Parashat Terumah

Is God Present in Our Consumption?

We are given God's world and the material within to construct a house for God--one of peace, harmony, and sustainability.

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Scientists give us some idea of what has been happening to the world's forests: Half of the Earth's land surface was once covered by forest, yet now half of those forests are gone; of all of the original forests that once covered the Earth, only 20 percent remain untouched; in North America alone, half of the coastal temperate rainforests that once stretched from Alaska to California have been destroyed; and turning to the world's rain forests, somewhere between 750 to 800 million hectares of the planet's original 1.5-1.6 billion hectares of mature tropical rain forests have been destroyed.

Repercussions of such overuse and misuse include, in brief, an increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, a major contributor to the greenhouse effect; disruption of the water cycle resulting in drier climates; soil erosion leading to the silting of water courses, lakes, and dams; and the extinction of species that depend on the forest for survival.

Where Is God's Presence?

The Midrash also analyzes the choice of acacia wood in the construction of the Mishkan, and explains that the Hebrew root of the word shitim, meaning acacia, shares the same root as the word shtoot, meaning folly. A connection is made: by building the Sanctuary out of this particular wood, we are reminded to rectify the folly that the Children of Israel pursued with the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Midrash's link between acacia and the Golden Calf presents an almost funny, yet poignant connection to the current real-world correlation between deforestation and beef production.

According to the Center for International Forestry Research, cattle ranching for beef has caused the majority of felled forests in Latin America--tens of thousands of square kilometers each year! In the Brazilian Amazon alone, the total area of deforestation rose from 41.5 million hectares in 1990 to 58.7 million hectares in 2000--forest area twice the size of Portugal was lost in ten years alone.

The overwhelming majority of that lost forest becomes pasture, and most of that pasture is used for grazing cattle, intended for eventual export on the international market. Modern-day beef consumption may thus represent the pursuit of our own material comfort at the expense of our forests.

Careless and selfish deforestation is also caused by urban sprawl: to build new highways, to build larger homes than we truly need; and for endless amounts of packaging materials and paper goods. Natural resources such as forests are meant for us to use, but we must learn from Jacob how to wisely use, reuse, and replenish our natural resources. We must learn to avoid the "shtoot" and use the "shitim." 

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.

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Ariel Shalem is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Israel's Judean Hills.