Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-YaqhelPekudei 5766/ March 25, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Bezalel , Builder of the Tabernacle

 

Ilana Noah

 

Pre-Academic Program

 

“And Moses said to the Israelites:   See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah” (Ex. 35:30).  Moses told the Israelites that although all of them were wise, nevertheless the Lord had chosen Bezalel to take charge of the work of making the Tabernacle.

Why was it necessary to give the details of Bezalel’s lineage, back to his great-grandfather?   According to the work Edut Bi-Yehosef the reason was that Moses needed to be able to identify the Bezalel in question and not take another person by the name of Bezalel in his stead.  Such an explanation might be satisfactory were it a matter of instructions given by the Lord to Moses.  But why was it necessary for Moses to specify all this when he was speaking to the people?   He could have presented Bezalel to them without giving the details of his lineage.  Rather, it turns out that Moses did so in order that the Israelites not suspect him of taking a different Bezalel from the one whom he was commanded to select.

Why would the Israelites have even thought of suspecting Moses?  Rashi explains that Moses was afraid the people would suspect him of choosing Bezalel (this one) because he was the grandson of his sister Miriam; in other words, that they would suspect him of appointing only members of his family to senior positions.  In order to prove that the selection of Bezalel ben Uri was not of his own doing, Moses stressed that it had been G-d’s choice, and therefore he used the expression, “See, the Lord has singled out.”

Lion of Judah

Why indeed was Bezalel chosen for this task?  Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Va-Yaqhel, par. 4) explains that the Lord wanted to reward his grandfather Hur who laid down his life to sanctify the name of the Lord rather than participate in the sin of the golden calf.   Such devotion was not unique to Hur and his descendants; Nashon son of Aminadab, who also showed devotion to the Lord in jumping first into the sea during the exodus from Egypt, came from the same tribe as Bezalel – the tribe of Judah (Sotah 37a). Meshekh Hokhmah writes apropos of this that someone whose ancestors acted with religious devotion will worship the Lord with humility and sincerity, all his actions being according to the Lord’s command.

Selecting Bezalel to work at building the Tabernacle in a way brings us full circle on the personal level.  The grandfather Hur gave up his life because he could not agree to be part of the sin of the golden calf; the grandson Bezalel applied the trait of devotion which he had inherited to the work of orchestrating construction of the Tabernacle, which served to atone for the sin of the golden calf.  For the gold that the Israelites donated to the Tabernacle atoned for the gold that they had given to make the calf, so that what had condemned them before now became a point in their defense; in the sin of the golden calf the Israelites had offered their gold rings to make a graven image, and now they atoned for their sin by offering gold rings for making the Tabernacle.

Noble and Wretched

Why were Bezalel and Oholiab –one from the tribe of Judah and the other from the tribe of Dan – selected as the leading artists in building the Tabernacle?   Oholiab was from the tribe of Dan, which was considered inferior because Dan was one of the sons of the concubines.  So how was it that the Holy One, blessed be He, chose him along with Bezalel, who was from the tribe of Judah, the most prestigious of the tribes?  Rashi explains that the two of them were chosen to fulfill what is written in the book of Job, “The noble are not preferred to the wretched” (Job 34:19).  In other words, selecting two individuals from tribes that were so far apart in their standing proves that when it comes to building the Tabernacle and serving G-d there is no difference between rich and poor, between lowly and highly respected; all are equal in this regard.

Ibn Ezra (in his commentary on Ex. 31:1) cites Saadiah Gaon, who had another explanation of why these two were selected.   Both tribes were compared to lions:   Judah in Jacob’s blessing of his sons (Genesis 49:9), and Dan in Moses’ blessing of the tribes (Deut. 33:22); also the Temple was similar in form to a lion because it was “narrow in the rear.”   Ibn Ezra rejects this interpretation because Bezalel and Oholiab did not participate in building the Temple, rather only the Tabernacle, which was rectangular in shape.   In Ibn Ezra’s opinion, the two were chosen since for such work there was “no one as talented as them in all Israel.”

This week’s reading shows a positive attitude towards artistic talent and professional ability, as embodied in the figures of Bezalel and Oholiab.   In the world of art one can divide artists into those who follow the fixed and accepted principles of aesthetics and beauty, as in matching colors and pleasing proportions, and those whose work is free and spontaneous, stemming from their inner world.   Saadiah Gaon stressed the spontaneity in Bezalel’s personality, whereas Ibn Ezra laid emphasis on the rationality in him.   Bezalel’s art integrated obedience and complete faithfulness to the divine command along with being true to the voice that emanated from the depths of his soul.   Even when Moses had not relayed to him the proper order of work, Bezalel knew to make the things himself, according to G-d’s intention.   Bezalel had traits that exist in other artists, but also traits unique to himself.  

Bezalel’s Talents

According to Scripture, Bezalel was “endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft, … to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of designer’s craft – and to give directions” (Ex. 35:31-34).  This list of talents has merited extensive interpretation.   Rashi interprets it thus:  (35:31-33):  skill – that which a person hears from another and learns; ability – that which a person understands from within, from that which he has learned; knowledge – divine inspiration; to make designs – referring to weaving (called ma’aseh hoshev; interpretation based on Hebrew root h-sh-v appearing in the phrase “to make designs”); to carve – a term of artwork; to set – to fit it fully in its square, making the stone and setting matched perfectly in size.

The Netziv explains in his commentary, Ha-amek Davar, that skill, ability and knowledge (Heb. hokhmah, tevunah, da’at) are the three traits with which the world was created, as it is written in Proverbs, “The Lord founded the earth by wisdom (hokhmah); He established the heavens by understanding (tevunah); by His knowledge (da’at) the depths burst apart” (Prov. 3:19).   So, too, the Tabernacle, which is the Lord’s abode, was built with the same traits, and so, too, the Temple.   This was what the Sages meant when they said that Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created.

Hassidism stresses Bezlael’s ability la-hashov mahashavot, to see into one’s thoughts (Heb. mahashavot).   In other words, Bezalel knew what each and every person had in mind when they gave their contribution.  A contribution given with pure thoughts was devoted to the ark; a contribution given without any particular intention was put to use making the sockets, and so on.

Sharing with Others

Bezalel was also endowed with a very special talent – to instruct.  Or Ha-Hayyim interprets the ability to teach as being a lofty trait expressing generosity, since there are some people who have great wisdom but keep it to themselves and neither want nor are capable of conveying it to others.  Bezalel and Oholiab were willing to teach their talents to others, and therefore we can say that they were endowed with a generous spirit.  The same spirit of generosity lay at the foundation of the contributions given for the Tabernacle:  “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Ex. 25:2).

According to legend, even the location of the Temple had to do with generosity.  The story has it that there were once two brothers who lived next door to each other.   One of them was childless and the other, blessed with many children.  The two brothers saw to it that the yield of their crops was divided equally between them, but every night each of them would steal out secretly to his brother’s stack in order to add to it.  The brother without children believed that his brother needed more in order to support his family, while the one blessed with may children took pity on his childless brother, who would have no one to support him in the future, and therefore took care to add on to his share.   Each morning the brothers were surprised to see that even though they had given of their share of the crops to the other, each brother’s own stack of grain remained whole.   Nevertheless, every night the two brothers persisted in their acts of charity, until one night they met along the way, each carrying a sack of grain in his hands.   The place where they met was chosen as the site for the Temple.