My Tzaddikim are Always Building; My Tzaddikim are the Building

There’s a strange scene in the middle of the desert

See, according to the rabbis we get everything we need in the wilderness -- Famously, manna, a food that tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste like

Fell from the sky so that we were never hungry --

Okay, so maybe we didn’t have it all figured out in the desert

Maybe we didn’t have a lot to our name, just sandals, a walking stick

But at least, with God’s help, we had the basics


This is why it is so strange that when we get to the moment

A few chapters ago

When God asks us to build a holy meeting place

The location of holiness

And God tells us that the key part of this holy meeting place

Is a cedar slab that is 32 cubits long, which is about 48 feet give or take

The center beam of the holy place

Not something you could slip in your pocket

Or even strap to the top of a station wagon

A giant wooden beam that is longer than this room, I think

It is astounding, a miracle

That although this beam was never mentioned before in Torah

No accounting of it when we left Egypt 

We don’t go a find a tree or several trees to somehow fashion it

And we don’t pray or panic for one

Because somehow that beam was already with us, it was found on us

(v’chol asher nimtza ito eitzei shittim! / and everyone for whom it was found with them, the cedar trees, Ex. 35:24)

It was “found,” not, “we went to find.”


Somehow, in one of a series of miracles

We already had what we needed.


Maybe this is the first lesson we can apply to our parasha, Kedoshim

A parasha that asks us to make a world of holy places through our actions

Perhaps this is the first lesson

No matter what is asked of us for the sake of building holiness

No matter how impossible it may seem

We will have what we need.


I need to back up

Because you know the rabbis well enough to know

That just like they do not miss the verb tense (v’chol asher nimtza ito  / and everyone for whom it was found with them Ex. 35:24)


They are also not satisfied with the idea that this giant piece of lumber is just, you know, lying around, or that it appeared out of nowhere.

And so they teach that when in Torah, when Abraham aveinu

Abraham our great great great great grandfather plants a tamarisk in Be’er Sheva, way back in Genesis,

he was actually preparing for this moment in the wilderness, and had actually planted a cedar for this very beam.


And they teach that, when generations later, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, hears that his beloved son Joseph is still alive – and strangely, rather than running to Egypt to claim his estranged son

Instead, in Torah Jacob goes to Be’er Sheva to pray

The rabbis say that Jacob goes to Be’er Sheva because Jacob has a master plan, he is going to harvest those same cedar trees, knowing God will ask his descendents for a beam from them one day.

That’s why he detours to be’er sheva!


Jacob tells his children, “Someday, long after we leave Egypt, God is gonna say to you, ‘Make a holy place where I can meet with you.’ And when that day comes, You better have everything you need right in your hands! So take this! Because you had best be ready.” (See Shmot Rabbah 33:8)


I can only imagine the looks on the faces of Jacob’s sons

Already insecure about their past, understandably

I can only imagine their lack of enthusiasm in taking along the most conspicuous, 32 cubit plank into their new lives in response to the possibility of a future vague request from a God they barely know at a time yet to be determined

I imagine their strained responses

As they consider storage costs in Egypt

The upper body strength that will be required

And try to imagine what this giant plank will do to their hopes that they would somehow blend in.


For anyone who has had a parent who told them to wear something or take something that they did not want to wear or take to school, to camp, to college, to a new home

Let your mind linger on the 48 foot cedar beam that Jacob insisted they carry.


Sometimes we have these unwieldy things, traits, traditions, dispositions, ideas, emotions

We get them from our parents

Or our grandparents

They are giant, practically beyond description

Maybe we know why we have them, maybe no one told us

Maybe we know why we are supposed to have them but have not figured out why that matters or what to do with them

Or maybe we don’t even know where we got them

We don’t remember anyone giving them to us

And at first glance, these giant, unwieldy features don’t seem to do us much good

They stick out, they are embarrassing

They are the equivalent of the seemingly useless 32 cubit cedar planks we carry around

We feel like Jacob’s sons --



But while we consider this, let us also think of Abraham and Jacob

Who were completely unintimidated by their present circumstances

And so sure of the inevitability of holiness manifesting in the world

That they invest aggressively, and outlandishly in the future 

Paying no mind to appearances

Imagining only the “grand commission,” the holy meeting place that would surely, without a doubt, someday be built

Consider Abraham and Jacob who do all they can to make sure we will be ready, “Have what you need at hand!”



It might give parents in the room some small comfort to know

That even the most careful and emphatic plans of the patriarchs themselves are not foul proof (Shmot Rabba 33:8)

The tradition says that when the time came

And God asked us for the materials for the holy meeting place

Just like Jacob had said would happen,

“The plank! It’s time!”

Some of us had made all kinds of arrangements

And others of us…. forgot.

Somewhere the message got lost

And just had to give whatever we found on us

[Could you work with a “Pony tail holder?” “I have some gum?”]


And still, it turns out

That, ready or not, everyone still miraculously had what was required,

Everyone had something “found” on them, something to give


See, the seeds of those cedars had been planted long before

Cut down, passed from generation to generation

And all this happened without our knowledge or permission

So that whether we knew we had it or not, whether we were ready or not

When the time came,

There was nothing we had to go and find, it was found on us.


Finally, as the beam is put into place

The rabbis say something wonderful and alternative universe-y and certainly midrashic happened:

I imagine it was like when two wires create an electrical circuit

And there is a hum

Or maybe it is like when two people meet, people who are besheret (destined) in some way and they cannot stop crying for joy at your shabbat table or under the chuppah

Not that I am talking about anyone in this room (!)

No matter, sometimes, things or people come into just the right place and everyone feels it, it is undeniable


And so the rabbis say just this, and they describe it this way

that the center beam, when it was finally in its place, that it sang.


Az yeranenu kol azei ya’ar lifnei adonai/ all the trees will sing with joy before God / Ps. 96:12

From our kabbalat Shabbat

And the rabbis say this psalm is describing the moment when the cedar beams, in their place, sang out.


Sometimes components can make up an entirely different category of whole

They transcend their parts, we transcend ourselves

Maybe this kind of transcendence is what God means by holiness, this is what parashat Kedoshim wants us to have

This is why we are asked to consider the whole in our smallest of actions

So we could have the experience of being part of a greater whole


But, with all this talk of transcendence, we must take care.

Because if holiness were a matter of transcendence only, our parasha would be a lot shorter. We could hang onto the part about keeping Shabbat,

and skip the parts about sharing the corners of our fields

(or our bonuses or stock options)

We could skip the parts about not placing stumbling blocks before the blind

(and not consider how we use access to information to undermine those who are “kept in the dark”).


See, if we are considering our parasha, it is clearly incomplete to talk about holiness as if it were another dimension, a world apart from the way we are in society and with each other.


See, sometimes holiness is about beams, runners, connectors, going from here to there. (Exodus 26:28)

And sometimes holiness is about enough of us standing still, standing upright, so that the very roof of a society can hold, so there can be space for the many.


So the midwives, you remember

After King Pharaoh makes his paranoid decree to drown all the baby boys in the Nile

They quietly refuse

Because they have yirat hashem / a fear of God, meaning they fear the kind of world where it is possible that midwives would throw babies in the river Nile

Because they understand: Standing up for these babies, this is a great deal of what it means to be holy.


There is no speech, there is no, “Let my people live.”

(Even while society reels back and forth) They just stand in place, they just keep doing what they had always done and so, ensure that babies can still live


And God rewards them, it says in Torah,

God “made them houses”

We are not sure what it means

But in midrash it says that because God saw the midwives were tzaddikim, righteous, prophets

God hid them

God hid the midwives by turning them into the upright columns of the houses. God hid them in the standing architecture of the houses

God “made them houses” means --

They would never have to face Pharaoh or his soldiers again, true

But more than this, God wanted to honor the midwives who had already become pillars of society

The kind of still and upright pillars that guarantee shelter for everyone else.

The midwives became the houses.

(Midrash HaGadol Shmot 1:21, Rosen source)


Sometimes we carry the beams, sometimes are the beams.

Sometimes we support the pillars, sometimes we must summon the courage to be the pillars.


In the case of the 32 cubit beam that was carried for generation after generation

Sometimes treasured, sometimes resented, sometimes forgotten altogether

As far as I know, it’s still around here somewhere

And as for the pillars, let’s just say, I’ve met them, some are hiding in this room, in plain sight.


So, Minna, it almost goes without saying

There are times the building process is obvious, we know where the piece goes

We know where we go

But other times we have to re-imagine the edges, and we never know if we are right

Sometimes we wait for years to be asked and no request comes

Sometimes we get more requests than we think it is possible for us to ever hold

There are no guarantees


But if you accept your role in this commission

The only thing I can promise you

Is that you might earn the opportunity to get a glimpse or two of the grand architect’s plans

And you and I -- we might earn the honor of listening for the voice of one of our oldest relatives speaking to us through the text:


“Be ready,” whispers Jacob. “I know this looks like a lot. I admit it’s unwieldy. But, trust me, someday, you or who knows, your children, they will need all this, someday we will be asked again. Just promise me you’ll remember: You already have everything you need.”