This week we learn about Bezalel, God’s choice to design and build the Tabernacle (Mishkan) containing the tablets of the law that accompanied the people for 40 years in the desert (Exodus 38:22-39:31).
On the face of it, these verses describe the matter-of-fact building of a movable edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan. It’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites, a standard that would impress itself upon the hearts, minds, and souls of generations of Jews to come.
Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. Only someone with the right qualities of heart, mind, soul, skill, and communal attitude could do the job, qualities spelled out in the text.
Bezalel was endowed with wisdom, chochmah; insight, binah; and understanding, da-at. (Exodus 35:30-34) Rashi (11th century France) says that chochmah refers to the wisdom learned from others; binah is the understanding acquired from one’s own life experience; and da-at is mystical intuition. Jewish legend says that Bezalel was well-versed in the Kabbalah and understood how God used the combinations of Hebrew letters to create the heavens and earth.
The Torah and tradition present Bezalel as brilliant in mind, a master craftsman and architect, seasoned by life’s experiences, open-hearted and open-minded to the insights of his fellows, inspired by God, and graced with perception of the laws and truths at creation’s core.
Bezalel’s name intimates all this – “to rest in God’s shadow” – suggesting that in addition to his unique capabilities, Bezalel intuited God’s will.
Rashi noted that in addition to chochmah (worldly wisdom), binah (understanding from life experience) and daat (mystical intuition), the text says u-v’chol m’lachah. Bezalel knew how to work in gold, silver, bronze, stonecutting, carving, designing, embroidering, and weaving.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (18th century) says that as chief executive, Bezalel was to “meticulously carry out God’s instructions” but also “v’lachshov mach’shavot” (think his own thoughts), meaning that Bezalel as a master artist contributed his own ideas to God’s instructions.
There are fine replicators in painting, sculpture and architecture. The great artist, however, sees deeply to the core of a thing and executes that vision for all to see. Think of a Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Rodin. There’s something in their work that only they, as among the greatest artists in western civilization, were able to communicate through their work.
Bezalel was such an artist, and yet, a Midrash says that even his gifts weren’t enough to design the Mishkan.
This Midrash noted a conversation between God and Moses about Bezalel’s suitability as chief architect.
“Master of the universe!” Moses said. “If You consider Bezalel suitable, then surely I do!”
God said: “Go and ask Israel if they approve of Bezalel.”
The people said: “If Bezalel is judged well enough by God and by you, Moses, surely he’s approved by us too.”
Tradition regards a person’s devotion to God, Torah, the people of Israel, and his/her own vision to be the Jewish artist’s most important attributes.
Marc Chagall understood this point when he wrote: “The artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art’s sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life.”
Bezalel’s story of the Mishkan calls us to consider well the nature of our sacred spaces and teaches that it’s a mistake to create buildings for merely practical purposes and ends. Our sacred structures must be uplifting and transformational.
Bezalel, the first artist in Jewish history, reminds artists of every age to at once direct one eye heavenward and the other eye upon human affairs, thereby drawing close to the people and to the cosmic core of the universe.