When the Torah states that one of the main materials the Israelites contributed to the construction of the Tabernacle was cedar wood, Rashi feels compelled to explain how they attained it:

Now where did they have such wood in the desert? Rabbi Tanchuma explains that our forefather Jacob foresaw through Divine Inspiration that his descendants would one day construct a Tabernacle in the desert. He therefore brought cedar trees with him to Egypt [from the Land of Canaan] and planted them there. He commanded his children to take the wood with them when they left Egypt [as they would need it]. 1

What kind of question is this? Wood is a widely available commodity. Even in wilderness, trees grow. Beyond the wilderness, there would surely be traders or other suppliers who would quite readily provide construction materials for a fee. Indeed, many commentators2 assume that this is exactly what happened: The Israelites bought the wood or obtained it locally. What problem, then, is Rashi trying to solve by citing this Midrash? Why would Rashi need to resort to a rather far-fetched tradition to explain something that easily makes sense using simple logic?

Clearly, something is amiss and we need to know what it is.

The Rebbe makes a simple but surprising point, through which the entire matter falls into place. Check the wording of the verses about donations to the Tabernacle, says the Rebbe, and something striking will appear.

In each and every case, the Torah talks about “taking the donation.” 3 We never seem to read about “giving a donation.” How unusual. If we’re talking about donations, shouldn’t the focus be on giving? We read that the people were told to “set aside” a donation, but then that someone was instructed to “go take it,” not that the person was to “go give it.” How can this be?

Here comes the twist: The assumption is that whatever was donated was readily available, so all that was required was to have it “collected” or “taken.” If you ask me for ten dollars and I have it in my pocket, you can have it then and there. But if you ask me for an amount I don’t have on the spot, I will need to first go and get it before I can give it to you. If the Torah were to use the word to “give,” this would imply that people had to obtain the materials, rather than just hand them over.

Now we understand Rashi’s question. If all these items were supposed to be readily available for immediate collection, how would they have massive logs of cedar wood? Of course, there were ways to obtain wood, but that would have taken time. To solve this issue, Rashi cites Rabbi Tanchuma who tells us why the wood was available. Essentially, it was all planned in advance.

This clears up Rashi’s subsequent explanation regarding the other main materials donated. “Techeilet,” says Rashi, is “wool dyed with the blood of the chilzon fish and is a kind of green.” Regarding “argaman,” Rashi says that it is “a dyed wool in a color known as argaman.” As for “pishtan,” Rashi says that “it refers to linen.”4

These three explanations do not seem to add much to anyone with a basic command of Hebrew. Even the explanation that pishtan is linen is obvious from several previous appearances of that word in the Torah.5

True, we know that techelet is blue (greenish) dye, and argaman is purple, explains the Rebbe, but what Rashi is struggling to explain is why the Israelites would carry exotic dyes while traveling in the desert. And by the same token, why would they transport large quantities of flax, with which to spin and weave linen? They did not know there was going to be a Tabernacle. Yet we are led to believe that all these materials were readily at hand. How so?

Rashi explains that indeed they were not carrying around exotic dyes. Rather, they were carrying the wool already dyed in those colors, a very useful supply indeed. Similarly, they were not carrying pishtan – which normally translates as “flax,” but ready-made linen which most people would use on a daily basis.

With this awareness of why we must say that only ready-to-use materials were at hand, Rashi’s concerns and solutions fall right into place.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 31, Terumah II (pg. 142-148)