. But we were also confused because we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. Should I run up to him and ask for an autograph (nowadays, we would also have to debate whether asking for a Selfie is appropriate)? Maybe play it cool like it’s no big deal. I was tempted to walk up to him and ask if he is the one who has to wake up to change diapers in the middle of the night at his house.

In the end, no one did anything. We all stood there dumbfounded because we did not know what Rondo wanted from us. We didn’t know how he wanted to be treated in that situation.

I’ll come back to the Rondo story as well.

This week’s parsha reviews the essential components of the Mishkan. It opens with a list of all the supplies that were needed for the construction:

Exodus 35:4-9:


וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֥ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר׃ קְח֨וּ מֵֽאִתְּכֶ֤ם תְּרוּמָה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה כֹּ֚ל נְדִ֣יב לִבּ֔וֹ יְבִיאֶ֕הָ אֵ֖ת תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת׃ וּתְכֵ֧לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֛ן וְתוֹלַ֥עַת שָׁנִ֖י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ וְעִזִּֽים׃ וְעֹרֹ֨ת אֵילִ֧ם מְאָדָּמִ֛ים וְעֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים וַעֲצֵ֥י שִׂטִּֽים׃ וְשֶׁ֖מֶן לַמָּא֑וֹר וּבְשָׂמִים֙ לְשֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וְלִקְטֹ֖רֶת הַסַּמִּֽים׃ וְאַ֨בְנֵי־שֹׁ֔הַם וְאַבְנֵ֖י מִלֻּאִ֑ים לָאֵפ֖וֹד וְלַחֹֽשֶׁן׃

And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying: Take ye from among you an offering unto the LORD, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the LORD’S offering: gold, and silver, and brass; and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats ’hair; and rams ’skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; and oil for the light, and spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; and onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate.

I want to focus on the עצי שטים, acacia wood.

It was used for many of the components of the משכן and for many of the כלים.

Planks, קרשים (36:20-37)

The Aron, ארון (37:1-9)

The Shulchan שלחן (37:10-16)

The altars מזבח הקטרת (37:25-29) מזבח העולה (38:1-8)

The question arises as to where they got all of this acacia wood. The Ibn Ezra (peirush ha-aroch, Shemot 25:5) suggests that the simplest explanation is that there must have been a forest or grove of acacia trees next to Har Sinai. While this answer makes perfect sense, it is not terribly interesting. Rashi, following the Midrashic tradition gives a much more interesting answer to the question of where did B’nei Yisrael get acacia wood in the desert.

Twice in Parshat Terumah Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that the עצי שטים were planted by Ya’akov when he came down to Egypt. Ya’akov saw through prophecy that Hashem would require of B’nei Yisrael to build a Mishkan using such wood and Ya’akov wanted to ensure that the wood would be ready for them. According to this, B’nei Yisrael carried the acacia wood with them as they left Egypt. For example, Rashi on Shemot 25:

Rashi on Exodus 25:5:3:

ועצי שטים וּמֵאַיִן הָיוּ לָהֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר? פֵּרַשׁ רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא: יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ צָפָה בְּרוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ שֶׁעֲתִידִין יִשְׂרָאֵל לִבְנוֹת מִשְׁכָּן בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהֵבִיא אֲרָזִים לְמִצְרַיִם וּנְטָעָם, וְצִוָּה לְבָנָיו לִטְּלָם עִמָּהֶם כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם:

ועצי שטים AND SHITTIM WOOD — But from where did they get this in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explained it thus: Our father Jacob foresaw by the gift of the Holy Spirit that Israel would once build a Tabernacle in the wilderness: he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them there, and bade his children take these with them when they would leave Egypt (Tanchuma; cf. Bereishit Rabbah 94 and Rashi on Exodus 26:15).

And this is not the end of the story of the acacia wood. The Torah notes that on his way to Egypt, Ya’akov stops at Be’er Sheva to offer sacrifices:

Genesis 46:1:

וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beer-sheba, and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Isaac.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) tells us that there was a second reason for his detour. שהלך לקץ אזים שנטע אברהם זקנו בבאר שבע. – He went to cut down the trees that his grandfather Abraham had planted in Be’er Sheva. This points us back to Breishit 21. After the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and after Avraham makes a covenant with Avimelech, and interestingly right before we read of the story of the Akeidah, we find:

Genesis 21:33:

וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֶ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃

And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

The meaning of the word eshel is unclear, and many possibilities are offered by the mefarshim (commentaries).

  • Rashi records two possibilities: either it means an orchard of fruit trees with which to feed his guests, or it means an inn to host travelers.
  • The Rashbam maintains that Avraham’s eshel was an orchard of trees where Avraham would go to pray.
  • In the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, R. Nehemiah is cited as saying that the word eshel is related to the Hebrew word for ask (sha’al). According to this understanding Avraham would say to his guests, “Ask for whatever you would like and I will give it to you.”
  • Finally, the Radak comments that the word eshel is an acronym for the words ochel, shtia, leviah – food drink and escort. Avraham taught the residents of Be’er Sheva that to properly welcome guests into their city they must provide these three things.

Whatever, the exact meaning of the word Eshel is, it is clear that the Midrash wants to connect the trees prepared by Yaakov for the construction of the Mishkan with the eshel planted by Avraham. Not only does this create a powerful historical connection between the generation of the desert and their ancestor Avraham. It emphasizes that the same values stressed by Avraham are integral to the Mishkan as well. In the eyes of our sages, a Mishkan in which Hashem dwells among the Jewish people is possible only if it is built with a commitment to the values and lessons instilled by Avraham avinu. Though we no longer have a physical Mishkan, this is an important lesson for us to take to heart as we participate in, and build our own community.

I would like to apply this in a different context as well. The question that I was asked a couple of weeks ago was for guidance in helping someone to prepare their will and advanced healthcare directive. One of the lessons of the atzei shitim is that it shows how Ya’akov avinu was able to achieve peace of mind when confronting his own mortality. He took steps to ensure that the values and decisions that mattered most to him would be carried out by his descendants. We have an imperative to do the same in our day and age. Not just by giving tzedakah or by instilling a love of Judaism and the Jewish people in our children and grandchildren. We have a moral and halachic responsibility to ensure that our values and decisions are clear when it comes to our personal lives and well-being. One way that we can do this is to by preparing advanced healthcare directives and ensuring that our preferences are clear to those who will be entrusted with our care if God forbid anything should happen to us. I opened with the story of “meeting” Rajon Rondo at my son’s daycare.  No one knew what to do when encountering a celebrity in such an unexpected setting.   Everyone was too busy trying to get into his head to know what he wanted from us in that situation, that we all wound up looking like fools. There are bound to be lots of similar situations in life when we have to guess what it is that someone else wants from us. Too often it is the case that family members are forced into this situation around the end of life of a loved one. It does not have to be this way. Having the proper papers in place can provide clarity for our family and peace of mind for ourselves.

There are many details and nuances to be addressed when preparing documents of this nature, and now is not the time to get into those details. But now is the time to begin thinking about these issues if you have not done so, to have a conversation with family and loved ones, to make sure that everything is up to date. There are a number of templates available that account for the unique halachic concerns that arise. I am happy to provide resources after Shabbos and would love to work on putting together a more formal at our shul to discuss these issues as a community.

Just as the Halachic prenup has become normative in our community, we must ensure that health care directives become normative as well.



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