Mordechai Silverstein

It’s Time to Let in the Light

Jewish cosmological speculation did not stop with the first chapter of Genesis. Already in the second chapter of Genesis, one sees an entirely different picture of how the world was created. Different discussions abound throughout the Tanakh and in rabbinic literature as well. Why? Because, how one views the creation of the world impacts on how one approaches life.

It may seem strange to have this discussion when the subject of the parashah involves the building of the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the desert, and fashioning of its implements, but as we will see, the sages saw in the building of the Mishkan, the human parallel to God’s creating the world – a human microcosm corresponding to God’s creation of the cosmos.

And so, when Moshe commanded Betzalel ben Uri Ben Hur, the artisan charged with carrying out the building of the mishkan: “Make me a Sanctuary”, the order in which Betzalel carried out this command seemed counter-intuitive: And Betzalel made the Ark of acacia wood… (Exodus 37:1)

Why begin by making the Sanctuary’s furniture before building the structure to house it?

An amazing midrash attempts to answer this question by associating Betzalel’s action with the manner in which God created the world:

And Bezalel made the Ark of acacia wood (Exodus 37:1) Scripture states elsewhere: “The opening of Your words sends forth light; makes the simple understand.” (Psalms 119:130) … Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak inquired of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman. He said to him: You are a master of aggadah (the non-legal traditions), so tell me, how did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world? When He created the world, did He create the light first? R. Samuel the son of Nahman answered: When God decided to create His world, He wrapped Himself [in a cloak] of] light, and created the world, as is said: “Wrapped in light like a cloak”; the verse conitnues: “stretching out the heavens like a tent cloth” (Psalm 104:2). Therefore, Scripture states: The opening of Your words sends forth light; it giveth understanding to the simple (ibid. 119:130) (adapted from Tanhuma Vayakel 6)

This mystical understanding of creation, sees God’s clothing Himself in a “tallit” of light as the first act of creation. What is the nature of this light? The midrash understands it to represent primordial wisdom. In other words, God did not create the world capriciously or accidentally; rather, all was done wisely. In a moment, this understanding of creation will serve as a parable/model for Betzalel’s building of the Mishkan. In the meantime, the midrash brings a parable to make the above midrash easier to understand:

Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai said: This may be likened to a king who wished to build a palace in a dark place. [The first thing he did was] to light candles, and, only then, did he build [the palace]. The Holy One, blessed be He, did likewise. The world was dark, as it is said: “And darkness was on the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2), and so, He wrapped himself in a cloak of light and created the world. Hence, “the opening of Your words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Ps. 119:130). (Ibid.)

This brings us back to an attempt to answer our original question. Why did Betzalel start by building the Ark? Betzalel was simply following the model set forth by God:

The righteous learn from the Holy One, blessed be He, that they should begin with light. How so? When Moses told Bezalel that the Holy One, blessed be He, had said: “Build Me a Sanctuary”, Moshe told him: Go build the Tabernacle. What did he begin with? Bezalel began with the Ark… [But didn’t] Moshe say to begin with the Sanctuary? So why did Betzalel begin with the Ark? Because the Ark is the place of the Torah which is the light of the world… (Ibid.)

The message of this midrashic juxtaposition is clear. God created the world with the light of wisdom in hand (as it were); Betzalel followed in kind in his building the Mishkan. Our actions as human beings and as Jews should move forward in the similar manner.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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