Terumah: The Building Contractor’s Tale

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee; The tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is thereupon, and all the furniture of the tabernacle. (Exodus 31:1-7)

“Call me Manny. I work at Moe’s Depot Building Supplies. Been there, oh, must be about nine years, by now. It’s not a bad job, considering how hard it is to find steady work, these days: I assist contractors, builders, and handymen who are building small construction projects for home or light industrial use. I meet all kinds of people—it’s amazing how we’ve become a Nation of Builders. Nothing surprises me—the housewife who is putting an addition on the house in her spare time; the retired bookkeeper who decides to take his college son’s bedroom and make it into a man-cave; the young couple who are flipping a house all by themselves, all during the weekend. My own background is fairly modest—my Dad was a frustrated construction engineer who had to go out and support his family when his own Dad died young—so I’m fairly self-taught, and there’s a lot of information online. I’ve picked up a lot over the years, by myself, from the job, and working with all kinds of people.

“Still, you could have knocked me over with a ball-peen hammer when I opened up my Contractors’ Supplies Department this past week and looked up, to see two fellas who looked as if they had escaped from Central Casting for “Lawrence of Arabia”—they were standing patiently in front of my desk, wearing full desert-sheik garb head to toe, sandals on their feet, beards down to their waists, holding rolled-up parchments under their arms, and squinting in the fluorescent lights—we’re changing over to CFL bulbs in the store, but it’s still fairly primitive. I was a bit surprised at their appearance, but I smiled, took a last sip of breakfast coffee from my cardboard cup and said,

“’Good morning! Someone helping you gentlemen?’

“The taller of the two—he was a hawk-nosed fella, with a dark-tanned face full of wrinkles, the kind you get from squinting into a hot Sinai sun—answers me, with one of those—what? Israeli-type? Arab? accents (Was he a terrorist, sent by one of those enemy mobs to inspect our Western building methodologies? You can’t be too careful.) Says to me, ‘We’re here to buy building materials for our Holy Sanctuary in the wild and untamed Wilderness. We want to open a Contractor’s Account.’
“No problem, there. I’ve opened all sorts of accounts, for all sorts of people. My colleague here in the South Florida store, Florens Auberjonois—he’s Haitian, and he’s always kidding me when I try to speak to him in Quebecois; my people were originally from French Canada—once worked with a trade rep for the Sultan of Brunei, and they were able to jabber away in French, ‘cause the Brunei fella had studied engineering at the Ecole Mechanique in Marseilles—so I started filling out the forms on the computer, and all was going well, until I asked the Tall One—he seemed to be the Spokesman—for Proof of Currency, figuring he would give me a MasterCard, VISA, or American Express; that’s what most of them do, and I was about ready to to explain to him that we’re sorry, but we no longer accept Diner’s Club—
“To my surprise, he pulls out a small leather bag, and pours out a little mountain of gold coins on my desk—I lift one up, and it has the picture of an Egyptian Pharaoh on it—well, that was surprising, you can bet, but not something we could accept as legal currency, here in the Good Old U.S. of A. I mean, it’s the 21st Century.

“’I’m sorry,’ I said to Tall Guy, ‘but I can’t take this. Would you like to take home this E-Z Contractor’s Credit Application, and fill it out when you have time? You can bring it in, tomorrow?’

“He looks all confused, and does a quick conference with Short Fella, and they both smile, and nod, and say to me, though I suspect they’re just thinking out loud, ‘We will consult with Tuvya the Translator-Scribe, and he will make it all Correct and Proper. We will bring it back to you, Mr. Manny, tomorrow.’

“So they can’t fill out the form, but I do get their names: Tall Guy is Bezalel ben Uri, and Short Fellow is Oholiav ben Achisamach. Which is hard enough for me to remember and pronounce, but they appreciate my making the effort—plus, I meet so many different sorts of people, here in South Florida, that another foreign-sounding name is all in a day’s work for me.
“And so, we go on. I pull out another standard form, ‘List of Necessary Building Materials.’ ‘What goods will you Gentlemen require?’ I ask.
“They brighten up—at last, this seems to be something they can comprehend.

“’We will need the following,’ says Oholiav, and, with much ceremony, he unrolls a large scroll—did I smell papyrus? It had a sort of plantlike smell, like those bamboo shoots in the Chow Mein when Sophie brings home take-out Chinese Food.

“’Acacia wood—we don’t suppose you carry that?’ asks Bezalel

“’Actually, we do—it’s become very popular for flooring,’ I tell them, ‘We get it from Australia, of all places.’

“‘Is that near Moab?’ asks Oholiav, ‘Rabbi Moshe says we may get there by next month—perhaps we should wait, and cut it down ourselves.’

“‘I don’t think so,’ answers Bezalel, ‘Moshe told me that the Sanctuary was a rush job, and asked me specifically, “How long will this take?”

“Two weeks,” I told him.’

“They both nodded, energetically.

“‘What else are we talking about, Gentlemen?’” I asked. They consulted their parchments, and read from them alternatively.

“’Gold, silver, and copper—‘ said Bezalel.

“’Special order,’ I said, writing it down.

“’Flax, dugong and ram skins, purple- and red-dyed wool—‘ said Oholiav.

“’Probably three weeks—and I’ll pull out the special forms you’ll need to get approval from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) folks,’ I said, ‘How would your Rabbi Moses Boss-man feel about Synthetic Alternatives? We can probably find you some made from a petroleum derivative. That way, you’re only harming the Environment, not a species.’

“’And these Cherubim for the Mercy Seat—‘ said Bezalel.

“’What are those?’ I asked.

“So he told me.

“Like I said, you meet all kinds of people in this business….”