The Mishkan (Tabernacle) was the most significant religious project of the desert trek. It involved not only creating a portable sacred center for the people of Israel where they could comport with God, it also offered the emerging nation an opportunity to imitate the divine creation of the world by creating the Mishkan as a microcosm imitating God’s creation. The entire nation participated, some by offering the necessary materials and others through their creative talents. When all of the artisans had completed fashioning the various parts of the Mishkan, all that was left to be done was its construction. Each artisan brought the fruit of his or her labors before Moshe, leaving him to complete the project:
And all the work of the Mishkan of the Tent of Assembly was completed, and the children of Israel did as all that the Lord charged Moshe, this they did. And they brought the Tabernacle to Moshe, the tent, and all of its furnishings… (Exodus 39:32-33)
One particular rabbinic tradition saw this task as insurmountable beyond the talents of even the most talented of craftsmen, (much more difficult even than following instructions supplied by IKEA) with only Moshe having the requisite ability to complete the project:
And weren’t there a great many sages there? [Nevertheless,] they came to Moshe unable to build it; rather, as Shlomo said: ‘Many women have done well but you surpass them all’ (Proverbs 31:29) – for Moshe was greater than all of them. ‘But you surpass them all’ – Why? For they made the Tabernacle but did not know how to set it up. Each one took their work and came before Moshe and said: ‘Here are the boards, here are the sockets.’ When Moshe saw them, immediately, the Divine Spirit rested upon him and he set it up. But one should not say that Moshe set it up; rather the Tabernacle, miracles were done to it and it set itself up, as it says: the Tabernacle was set up (Exodus 40:17) (adapted from Shmot Rabbah 52:4)
When we dissect this midrash, we find that it is a composite of three distinctive (and conflicting) positions. One sees Moshe as the nation’s nonpareil craftsman with capabilities exceeded by none. (It is interesting to note that the midrash uses as its proof verse for this attribute, a verse from the Eshet Hayel – the Woman of Valor poem found at the of the book of Proverbs.) It then offers an in-between position where Moshe’s capabilities were really the product of the Divine Spirit descending upon him, inspiring him with the requisite talent. Finally, the midrash offers a third position, asserting that the construction of the Mishkan was completely miraculous, requiring no human intervention.
These three positions correspond to different attitudes to the significance of human leadership. The first sees the leader as totally exceptional with recognized self-sufficient gifts; the second see these gifts as God-given and the third does not want human beings to share the stage with God, perhaps out of fear that people might confuse the real source of power in the world and become overly dependent/enchanted with a leader of flesh and blood. The Jewish tradition, already in the laws regarding kings, has shown this ambivalence and its attitude toward Moshe, the tradition’s central figure is no exception. This reminder should not be lost on any of us even today.