Talah still could not fully comprehend the transformation. She had resigned herself to the life of a useless spinster. Her arthritic joints had relegated her to destitution and poverty. If it were not for the daily manna from heaven that fell in front of her tent, she feared she would have died of starvation. She had no skills, no expertise, and no possessions except for the clothing on her back and her decrepit goat skin tent.
When the call for donations for the Sanctuary went out, she was saddened at her inability to contribute. She wondered if she were to cut off part of her threadbare skirt, if it could somehow be used for the construction. Talah cried herself to sleep, as the neighboring women rushed to the center of the Israelite camp to bring their gold rings, silver bracelets, bronze mirrors and a rainbow of beautiful threads and fabrics for the Sanctuary.
The inconceivable phenomenon took place the following morning When Talah woke, she no longer felt the constant pain in her joints. The hurt, the throbbing, the ache that never diminished but only got worse – was gone. She got up gingerly, scared that it was a trick of the mind. She knew other women who had gone mad from pain and started fantasizing and even hallucinating. But no, it was true! She could move her body without pain. She could take a step in the same way that she had walked decades before. And her arms! She could wave them freely! Her fingers! Her dear, dear fingers. She opened and closed her fingers to make a fist. No excruciating pain! Talah almost fainted in disbelief. A miracle! Oh God! Thank you, thank you, God! Talah thought to herself. I did not ask for this – I did not even think it possible, but I am so grateful. I shall ever be your dedicated servant. I must use this gift! Let me see if there is anything I can do for the Sanctuary.
* * *
Talah was instinctively drawn to the smell of molten metal and the banging of hammers upon anvils. She entered the metalworking clearing. Soot-covered tents surrounded the clearing. There were multiple fires burning. Men were melting ingots of various metals, and then pouring them into different shaped molds. She saw burly men working with bronze and quickly moved on. She was attracted to the men and women working on silver, pounding the malleable metal with unusual-looking instruments. Talah then heard a very fine ringing. The tone, though light, resonated in her bones. That work is for me, Talah thought. And then she spotted the goldsmiths.
She approached a thin, old man bent over a work bench. Talah drew close and cleared her throat to get his attention. The old man ignored Talah as he focused on shaping a small golden bell. Talah watched his movements intensely. She thought the work and design were exquisite. When the man finished the bell, he placed it in a burlap bag on his table, put his tools down and turned to face Talah.
“How may I help you, dear lady?” he asked.
“Well, hello,” Talah answered while looking at her toes, “I would like to help you with your work.”
“That is wonderful!” the man stood up. “My name is Oholiav and I am responsible in part for the goldsmiths here. What is your name and what experience do you have?”
“My name is Talah; but I have no experience. My fingers did not function well until this morning,” she put out her wrinkled hands, “but now I feel as if I could build the pyramids if I had to. I wish to do whatever I can for the Sanctuary.”
“We have had many people without any experience that have shown incredible talent,” Oholiav nodded, “but you are the first to have been suddenly healed. Here, sit down by the table,” he motioned to his chair, “and let us see what you can do.”
Oholiav took out a small sheet of beaten gold and placed it on the table amongst his tools.
“Try shape this piece of gold into a bell, like the one I just made. These will be worn on the robe of Aaron, the High Priest.”
Wordlessly, Talah sat down and touched the sheet of gold. She then ran her hands over the tools. A thrill of excitement made the hair on her arms stand on end. Talah picked up the golden sheet and felt its unexpected heavy weight. She closed her eyes as she imagined turning the shapeless sheet into the beautiful bell she had just seen Oholiav make.
Talah put the sheet down and looked carefully at the tools. Then, with barely a conscious thought, her hands moved as if with their own mind. They grabbed the tools and pounded, rolled, cut and formed the gold. She used the tongs to bring the gold to the nearby fire and then continued the process of forming. Talah then etched in the patterns that she had seen Oholiav place on his bell. After just a few minutes, she handed the completed bell to Oholiav.
Oholiav stared at the bell and then at Talah.
“That was extraordinary,” Oholiav gasped. “No one has ever formed the bells as quickly or as expertly as you just did.”
Tears were streaming down Talah’s face as she looked at her hands with incredulity. Oh thank you, God. She thought. Thank you for giving me purpose again.
“We have an important project that must be done with great precision.” Oholiav continued to address Talah. “We need to construct the legs of the table of the showbread.” Oholiav pointed at four sturdy beams on the floor of his tent. “The legs are made of acacia wood, but must be covered with gold. The entire table should seem as if it is solid gold. You must leave an exact space clear of gold at the top of each leg, so it will fit snugly and firmly into the top of the table; yet no wood can be seen. We will set up a separate work station for you with all the materials and tools you will need. Come with me,” Oholiav motioned for Talah to rise, “I will introduce you to Betzalel, who is in charge of the entire Sanctuary effort, and to some of the other craftsmen you will be working with.”
Talah could not believe the words Oholiav was saying to her. She momentarily looked behind herself to confirm that he was not speaking with someone else. She then quickly got up and followed Oholiav to meet the others.
* * *
Talah loved it. She loved the feel of the gold in her hands. She loved how it responded to her touch. She loved how it moved exactly in sync with her directions, and then it remained in place. She had never felt so much power, control or fulfillment in her life.
She was very pleased with the results. The table legs truly looked as if they were made from solid gold. She had tested the fit with the table top and it was perfect. But something was missing. Talah felt as if she were not working to her full capacity. The legs were just right, but boring. And no one would see or appreciate the handiwork under the table. She had seen some of the other goldsmiths make beautiful and intricate designs. Both the youngster Betzalel and the seasoned Oholiav had explained to her that the legs needed to be plain and unadorned. But it seemed to be such a waste of both her talent and a perfectly usable working surface.
I will make a very subtle design, Talah thought. Just some very light etches. I will make it with a pattern similar to the cherubim, as I’ve seen other artisans here do. And I know! I can make it so that it will look the same from any angle. Each face of the leg will continue the pattern on the next side. It will be a masterpiece!
Talah’s thoughts went immediately into action. Like a whirlwind, the grey-haired spinster cut and sliced into the malleable gold. When Talah finished, she took a step back to survey the work and gasped in awe. It is more beautiful than the design I had imagined!
Talah rushed to call young Betzalel and spry Oholiav to survey her work.
“That is an ingenious design,” Betzalel said, “but…”
“But what?” Talah asked.
“It is not what we requested,” Betzalel finished.
“I know, I know,” Talah answered. “But is this not more beautiful?”
Betzalel looked up at the taller Oholiav, and they both shook their heads slightly.
“It is truly beautiful,” Betzalel continued, “but it is not how it is supposed to be. We have very clear instructions regarding the table legs. They are to be simple and unadorned. Your creativity is appreciated, but you have demonstrated it in the wrong place.”
“What?” Talah raised her voice. “How can you not want something that you admit is more beautiful?”
“I did not say that it was more beautiful,” Betzalel said. “Merely that it is beautiful. But what does beauty matter when it mars God’s commands? We must remove this plating from the wooden legs and do them over again.”
“You would destroy this?” Talah pointed angrily at the table legs. “You would destroy my masterpiece? I do not believe this!” Talah stormed away towards her tent.
Oholiav chased after her.
“Talah! Talah!” he called. “Please wait.”
Talah stopped. Tears were streaming down her wrinkled face.
“What?” she sobbed. “What do you want from me? I finally, finally found purpose in my life. I have finally done something important in my miserable, painful life. I finally do something that fills me with joy and pride, and that child comes along and crushes it.”
“Talah. Please listen to me. Betzalel and I are merely following the exact directives of Moses, as we all must. Moses was very clear on this point; the legs must be plain. We very much value your talent and your contribution, even though it is not adorned. This is an important job. You are supremely talented. God has given you a gift that you are utilizing. You are returning the fruits of those gifts to Him for His abode amongst us. Please come back. Please let us put the matter right. I would not trust this job to anyone else but you.”
“Really?” Talah started wiping the tears on her face. “You would not give it to someone else?”
“You are the best, Talah. If those legs do not have a perfect fit with the table, it will be very difficult to fix. This is probably one of the hardest jobs, and I need you to do it. I know it is not glorious, and your name may not go down in history as the goldsmith for the legs of the table of the showbread, but it is nevertheless imperative. Please come back. We need you and time is starting to run out.”
“I will come back,” Talah said with a slight smile. “And thank you Oholiav. Thank you for being so kind to an old woman.”
“Old woman?” Oholiav smiled back. “You are easily several decades younger than me. If anyone is old here, it is I, and I do not feel old. So that makes you a very young lady indeed.”
Talah’s smile grew larger. She looked to the side and started walking back to her golden legs.
Talah stripped the gold off the wood, recast it into the furnace, removed it and started beating it into thin plates. She again felt the joy of working with the soft metal. She was content and at peace. I must remember why I am doing it. This is my gift to God. I was silly to disobey the instructions. I will make these leg-coatings so well that, with God’s help, they will last forever.
Though it could not be detected by a casual or a layman’s glance, Talah knew that when she was finished, the legs were even better than the previous ones. The thickness of the plate was uniform throughout each and every leg. The legs went into the top of the table and it appeared as if the entire table was made out of one solid piece of gold.
Betzalel and Oholiav came to inspect Talah’s work.
“It is perfect,” Betzalel nodded in approval. “It is truly a work of art.”
“It is fantastic,” Oholiav concurred. “I knew you were the ideal person for the job.”
Talah seemed to glow from the approval.
“There is another job we would like you to work on now,” Betzalel said.
“I am ready and willing to follow your directives to the letter,” Talah exclaimed.
“Actually,” Betzalel explained, “though there are some very specific guidelines, you will have a lot of leeway for more creative expression.”
“Really?” Talah almost jumped. “What is it?”
“Well, it needs to have a lot of flowers and blossoms and knobs and cups. And it all needs to be made from one big solid piece of gold. Talah, we want you to make the Menorah – the Great Candelabrum of the Sanctuary.”
This time Talah did jump. “Me? You want me to make the Menorah?”
“Yes. We will direct and help you with the specific guidelines, but we will leave the creative designs to you. You are the best.”
Talah felt like a young girl again; her life was full of promise and purpose.
* * * * * *
Exodus 35:4-7; 22-24
4 And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the Lord commanded, saying: 5 Take ye from among you an offering unto the Lord, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the Lord’s offering: gold, and silver, and brass; 6 and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair; 7 and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood;
22 And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold unto the Lord. 23 And every man, with whom was found blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins, brought them. 24 Every one that did set apart an offering of silver and brass brought the Lord’s offering; and every man, with whom was found acacia-wood for any work of the service, brought it.
1 And Betzalel and Oholiav shall work, and every wise-hearted man, in whom the Lord hath put wisdom and understanding to know how to work all the work for the service of the sanctuary, according to all that the Lord hath commanded.’ 2 And Moses called Betzalel and Oholiav, and every wise-hearted man, in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom, even every one whose heart stirred him up to come unto the work to do it.
Exodus 37:10-11; 17
10 And he made the table of acacia-wood: two cubits was the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. 11 And he overlaid it with pure gold, and made thereto a crown of gold round about.
17 And he made the candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work made he the candlestick, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knops, and its flowers, were of one piece with it.
* * * * * *
Most of the second half of Exodus deals with the instructions and construction of the Sanctuary, including the items in the story above. Betzalel is attributed in the text as having done most of the work, but I am interpreting it more as a management role.
My friend and biblical scholar Rabbi Gad Dishi points out that there were specific tasks that women are credited with performing for the sanctuary – mostly donating valuable items and spinning cloth – specifically not the ones I attribute to Talah. I am interpreting the female jobs to be ones that women exclusively did, while other jobs may have been open to talented people of both genders.
There are midrashim that state that God placed the requisite knowledge in each artisans mind (or heart, hence “Wise of Heart” in the biblical text). I took it a step further and, besides giving Talah the technical knowledge and skill, I also gave her the physical capability to work gold as well. This draws from a different midrash that states that everyone was miraculously healed at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.