The Tosafists, in the Da’at Zekeinim commentary to Parashat Teruma (25:5), cite a Midrash commenting that the beriach ha-tikhon – the central beam of the Mishkan – was made from the wood of the walking stick used by Yaakov Avinu. In Yaakov’s prayer before his feared encounter with Esav (Bereishit 32:10), he reflects upon the fact that he left Canaan with just his walking stick, and was now returning to his homeland with a large family and a large fortune. This stick, the Midrash states, was used in producing the central beam of the Mishkan that extended from one end of the structure to the other (Shemot 26:28).
What connection might there be between this beam and Yaakov’s walking stick? What prompted Chazal to draw this association?
One explanation, perhaps, is that in Yaakov’s prayer, his stick represents the origin, so-to-speak, of his family. He began with nothing but his stick, and eventually this stick, which helped him travel to Charan where he married and begot children, produced a family. Symbolically, Yaakov’s staff represents the shared roots of all Am Yisrael, the fact that we all originate from one source, share the same destiny, and must therefore see and conduct ourselves as part of a single family unit. The central beam of the Mishkan represents unity among Am Yisrael, our joining together into a single cohesive group. Just as the beriach ha-tikhon encircled all the various components of the Mishkan, so is the Jewish Nation joined together by “Yaakov’s staff,” our shared origin, and we must all see and treat one another in this light.
There might also be an additional explanation. Targum Onkelos translates the word be-makli (“with my staff”) in Yaakov’s prayer as “yechidi” – “alone.” Yaakov’s staff signifies loneliness. The association drawn by the Midrash is perhaps intended to teach that the concept of a Mishkan, the experience of bonding with the Almighty, depends on a feeling of “yechidi,” that we are “alone” without a relationship with our Creator. Even when we are blessed with family and material possessions, we must feel that our lives would be deficient and lacking without the Mishkan, without a meaningful relationship with God. This feeling is the “beri’ach ha-tikhon,” the basis and foundation of the Mishkan experience. The notion of hashra’at ha-Shekhina, that God resides among our nation, is founded upon this basic premise – that we are “alone” if we do not feel the Almighty’s presence. Even as we must sense and express gratitude for all our blessings in life, we must also feel a genuine need for the presence of the Shekhina, for a meaningful and significant relationship with our Creator.