I write here about an issue that is not new, and I may not offer any innovative insights. However, as I was writing a D’var Torah on the parasha last week for family and friends, I thought that the parasha can provide an important message and reminder about the role of Jewish education in today’s Jewish world.
This past week, we read Parashat Vayakhel, and we will read Parashat Pikudei this coming week (these parshiyot are usually combined). After many detailed verses about how the Mishkan was to be built, it is finally time to build it. I think that the very first verse introduces the parasha well – “And [Moshe] said to them these are the things that God commanded that you should do them” (Exodus 35:1). There is a command to be followed by action, and that seems to be the essence of Parashat Vayakhel. Indeed, we have a repetition of God’s instructions for the Mishkan, then the people brought the materials, God talks about the individuals who are to actually build the Mishkan, and then the majority of the verses in Chapter 36, 37, and 38 use the root עשה – do – they did as God commanded.
This appears to be a very simple structure for the parasha, except I would have expected the command to transition immediately into action. Why does the Torah discuss Betzal’el and those who helped with the production of the Mishnah, with the emphasis on the trait of having chokhmat lev – a “wise heart?”
Before answering this question, I propose that the Torah’s consistent message is that a Jew is supposed to act. A few weeks ago, in Parashat Yitro, we read that B’nei Yisrael said, “all that God commands we will do” (Exodus 19:8). In Parashat Mishpatim, we find the famous declaration of na’aseh v’nishma, “we will do and then we will listen (perhaps ‘understand’)” (Exodus 24:7). Since B’nei Yisrael left Egypt, however, we have seen episodes of at least a few individuals disobeying commands – they collected the mahn on Shabbat against God’s command and they built the Golden Calf, for example. However, in our parasha, when God provided the instructions for building the Mishkan, there is a repetition of action. They just did it. We in fact learn in this week’s parasha that B’nei Yisrael succeeded in doing exactly what Moshe had commanded through God (Exodus 39:32).
But I think Parashat Vayakhel teaches a powerful lesson about the inspiration of action. What qualifies Betzal’el to craft the Mishkan is his “wisdom, insight, and knowledge” (Exodus 35:31). Likewise, in any arena, to follow Torah requires wisdom, insight, and knowledge.
Sometimes, when we think of what it means to follow a command, we think of robots, merely mimicking the correct action. However, we are given so much more potential than just that. Our lives as Jews are about action, but that action stems from our personal talents and abilities. Today, when we speak of intelligence, we do not speak about just a “general intelligence,” implying one kind of intelligence; we speak of multiple intelligences, reaching many different areas of talent. That is because each person brings a unique wisdom and talent to the realm of Judaism and to the Jewish community.
But I think the emphasis on “wisdom, insight, and knowledge” also epitomizes our religion’s emphasis on education. Without education, all our potential talent remains untapped; we would not know what to do with any of it.
As we continue to grapple with the spoken decrease of Jewish identity in America, I think this past week’s parasha provides us with a reminder of one of our most essential priorities. While we can discuss Jewish education in its many varieties, I think we sorely lack a culture of higher Jewish education. I realized this when a professor of mine in college spoke once in shul encouraging students to enroll in Jewish Studies, so that they do not continue to think of Judaism through the lens of a high school education. While Jewish education makes lasting impressions at a young age, can we really say that a supplemental religious school or day school education suffices when we know that a high school diploma does not suffice in the secular world? Even if not on the rigorous level of a full time student, to what extent is lifelong learning a part of today’s Jewish culture? When it comes to the body of worldly knowledge, we rethink and newly understand the world through higher education, but that sophisticated thinking is not relegated to the Jewish realm. The way we understand the rich stories of Genesis is pure at a young age, but one cannot begin to fathom what one can discover with the tools at the disposal of an adult mind. Perhaps we have many questions about God, our history, or our values, but while we have developed and matured tremendously over the years, intellectually speaking, our conception of Judaism remains the same.
Shammai, in Pirkei Avot, gave us the wisdom that our study of Torah should be a consistent and regular activity (1:15). Be it ten minutes or an hour every day, or better yet, full time study, our commitment to continual learning can afford new heights in the ways in which we understand our Torah and our Judaism. If not sure, ask a local rabbi what to study! But with the “wisdom, insight, and knowledge” we could all gain from this commitment, we will be better equipped to fulfill our potentials in living a meaningful Jewish life.