Yaakov Green

A story no one tells about the miracle no one sees

Betzalel and Oholiab, courtesy of

My children and my students know that I love stories. I collect them, tell and retell them, savoring the details and nuanced changes in inflection or illustration that occur in each retelling and new rendition. All our knowledge, and all our people’s heritage, exist in stories.

Jewish heritage and wisdom can, and often does, exist in untold stories and details as well. In this week’s parsha, the construction of the mishkan commences, led by Betzalel, a master craftsman. (As an aside, I have always enjoyed the fact that in naming the premiere graduate school of arts in Jerusalem, the name Betzalel was chosen. Mi k’amcha Yisrael!)

We know precious little about Betzalel. However, we know even less about the often overlooked, if not completely forgotten, character of Oholiav. A master craftsman in his own right, he stood side-by-side with Betzalel, directing the wise artisans in the construction of all the various components of a portable temple structure in which G-d would rest His physical presence in the world.

Who was Oholiav? Who was Betzalel? How did they work together? What did they both do to merit their commissions and their names being spotlighted by the Torah? What is their overlooked and untold story?

The Torah tells us precious little about these two master craftsmen, but it does share their lineage. Betzalel was from the tribe of Judah, the grandson of Chur. Chur was the son of Miriam and Calev. Betzalel was Moshe Rabbeinu’s great-grandnephew. Born to a tribe of glory, and a family of renown and prominence.

Oholiav was born to the tribe of Dan. His father’s name is not a name we know or hear in any other context. Rashi tells us that Dan, having been born of neither Rachel nor Leah but rather of one of the lesser wives, is considered of the lowliest tribes, and that Oholiav’s and Betzalel’s tribes are mentioned in contrast to each other. This, says Rashi, demonstrates that G-d employs the lowest and highest, imbuing each and every Jew with the skills they need for their particular tafkid, their task. I don’t know whether this insight from Rashi was held in mind when the devout Mark Twain wrote The Prince and the Pauper, but the thematic message is strikingly similar.

Oholiav and Betzalel grew up with separate lives, and likely divergent experiences. And yet the Torah records that G-d paired them together, to work together, to lead together. These two creative souls were a paradigm of creative learning and leadership that we try to emulate in our homes and in our schools each and every day. Wisdom and ability come from Hashem, and it is crucial to remember two important points.

First, that every individual has a tafkid in this world. G-d has chosen each of us to be here now, and has given us our abilities and talents. Every one of us is therefore obligated and empowered to seek out our tafkid, to make our mark on behalf of our people and for the betterment of the world.

Second, wisdom is meant to be shared and transmitted. Nehama Leibowitz beautifully points out that when Moshe tells the people in this week’s parsha about the selection of Betzalel and Oholiav to lead this construction project, he adds a detail that was not included earlier in the text when Hashem first tells Moshe of their selection. In chapter 35, verse 34, Moshe makes sure to let the people know that Betzalel and Oholiav were both “given the ability to teach.” There would not be a hoarding of knowledge and skill in an effort to keep that knowledge and ability rare and a sought-after commodity. Knowledge must be accessible and shared.

Leibowitz, quoting the Ramban, points out just how miraculous these two men truly were. They were a wonder. How could a people that had been relegated to mortar and brickmaking, with no access to gemology or metallurgy, have the communal heritage required to know the intricate art forms needed to craft the gold, silver, woodcarving, and textiles needed for making the Mishkan? These artists were a cause for wonder, which is why the Torah (Shemot 35:30) includes the injunction to the people to “see” these artists and to recognize how miraculous their talents are.

Both in school and in our homes, we see emerging talents of all shades and colors every day. Our job as parents and educators is to see these talents for their truly miraculous nature, to celebrate and cultivate them. Our individual talents are the methods through which we and our children best enter the world and shine. It is through these emerging talents that we can best serve Hashem.

Our job as educators and as parents is to see to it that we create a space in which we see our students, our community’s children, living the passage from Sefer Chareidim (and a popular song): “In my heart I will build a Mishkan to beautify G-d’s glory.”

May we all be successful in this sacred task and see the wondrous talents of all our children!

About the Author
Rabbi Yaakov Green is the Head of School, and an alumnus, of Maimonides School, a Modern Orthodox coed day school serving students from infants through 12th grade in Brookline, MA, where he lives with his wife Elisheva and their five children. Before coming to Maimonides, Yaakov has served as a school administrator for many years Dallas, TX, St. Louis, MO, and Boca Raton, FL. Yaakov holds a master's degree in education, concentrating in Ed. Tech. Bachelor’s degrees in English Literature and Political Science, and has participated as a cohort fellow in many educational programs in Harvard University, JTS Davidson School, and University of Missouri, St Louis. He spent several years developing innovative programs that have been implemented across North America, Israel, and Australia, in classrooms, camps, and conventions, synagogues and Sunday schools.
Related Topics
Related Posts