Yosef Merves
Forging New Perspectives on Jewish Identity

An Ark for the Ages and a Family Legacy

“And Betzalel made the Ark…” (Shemot 37:1)

We were already told that Hashem selected Betzalel as Chief Craftsman for the building of the various components of the Mishkan, so why do we need to repeat again that Betzalel made the Ark?  We should already be able to assume that.  Furthermore, why does the Torah then go on to state, “And he made the Table, And he made the incense altar,” etc., but without mentioning Betzalel’s name?  It should also be noted that throughout the four parshas detailing the building of the Mishkan, the phrase “And he made” appears 248 times, corresponding to the 248 positive mitzvahs.

Ibn Ezra states that Betzalel actually made all the holy vessels himself, and this second mention of his name here was because of the honor due to the Ark, since it contained the Tablets and would ultimately be placed in the Holy of Holies.  The Ba’al HaTurim expounds on this: the Mishkan was a microcosm of the world, and the Ark corresponded to Hashem’s Chariot, the Holy Throne of Glory.  Only Betzalel had the proper understanding and kavannah to know the secrets that were crucial for building the Ark, but were not crucial for building the other vessels.  This was why the Ark is listed first out of all the components of the Mishkan as delineated in this parsha, and all the other verses just state “And he made…” without saying Betzalel’s name specifically, building upon the mention in this verse.  But this explanation seems implausible since it would have taken too much time for him to have made everything himself.

Ramban begins with a similar explanation, that Betzalel was the Chief Craftsman, so he made the Ark by himself.  The Ark was not difficult to construct, but he was the only one with the proper intentions, understanding, and knowledge to construct such a significant item.  However, he disagrees with ibn Ezra about the other vessels and says that these vessels were made by all the wise-hearted craftsmen together.  This solves the problem of the amount of time it would have taken Betzalel alone, but creates a different problem, since all the subsequent verses state “And he made…,” not “And they made…”.

Rashi takes the opposite approach, stating that the Ark, like the other vessels, were made by Betzalel along with the wise-hearted craftsman. Even though many people worked on it, Betzalel was so dedicated and devoted and gave so much of himself in his efforts and energy to the project, more than the other wise craftsmen, that he gets the honor of sole credit for building the Ark, and the Ark gets called in his name going forward.  Onkelos states a similar explanation that Betzalel gave of himself so much that Hashem ascribed the ark to him not just in the physical realm, but in the spiritual realm as well.  The Mishkan was the perfect example of taking something physical and making it spiritual.

Midrash Tanchuma asks whether we are supposed to believe that every time the Torah states “And he [Betzalel] made…,” was Betzalel was working alone?  Hashem told Moshe and Betzalel that He would endow the wise-hearted men with additional wisdom, so we know that Betzalel was not working alone. Indeed, Oheliab ben Ahisamach from the tribe of Dan was designated as his helper. However, the more you care about Hashem, the more He cares about you, so Hashem did not withhold from Betzalel any rewards for devoting himself and giving his soul so completely.  Instead, Hashem publicized for posterity Betzalel’s role in building the Mishkan.

There is actually another important lesson to be learned here: Betzalel was from the tribe of Yehudah, the noble tribe that would produce King David and have Jerusalem in their territory as the seat of the Kingdom of Judah, while Oheliab was from Dan, which was considered a lowly tribe.  Dan was the son of a handmaid rather than Rachel or Leah, only had one son himself, was one of the “weaker” brothers that Yosef presented to Pharoah.  The tribe received a tribal territory in the north of Israel on the border with Assyria, which required constant surveillance to protect against invading enemies.  However, both Yehudah and Dan are described as lions, by Ya’acov and Moshe respectively in their blessings to the people.  Yehudah’s name is similar to Hashem’s Four Letter Name, which usually indicates chesed, and Dan is the same letters as din, or judgment.  The Mishkan needs to be created with both attributes of chesed and din together.  Additionally, even though the tribe of Yehudah merits sovereignty over Israel, they can’t become haughty about it.  The most noble and regal tribe needs to cooperate with the lowliest tribe in order to complete building the Mishkan. The twelve brothers may have had different attributes, but all the tribes are considered equal in Hashem’s eyes, and we must be able to work with people that we might not otherwise ascribe importance to in order to achieve the common good.

Mesoch Hochmah mentions that the other vessels of the Mishkan had the possibility of being replaced, but the Ark built by Betzalel was the only Ark that was ever built and was never replaced, as there was never any additional set of tablets.  When the Ark was hidden before the destruction of the First Temple, no new Ark was created for the Second Temple. Betzalel’s Ark, including the Keruvim on the cover, was the only one ever created throughout the generations and retains his name for perpetuity.

You might wonder why another Ark was never built for the Second Temple.  Rambam writes that all the vessels became sanctified in the First Temple by being anointed with the sacred oil.  When the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, the Ark was hidden in the catacombs below the Temple Mount, in a secondary place that had also been sanctified with the anointing oil.  The oil was hidden as well so that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.  In the Second Temple, the way that the vessels became sanctified was by being utilized to fulfill their purpose in the Temple Service.  Since the Tablets had been hidden in Betzalel’s Ark, there was no way for a new Ark to fulfill its’ purpose, and thus no way to sanctify it, so a new Ark was never built.

Betzalel was also specially chosen for this task because of his family lineage, coming from the tribe of Judah and being the grandson of Chur, who opposed the Golden Calf vehemently and was killed trying to dissuade B’nai Yisrael from creating it.  Just as Chur died protecting Hashem’s honor during this terrible sin, his grandson increased Hashem’s honor in the world by building the Mishkan.  Because Betzalel received this honor, B’nai Yisrael was assured that the construction of Mishkan was pleasing to Hashem, and the murder of Chur would not be held against them. I am especially drawn to this idea since a lot of my childhood Jewish memories come from my grandfather, and one of my main objectives in my increased Jewish learning has been to accumulate knowledge in order to carry on the family legacy and transmit Judaism in a meaningful way to the next generations, on a much smaller scale than Betzalel’s construction of the Mishkan.  Through his actions, the Mishkan became an atonement for both the murder of Chur and the Sin of the Golden Calf- our Sages write that the gold of the Mishkan comes to atone for the gold of the Calf- and only Betzalel had the correct intention and understanding to actualize the vision.

An example of his understanding was being able to determine the intention with which all the donations to the Mishkan were given.  Which items were given wholeheartedly, and which items were given more reluctantly.  An example is the planks of wood that formed the walls of the Mishkan.  While these planks were identical in size, Betzalel was able to determine which ones were given with the most love for Hashem, and those planks were placed closest to the Holy of Holies, while ones that were given with less pure intention were placed further away.  These planks were arranged in the exact same order every single time that the Mishkan was assembled and disassembled in the desert. They were labeled so that their positions never changed since it would be disrespectful for one of the planks to lose their position of proximity to another plank.  This is where the prohibition of writing on Shabbat comes from.  No such order was maintained with respect to the sockets that held the planks because the sockets were made from the half-shekel coins that were donated by everyone, and thus everyone had an equal share in each one of the sockets and they were thus interchangeable.

The building of the Mishkan is a microcosm of Creation, but the Mishkan also represents a human being, with a brain, a heart, eyes, and various organs.  Just as no mistake was made in the Creation of the Mishkan and all instructions were carried out down to the last detail, no mistakes were made when each one of us was born.  We were also created according to Hashem’s specifications for us, imbued with certain attributes and characteristics, made from particular materials, and given certain tools for the purpose of serving Hashem. Hopefully, we can also imbue ourselves with holiness and sanctity and become manifestations of the Divine Presence, although we no longer have Moshe to lead the way.  Rather than one central Mishkan, attended by the Kohanim, we are now each an individual Mishkan, participating in our unique Divine Service and preparing for Nissan, the month of festivity when we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt and the renewal of life.  Every day is a new challenge, but also a new opportunity, for us to make choices, and take steps closer to greatness and fulfilling our purpose.   This doesn’t always take a linear path.  The Mishkan was disassembled and rebuilt many times over the course of wandering through the desert for 40 years.  But it remained constant in its’ components and always maintained the same purpose.  As long as we are growing in the right direction, that’s all that matters. Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Born and raised in a Modern Orthodox/Conservadox home in Miami, FL, Yosef first started to increase his Jewish knowledge while learning at Boston University. Afterward, he lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side for several years and was an active member of several shuls, including Manhattan Jewish Experience where he completed the Fellowship program. He spent the last two years studying full-time at Machon Shlomo in Har Nof, Jerusalem and now resides in New Jersey. He always had a strong Jewish identity and wants to encourage others to build and strengthen theirs as well.
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