Ten thousand hours. That’s what it takes to achieve mastery in a vast range of fields. 10,000 hours of focused, concentrated practice. This ten thousand hour rule popularised by Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell, was in part based on a 1990’s study of violin students. All of the violinists started playing at about five years of age with similar practise times. By the age of eight, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practise each while the less able had only clocked 4,000 hours. Other studies reveal that Bill Gates and his colleague, Paul Allen were able to launch Microsoft because of their hours of addiction to programming while they were students. The Beatles achieved brilliant success because they put in more hours than any other band.
Notwithstanding the obvious fact that you don’t succeed at a high level without innate talent (“achievement is talent plus preparation”) and that practise is a greater predictor of success only in particular fields with stable structures like tennis, chess and classical music, I was struck by this rule when contemplating the phenomenal achievement of the great artist of the Mishkan or portable sanctuary, Betzalel. Why was Betzalel singled out as the artist of the Ark when he was actually part of a team. The Midrash provides the answer: “Because he extended himself, he gave his soul for the work more than the other wise men, it (the work) bears his name” [see Rashi on Exodus 37:1]. We don’t know if Betzalel put in 10,000 hours although my hunch is that back in Goshen, Egypt, that’s exactly what he was doing. But Betzalel didn’t just put in the time, he put in the passion. That’s why I would add to Gladwell’s contention and say that accomplishment is about talent and passionate preparation.
To be a successful artist you need innate talent, creativity and intuitive intelligence, but you also need an intensity of heart and focus. To triumph at most worthwhile ventures be they in business or relationships it’s often the passion that vital élan that makes the difference. In my own life I know that I’m a better speaker and teacher because I’ve put in the hours. I also like to think I’m a better human being because of the consistent hours of effort, all the sweat and tears… Betzalel not only possessed talent and passion, he was also a deeply intuitive human being. He didn’t just follow instructions but he also let his heart guide him. Thus as the Talmud suggests when Moses told him to first produce the vessels and then the Mishkan itself, Betzalel said to him: “It is customary to first build a home and then put the furnishings in it.” Moshe responded: “You are right, that is indeed what I heard from God”. Moshe added: “You must have been בצל-אל in the shadow of God for that’s what God actually commanded me”. I understand this to mean, Betzalel followed his heart and that is the essence of Divine inspiration; the artist is shadowing God.
Judaism is often seen as a religion that devalues art and the creative gesture. The name, personality and profession of Betzalel suggest the very opposite. Art is a reflection of the Divine and art in the service of the Divine is an expression of the beauty of holiness. In this sense, beauty is indeed truth and truth is beauty. We need accountants and businessmen to keep the world going and we need artists and creative souls to keep it humming with beauty and harmony.
We are currently counting the Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot. Counting days like counting hours focuses the mind, helps you be mindful of what you’re putting into them. Mastery over time like mastery over self demands patience, plodding and perseverance. Judaism calls on each of us to put in the hours, count the days and become a better Jew and fuller human being.