David Walk

The Talented Mr. Betzalel

Toward the beginning of this week’s Torah reading Moshe tells the people almost verbatim what God told him in last week’s reading. God said, ‘See I have called upon by name Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur of the tribe of Yehuda. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft (Shmot 31:2 & 3). And this week Moshe said, See, God has called upon by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, endowing him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft (34:30 & 31).

The message must be truly important for Moshe to repeat it verbatim. So, what is this message? I believe strongly that there are a plethora of pieces of information being communicated, but I will only deal with two. 

First, the person tasked with building and furnishing the Mishkan is named appropriately. This is a case of perfect alignment between name and role or purpose. It was necessary to call out his name because his name describes him. He is B’TZEL, in the shadow of EL, God. He was born for this job. 

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Z”L explains that he is the perfect partner for Moshe on this job. When Moshe first describes the task, he begins by listing the items which must be placed in the Mishkan, and only afterwards gives instructions for the edifice. Betzalel describes the task by first describing the building in which the items will be housed. Why the different approaches? Rav Aharon explains:

God commanded Moshe to build the Mishkan and then the vessels, because in practical operations, this is the proper order. Moshe – a man of vision – perceives the lofty purpose of building the Mishkan. So, he first speaks to Betzalel of the climax of the project: the creation of the vessels which make contact between Am Yisrael and God. Only afterwards does he speak of the other parts of the Mishkan. Betzalel, on the other hand, is a man of action. He immediately understands that in practical terms, the order must be first the house and only afterwards the furniture.

The Ramban adds that Betzalel clearly was special because back in Egypt our ancestors worked with mortar and brick. No one in the Israelite camp had knowledge of how to work with silver, gold, and precious stones. They also weren’t experts in wood, embroidery and weaving, but Betzalel figured out how to work in all these different areas, and with tremendous skill.

So, that’s point number one: Betzalel was amazing! But there’s another critically important teachable idea in these verses, and this concept is CHACHMA, BINA and DA’AT. We usually translate those terms as wisdom, understanding and knowledge (Prof. Robert Alter and Rav Aryeh Kaplan)). And, indeed, those terms provide us with the famous acronym CHABAD, the chosen name of the Lubavitch Chassidut.

I translated them as ‘skill’, ‘ability’ and ‘knowledge’ up above using the JPS translation. But these terms describe ideas and concepts. So, translation alone isn’t enough; they must be explained and described. 

Rashi explains them as ‘WISDOM is what a person hears from others and learns (makes his own). UNDERSTANDING is understanding a matter by one’s own intelligence deducing it from the things one has already learned. KNOWLEDGE means Divine inspiration.

The Ba’al Hatanya (Reb Shneur Zalman of Lyadi), the founder of Lubavitch Chasidut explains them: 

Chochmah is the source of the intellect which apprehends God and His wisdom and His holy attributes. Binah is the contemplation on this apprehension in the length, width, and depth of understanding: “to understand one matter out of another,” Da’at is the intellectual power to grasp a matter in its full profundity and ramifications. Da’at transforms an idea into a reality which can’t be separated from the intellectual reality of the person. 

I think it is important to realize that these verses are presenting a Jewish Epistemology, or our own Jewish study of the nature, origin and scope of knowledge. As for ‘origin’, our verses are very clear: God has called upon him and endowed him. God is the source of all knowledge.

But what is the ‘nature’ of knowledge in Judaism? It seems that the ‘nature of knowledge’ is the ability to transform an idea into a reality. Betzalel took transcendent ideas and produced tangible items. This is ‘plastic art’. Betzalel molded physical raw material into visions of ideas and concepts. I would submit that the ‘nature of knowledge’ in Judaism is to make ideas known and understood. His art transformed ideas into visible, physical items which illustrated the profound concepts being represented. His objets d’art taught about Divine ideas which inspired those who visited the Mishkan. Knowledge must be spiritually inspiring and spread. The Mishkan is the world’s most important visual aid to knowledge and understanding of spiritual reality.

What is the ‘scope’ of knowledge, or the extent of knowledge? Usually, we use that phrase, ‘scope of knowledge’, to explain the limits of any person or institution, but not with Judaism. Literally, for us knowledge knows no bounds. When we say ‘the sky’s the limit’, we mean it! The purpose of the Mishkan (and later the Beit Mikdash) is to expand our horizons to the highest levels of creation and heaven. Our minds must be taught to soar beyond earthly bonds. 

The Da’at Z’keinim explains that the careful explication of Betzalel’s knowledge and skill just whets our appetite for the wonders to be revealed when the Third Beit Hamikdash appears in our midst. We can hardly contain our enthusiasm and desire to relive the wonders wrought by Betzalel, and may it happen speedily. We could really use it, now! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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