“Bezalel: the Artist who Broke the Mold”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, after many weekly portions describing the various elements and labors, the Tabernacle is finally completed. The faithful leader, Moses, gives a strict accounting of every donation used in building the Tabernacle. Finally, in Exodus 40:17 and 40:34-37, the Torah reports that in the first month of the second year the Tabernacle was erected, and the Glory of G-d fills the Tabernacle.

Anyone who has ever had the privilege of participating in building a new synagogue, school or mikvah can imagine how the hearts of the recently-liberated Israelite slaves must have leaped up in celebration and joy upon seeing the Tabernacle completed. These shabby, former slaves, who had been beaten to a pulp and most likely starved, and who were now facing the long trek in the wilderness, must have experienced an extraordinary sense of exultation and pride upon viewing the beautiful vestments of the priests and the abundant precious gold and silver that adorned the Tabernacle.

Moses, the former Egyptian prince, must have closely identified with the beautiful Tabernacle, not only for the great efforts he had invested in its realization, but also because it likely reminded him of the glorious Pharaonic palaces of his youth. After his many years of exile in Midian, and his bitter confrontations with Pharaoh, for him, the completion of the Tabernacle must have also been a truly uplifting experience.

Of course, no one looked forward to the dedication of the Tabernacle and its functioning as a house of worship more than Aaron, who would serve, together with his sons, as the religious functionaries in the Tabernacle.

No one, however, could feel more intimately satisfied with the Tabernacle’s completion than Bezalel and Oholiyav, who had supervised the construction of the Tabernacle and had invested much love and labor into fulfilling G-d’s directives. And so, it is entirely appropriate that parashat Pekudei opens with not only an accounting and reckoning of the materials that were used in the building of the Tabernacle’s construction, but also with a profound compliment to Bezalel for diligently fulfilling this divine mission.

Exodus 38:02 reads: “Bezalel ben Uri ben Chur l’mateh Yehuda assa et kol asher tziva Hashem et Moshe,” and Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah did everything that G-d commanded Moses. Rashi notes that the verse’s language implies that Bezalel did all that he was commanded to do even with regard to matters that his master Moses did not tell him, because Bezalel’s mind was in total sync with that which had been said to Moses at Sinai.

There is much to be learned from Bezalel’s attitude and behavior at the Tabernacle’s completion. We live in an age and an environment that is blessed with sufficient wherewithal to not only accord great respect to artists and to artistry, but also to support the arts with greater openhandedness than ever before in human history. Artists have added much beauty and meaningfulness to our lives. In fact, many artistic works are today considered “immortal” for their timeless messages and beauty.

Great artists are very often considered by others, and by themselves, as people who are inspirited with a great gift. However, along with this gift, too often, comes a sense of privilege, haughtiness and even a self-declared omniscience. It is not uncommon for people to regard even average artists as prima donnas, and because of their so-called “talents,” excuse their excesses, whether in their personal lives or in their art. Much of the decadence in Western values and morality has been introduced by so-called “artistes,” who keep pushing the envelope and breaking all boundaries in order to garner greater fame and acclaim.

Bezalel was not only an artist of prodigious talent and skills, he was also a man of great spiritual prowess. He was not only an artist who fashioned all the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the Priestly vestments with great wisdom, he also did (Exodus 38:02), “everything that G-d commanded Moses” and fulfilled the exact letter of the Torah. In order to do this sacred work, and do it properly, Bezalel himself undoubtedly had to have a holy and pure heart and soul.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin, 69b) states that Bezalel was only thirteen years old when he was designated by G-d to construct the Tabernacle. Despite being a widely-acclaimed “wunderkind,” he did not allow his great talents to go to his head, nor did he insist that the Tabernacle be constructed in his way and according to his plan. Therefore, even though he followed the Divine architectural plans to the letter, he was able to leave his own significant personal imprint on the Tabernacle. By being totally loyal to the Divine Architect, whom he regarded without question as his infallible superior, he was to be held in great esteem not only in his own day and age, but throughout Jewish history.

Unfortunately, many artists today feel that they must express their greatness by declaring their own superiority. By manifesting his unusual humility, Bezalel left it to others and to his artistic creations to declare his greatness. It is a lesson that all of us, artists and those of us who are artistically-challenged, can learn much from.

May you be blessed.