Sketchy by design: The Tabernacle
At the end of the Book of Exodus, our attention turns to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the transportable dwelling-place of God’s presence, positioned, symbolically, at the center of the Israelite camp. Moses pieces the Mishkan together at the conclusion of this week’s double portion, but it is Betzalel who is tasked with the Mishkan’s creation:
See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur from the tribe of Judah. And He has filled him with a spirit of God (ruah Elohim) in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in every task, to devise plans (lachshov machashavot), to work in gold and in silver and in bronze and in stonecutting for settings and in wood carving to do every task of devising (melekhet machashevet) (Exodus 35:30-33; see also, 31:1-5).
Betzalel is a man with connections. He is the grandson of Hur, one of Moses’ inner circle (see Exodus 17:10, 24:14, Sanhedrin 69b, Sotah 11b) and a member of the important tribe of Judah. But lest one think Betzalel used his protexia to land this most important contract, his qualifications stand up on their own: an ideal amalgam of theoretical knowledge and practical knowhow regarding every skill necessary to complete his task (see Rashi and Ibn Ezra on 31:3). Not merely a talented craftsman, however, he is able lachshov machashavot — “to think thought-out thoughts,” to engage in melekhet machashevet, “contemplated craft.” He is, Moses tells the people, a person infused with the divine spirit.
After all of this, we are told one more detail: “And He has given in his heart to instruct” (35:34).
Betzalel is a teacher who naturally transfers to others that which comes naturally to him. He trains and inspires (along with his assistant, Oholiab) all the wise-hearted men and women, the “doers of every task and devisers of plans” to cultivate their own God-given talents, to ponder their own thought-out thoughts (35:35). He passes on to them, as it were, some of his own divine spirit, which they infuse into their collective work.
Midrashic tradition distills Betzalel’s personality further, repeatedly defining his combined wisdom and divine spirit as a particular kind of intelligence:
Rabbi Tanhuma in the name of Rav Huna: It does not say “Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Judah made everything Moses had commanded him,” but “that the Eternal had commanded Moses” (Ex. 38:22). Even matters he did not hear from Moses he did by himself in the way it was said to Moses on Sinai (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 1:1).
Betzalel’s wisdom here is intuitive; his divine spark expresses itself as his ability to instinctively know God’s thoughts without being told. Other midrashim echo this idea. In one, Betzalel is likened to the spices of the incense which rise up and find favor before God.
The explication of this metaphor has Betzalel ascending Mount Sinai, Moses-like, to behold an image of the completed Tabernacle. The midrash is not suggesting that this actually occurred, rather that it is as if it had. So perfect was Betzalel’s offering to God, so in-tune with the wishes of his Patron, so pleasing to Him, it is as if God had showed him a picture of the desired product (Midrash Zuta, Song of Songs 4:14).
Another midrash goes as far as to compare Betzalel’s fashioning of the Mishkan to God’s fashioning of the world — the supreme act of creation — so aligned was his creativity with the ways of the Creator (Berakhot 55a). Betzalel’s intuition is described in yet another source, according to which he understands that God must have intended that he make the Tabernacle before its vessels (for otherwise where would the vessels be housed?), even though Moses told him to fashion the vessels first. When Betzalel questions Moses about this (“perhaps God told you to make a Tabernacle, ark and vessels?”), the incredulous prophet responds: “Perhaps you were be-tzel El — in the shadow of God — that you knew precisely what He said?” (ibid). Here, as in the other midrashim, intuition is Betzalel’s greatest strength, his essence and the source of his very name.
These midrashim are similar, however, not only in their definition of the crux of Betzalel’s distinctiveness, but in that they hint at why he is particularly appropriate for his task. On one level, of course, Betzalel is the ideal contractor: talented and able to do exactly what needs to done (and, really, isn’t every homeowner’s greatest wish to find a craftsman who understands exactly what to do without having to spell it out?) More significantly, these midrashim suggest that the blueprints handed to Betzalel were sketchy by design. His intuitive talent was needed not because God or Moses failed to describe the job adequately, but because refining one’s senses to seek out God’s wishes must be the guiding principle when creating the space where people are meant to seek God. A relationship with the Divine, these sources intimate, is a creative act, a tapestry to be woven by each and every person, a skill to be practiced and honed — not something that can be dictated by someone else, not even by God. As such, the midrashic image of Betzalel transforms him into a symbol of the building he must create.
It is significant that in all of these midrashim Moses acts as a foil for Betzalel — as a point of comparison and contrast. Moses in each case knows the details, actually speaks to God on Sinai. He does not have to figure things out; they are revealed to him in full. It is for this reason that Betzalel the Artist, not Moses the Prophet, is chosen for this act of creation.
Moses, the embodiment of Torah, who spoke face to face with God does not have to craft a relationship with the Divine; Betzalel is far better suited for that task. He is the Oral Tradition to Moses’ Written Law — multifaceted and creative, a continuously unfolding intricate tapestry of gold and crimson and blue, linking the people back to their Source. He is the one who can create a space that inspires every woman and man whose hearts are so moved to “think thought-out thoughts” and weave their own connections to God (31:20-29).
Betzalel’s brand of wisdom, however, should not be limited to a single realm, confined by the four wall of the Tabernacle, as one more midrashic tradition makes clear:
When the Holy One Blessed Be He said to Moses “gather for me 70 men” (Numbers 11:16), Moses got up and went to Betzalel. He said him: What do you advise me (mamlikheni). He said to him, make lots. He immediately did so, and it came six from from each tribe, except for the tribe of Levi, from which came up four (Midrash Esfa).
This midrash takes us to the Book of Numbers, where God has just told Moses to gather 70 elders to help him lead the nation, and upon whom God will place some of the divine spirit (ruah) which will be transferred from Moses. Moses is in a bind, because as a simple calculation reveals, 70 cannot be divided evenly by 12, resulting in an uneven distribution of divine spirit among the representatives of the nation. Unsure what to do, Moses turns to Betzalel, a man practiced in the art of sharing divine spirit, who, he is confident, will somehow solve the problem, and, no surprise to us, does. In a move that is quintessentially Betzalel, the artist applies his theoretical knowledge in new and creative ways, devising a plan to tap into God’s will, and to allow the people to simultaneously remain united, equally seen, and infused with the Divine. His internal, honest check and balance between God’s will and the nation’s needs is what enables him to save the day.
The twist, however, is that this is not a story about Betzalel the Mishkan-Builder; it is a story about Betzalel of the tribe of Judah. In the midrash’s poignant conclusion, Moses, upon witnessing Betzalel’s wisdom at work, exclaims: “Blessed is God, who instituted leadership in [Betzalel’s] tribe,” and he turned and kissed Betzalel on his head and said to him: “Fortunate are you, Judah, that this man is descended from you.”
The midrash sees Betzalel not only as a symbol of the Mishkan, but as a paradigm of leadership. If our leaders followed his example, we’d be fortunate indeed.