Vayakhel: The Lord, Patron of the Arts!

Why did God choose Bezalel to build the Tabernacle?

Bezalel mastered many crafts, but his greatest gift was his Heart of Wisdom.

Table for Five: Vayakhel

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Moses said to the children of Israel: “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship.”

– Ex. 35:30-31

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Judaism, it’s oft been noted, is far more concerned with Moses than it is with Michelangelo. The prophet played a more prominent role in our past than the artist. Jews emphasized the beauty of holiness more than they worshipped the Greek ideal of the holiness of beauty. And yet, contrary to those who would have us believe that beauty was simply dismissed as an unworthy object of spiritual concern, it is remarkable that this verse not only singles out Bezalel as a master craftsman, but reminds us by way of his name of the powerful link between the beautiful and the Almighty. Bezalel’s life mission was, according to the sages, to have the Mishkan – the first portable Temple – reflect the ideal that we make manifest the glory of God by way of artistic beauty. The holy needs to be beautiful because it is a reflection of the Creator who is the source of all beauty.

Indeed, it was Michelangelo Buonarroti who defined art in precisely this spiritual way: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” It is not a coincidence then that the Hebrew meaning of the name Bezalel means precisely this: B’tzel El – “in the shadow of God.” Names define us. The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to the word, the two middle letters are shem – the Hebrew for name. Our name describes the mission of our soul. Moses reminded the Jews that “the Lord has called by name Bezalel” to teach us forever that the beauty of art is the shadow of God.

Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy, Judaics Faculty

Scientists have debated whether genius is derived from innate talent, or if hard work and practice (Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”) are all that are needed for anyone to become the next Shakespeare. As a mother and educator, I know that each child comes into the world with their own characteristics and predispositions, but I also realize that great things can still be accomplished with a growth mindset.

Bezalel, master of the Tabernacle Atelier, had all the characteristics of innate genius. Ramban (1194 – 1270) explains that “Israel in Egypt had been crushed under the work in mortar and brick… It was thus a wonder that there was amongst them such a great man who knew how to work with silver and gold, in cutting of stones, and in carving of wood… A craftsman, an embroiderer, a weaver…” And Bezalel’s talent went even beyond physical arts, into the spiritual realm: The rabbis (Brachot 55a) declared that he “knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created.”

If the Torah perspective is that such gifts are given through the “Spirit of God,” is there a place for effort, perseverance, and passion? A Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 40:2) provides some insight: “God showed Moses the book of the first man and said: ‘Each person I have given a role from the beginning, just like Bezalel…’” As such, we must remember that the ultimate purpose of any talent is to develop it to accomplish our sacred roles in this world.

Ilan Reiner, Architect & Author of “Israel History Maps”

Bezalel, the architect, full of divine wisdom, will craft the parts and pieces of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and put them together. The Torah doesn’t tell us how exactly the Mishkan was put together, only what it was made out of and what purpose it served. How do you build a physical structure that, when completed, would be the manifestation of God’s presence within the people of Israel? The Talmud tells us that God imbues wisdom to those who already have wisdom. Any architect can analyze the functional requirements of a temple. Anyone talented can craft wood boards and curtains. However, it takes one with the Spirit of God to put them together as a Mishkan – a perfect place that’s the source of holiness and purity to the people. When describing the people who helped build the Mishkan, the Torah uses the term “Wisdom of the Heart,” emphasizing that the architecture of the Mishkan is more than just knowing the materials, their quantities and what function they serve. It’s about understanding the deeper meaning and the real purpose of the Tabernacle. That Wisdom of the Heart, belonging to the people who contributed, the craftsmen and craftswomen, and the architect in charge, brought the Mishkan to perfection. Although it seems like a flimsy structure, made of wood, sheets, and fabric, it stood at the heart of people for almost 500 years. It came from the heart and lasted for as long as the heart of the people was beating within it.

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, New York, NY

The new logo for the Betzalel Academy of Arts and Design radiates the glow of Jerusalem, shines light of Torah from two ancient tablets, and reflects the Middle-Eastern-meets-Israeli style that defined the Betzalel School or Movement from the start. The Hebrew font suggests a boldness and maturity, maybe because these moments suggest we are beyond the flowering of the pioneer times of Zionist spirit.

We’re reminded of the meeting between Theodore Herzl and the artist Boris Schatz (1867-1932) who became an ardent Zionist. In 1903, he presented his vision to Herzl to establish an arts and crafts school in the Land of Israel. In 1905 at the Seventh Zionist Congress a resolution was passed to establish the Betzalel School of Art. The idea behind the name was to link new generations of artists to the ancient biblical artisan of Exodus. Despite aniconism over the millennia, the encouragement to engage in artistic production became yet another way Jewish spirit would make its way to expression. The mission: “to train the people of Jerusalem in crafts, develop original Jewish art and support Jewish artists…” The school was known for teaching traditional metal work, carpet weaving, woodcarving, the graphic arts, and photography. In 1955, it became The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Today, the architecture program is in the historic building and the Academy flourishes at Hebrew University. More and more artists continue to express themselves and tie into Jewish roots, because of the openness and opportunities created by Betzalel.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, VP, Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

My father-in-law has told me repeatedly about this verse. His name is Uri, and his father’s name is Yehuda. He is proud that his name, Uri from the tribe of Yehudah appears in the Torah.

There’s a tradition that there are 600,000 letters of the Torah corresponding to the 600,000 souls of Israel who left Egypt. There are more than 600,000 Jews today, but the idea is that there are 600,000 souls which divide into sparks that become our souls. There are 304,805 black letters in the Torah, but the tradition considers the Torah to be black fire written on white fire. Therefore, the 600,000 letters include both black letters and white letters (as spaces between the black letters). Each of us has our own letter of Torah. Just as every letter of the Torah is necessary, every Jew is essential to the Jewish people. We each have our own place in the sacred story.

My father-in-law found his verse. What about the rest of us? Where is your place in the text? If you had to pick one verse from the Torah that best encapsulates your life’s journey, which verse would it be? Which letter of Torah corresponds to your soul? Would your letter be one of the black letters or one of the white spaces in between?

Like Uri son of Yehuda, may we all find our place in Torah.

With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Nili Isenberg, Ilan Reiner, Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, and Rabbi Ilana Grinblat

Image: The Tabernacle by William Dickes, 19th cent.

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