by Ariel Shalem
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was not the first to plant forests in Israel. According to the Midrash Tanhuma (ch.9) on the Torah portion of Terumah, we have a precedent for the first plantation in the Bible planted by Yaakov (Jacob) a few thousand years before. According to the Midrash, Yaakov received a prophecy that his descendents, while in the desert, would be instructed to build a dwelling place for God. He subsequently planted saplings in the land of Israel and instructed his children to transplant them diligently to Egypt. By making this wise decision, Yaakov prepared a whole forest that would later supply the Sanctuary with at least 800 cubic feet of usable wood-that’s over twenty tons!
Was Yaakov worried about the deforestation of Egyptian forests? Probably not. If Egypt did have forests, then twenty tons could have been taken without a major impact on the forest. It was more likely that Yaakov did this because he longed to participate in the building of the house of God and took the necessary action to ensure his own involvement.
Yet more significantly, Yaakov’s actions may be interpreted to express the teaching of our sages “Who is wise? Those who foresee the consequences of their actions.” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Tamid 32a) Yaakov had the smart sense to project the need for large amounts of wood in an environment that could not sustain that wood-the Sinai desert. He therefore thought ahead and created a sustainable solution for the sacred needs of the Israelites.
We too, may look ahead and see if we are creating sustainable environments for the needs of our children, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren. Since the industrial revolution, our predecessors have not taken forest management seriously enough to warrant the respect that Yaakov receives for his foresight. In fact they, and we, have acted all too foolishly with the resources of God’s creation. Humankind has abused our trees and forests, though they are one of earth’s most precious and critical resources.
Scientists give us some idea of what has been happening to the world’s forests. Half of the forests that originally covered 48 percent of the Earth’s land surface are gone. Only 20% of the Earth’s original forests remain pristine and undisturbed. Between 1960 and 1990, one fifth of the world’s tropical rainforest was destroyed. In the decade beginning in 1990, estimates of deforestation of tropical forest range from about 55,630 to 120,000 square kilometres each year. At this rate, all tropical forests may be gone by the year 2090.
Our Midrash about Yaakov also analyzes the Hebrew language and the choice of wood which is used in the construction of the Mishkan (sanctuary), and explains that the root of the word Acacia or “Shitim” shares the same root as the word folly: “shtoot.” The Midrash presents a connection– by building the Tabernacle out of this particular wood, we are reminded to rectify the folly that we pursued when we sinned with the golden calf.
The Sanctuary served as a microcosm for greater world harmony and was a Divine gesture to the children of Israel in response to the Golden Calf. We are given God’s world and the material within in order to construct a house for God-one of peace, harmony and sustainability. The world’s resources are not here so that we may construct false gods which cater to our wants and desires. The moment that we misuse the physical and degrade the planet, we go against the spirit of the Sanctuary God commanded.
This foolishness is expressive of a child’s behavior. A child is not aware of the long term ramifications of the pursuit of their desires. A child will not understand that too much candy will make them sick. Once sick, they may not have the wisdom to interpret the sickness as a direct result to their previous actions. Of course, an adult bent on his or her own pleasure may also miss the connection, rationalizing that the sickness was random or caused by something else. Yet adult behavior like this goes by a different name—foolishness.
As a generation which is experiencing the effects of the hunger, appetite, and ignorance of this foolishness, and is just coming to terms with the effects of globalized industrialization, commerce, and communication, it is critical for us to strive for wise analysis of our predicament and our behavior and make responsible decisions accordingly. We may no longer cover our eyes and pretend that there is no problem to address.
Judaism demands maturity and the awareness that comes with it. It is only fitting that the epitome of the mishkan is the mindfulness and consciousness that “They shall make a sanctuary for me so that I may dwell among them.” (25:8) The word sanctuary in Hebrew is “mishkan”, which more literally means “presence” (much like the word “shekina”-“Divine Presence”).
Therefore, we must ask: is God present in our consumption? If so, then even the most ostentatious and elaborate materials that we read about in the beginning of our parsha used in the construction of the Mishkan are warranted. But if we have no awareness of our actions, and our consumption is a product of the pursuit of golden and flashy gods of consumer society, then we have not created a dwelling place for God in our actions or in the world.
Let us be blessed with the wisdom and foresight of our forefather Yaakov to provide sustainable and justified coexistence with the small remainder of God’s forests and let us establish an awareness of the preciousness that pervades our natural world. By doing so, we will herald in a new era of human consciousness and God will build the Third Temple as a testament to our efforts.
As the prophet Isaiah said (41:19-20), “I will give in the desert cedars, acacia trees, all kinds of civilization. Even in them will I give all kinds of wisdom, goodness, and peace… In order that they see and know, and pay attention and understand together that the hand of the Lord did this and the Holy One of Israel created it.”