‘A Thinking Man’ Ki Tisa-Parah 5781

The requirements specifications for the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and its utensils have been published. The time has come for the execution phase. G-d Himself chooses the Program Manager, Betzalel the son of Uri the son of Hur from the Tribe of Judah. G-d prepares Betzalel for this imposing task by providing him with some Divine Assistance [Shemot 31:3-4]: “I have imbued him with the Spirit of G-d, with wisdom, with insight, with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship. To think thoughts (lach’shov mach’shavot)[1], to work with gold, with silver, and with copper”. Armed with the “Spirit of G-d”, Betzalel was transformed into a Super-Artisan and was ready to begin work.

Part of Betzalel’s preparation included the capability to “think thoughts” What kind of thoughts was Betzalel taught to think? Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator, who lived in France in the eleventh century, directs our attention to a verse that appears in the requirements specification for the curtains of the Mishkan [Shemot 26:1]: “Make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked (ma’aseh choshev) into them.” Rashi interprets the phrase “ma’aseh choshev” – literally “the work of thought” – as the work of a master weaver: “Cherubim were figured on [the curtains] in the process of weaving them, not afterwards by embroidery which is needlework – but by weaving it on its two surfaces, one design on one side, a different design on the other; e. g., a lion on one side and an eagle on the other side”. Rashi differentiates between weaving and embroidery: As embroidery is performed in a layer above the cloth, it is a relatively simple manner to embroider two different patterns on two sides of one piece of cloth. In contrast, weaving is performed within the cloth, itself. Weaving in such a way that two completely different images appear on two opposite sides of the cloth can be performed only by a master weaver. These were the “thoughts” that would now be going through Betzalel’s head.

Rabbi Yitzchak Kopf, who lived in Erloi (now Eger), Hungary, around the turn of the twentieth century, proposes a very different explanation. Writing in “Lekitat Yitzchak ben Avraham”, Rabbi Kopf teaches that a person should always be thinking holy thoughts, even when he is engaged in mundane activities like chopping wood or running Monte Carlo flyout simulations. Rabbi Kopf quotes the elucidation of the Hatam Sofer[2] on a well-known piece of Talmud in Tractate Berachot [35b]. The Talmud is discussing a verse in Joshua [1:8] that says, “This Torah shall not depart from your mouths, and you shall contemplate it day and night”. The Talmud quotes the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who asks, “Is it possible that a person ploughs in the ploughing season, sows in the sowing season, harvests in the harvest season, threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the windy season, what will become of Torah?” How can a person engage in mundane labour and still have time left over to learn Torah? Rabbi Shimon, therefore, asserts that as long as the Jewish People obey G-d, all of their mundane labour will be performed by others[3]. The Hatam Sofer reinterprets the phrase “threshes in the threshing season” to describe a person who thinks only about the task at hand: when he is threshing, he is thinking only about threshing and when he is winnowing, he is thinking only about winnowing. What will become of his Torah? Rabbi Shimon demands that even when a person is engaged in everyday activities, he must still be thinking about the Torah. Only in this way he will truly “contemplate it day and night”. Rabbi Kopf reflects the Hatam Sofer’s explanation back into Betzalel’s “thinking of thoughts”. Even when Betzalel was engrossed in the task at hand – the fashioning of gold, silver and copper into works of art – his thoughts were always with G-d and His Torah. Rabbi Kopf concludes his explanation by teaching that when we deal in “gold and silver” – the routine activities of making a living – we must always remember what is truly important.

We can put a spin on Rabbi Kopf’s explanation by leveraging a concept proposed by Rabbi Yehuda Léon Ashkénazi, better known as “Manitou”, who rebuilt the French Jewish community after World War II. Manitou, in a treatise[4] that attempts to explain the existence of evil in a world created by a perfect god, proposes an explanation for an enigmatic verse describing the Seventh Day of Creation, a verse that we repeat each week at Kiddush on Friday night [Bereishit 2:3]: “G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it G-d ceased from all the work of creation that He had done (asher bara E-lokim la’asot)”. Manitou remarks that the literal translation of this verse is actually “… from all that He had created to do”. Created to do what? Manitou interprets the word “to do (la’asot)” as “to repair[5]”, explaining that G-d purposely created our world to be incomplete and imperfect. G-d invites man to complete the act of creation by repairing and perfecting His world. This is accomplished through living a life of sanctity. Manitou writes “Sanctity becomes manifest through all spheres of society. It takes all dimensions of life and elevates them from a natural, technical system into a living, meaningful one[6]”. Sanctity is not limited to the study of Torah or to the performance of mitzvot. Sanctity is a natural by-product of living a life of meaning, a life in which every action is performed for the purpose of collaborating with the Divine.

With Manitou’s call for sanctity in hand, let us revisit the Torah’s requirement for a master weaver to make the curtains of the Mishkan. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the headmaster of the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century, asserts that the job of the artisan was not merely to weave the curtains with “a lion on one side and an eagle on the other side”, but to determine which figures should be drawn on the curtains – a lion, an eagle, or perhaps some other figure that he felt would be appropriate. G-d did not want Betzalel merely to build the Mishkan according to pre-drawn plans. He wanted Betzalel to assist in its design. G-d wanted Betzalel to complete the task that He had begun. These were the “thoughts” that Betzalel was meant to think.

The Mishkan was built to be a source of G-dliness in our corporeal world. G-d commands Moshe [Shemot 25:8] “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”. Our Sages in the Midrash note that G-d desires to dwell “b’tocham” – “among them” – and not “b’tocho” – “in it (i.e. in the Mishkan)”. G-d wants to imbue our world with sanctity but He does not want – He cannot allow – that sanctity to be confined between the four walls of a building. Man is responsible for dispersing sanctity. In the words of Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik[7], the leader of North American Jewry in the previous sanctuary, we must be “Kedusha (Sanctity) Imperialists”. Everything we do must be for the express purpose of giving life meaning. This mission is particularly challenging during those nine or more hours a day we spend making a living – working with gold and silver. Some professions more naturally lend themselves to sanctity – doctors, nurses, teachers, and religious leaders come to mind. Nevertheless, the requirement to live a life of sanctity is levied upon all professions – ploughers, threshers, winnowers, engineers and accountants. We are all invited to work together with G-d to complete the act of creation.

Now that’s something to think about…

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] I have used the simple translation of the Hebrew “lach’shov mach’shavot”. The translations on Sefaria and Chabad are influenced by the Midrash – Sefaria translates this phrase as “to make designs” and the Chabad Tanach translates it as “to do master weaving”. I chose to use the simple translation so as to begin from square one.

[2] Rabbi Moshe Sofer, who lived in the nineteenth century in Pressburg (now Bratislava), Hungary.

[3] The Talmud concludes with the words, “Many have acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and were not successful”.

[4] The treatise is located in the third volume of Sod Midrash HaToladot.

[5] See Devarim [21:12].

[6] This is a paraphrasing of Manitou’s words, courtesy of Rabbi Uriel Eitam, as translated by Kaeren Fish.

[7] This quote is located somewhere in Noraos HaRav (http://www.noraosharav.com/) but as most of the lessons on this site are scanned without OCR, I have not yet located the source.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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