“Lessons of Leadership from the Resume of an Architect”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, parashat Vayakhel, Moses selects the craftsmen who are to supervise the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

Exodus 35:30 reads: “Va’yomer Moshe el B’nay Yisrael: R’ooh ka’rah Hashem b’shaym, Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur, l’mah’tay Yehudah.” Moses said to the children of Israel:

See that G-d has proclaimed by name, Bezalel the son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He [G-d] has filled him with G-dly spirit, with wisdom, insight and knowledge, and with all manner of workmanship, to weave designs, to work with gold, silver and copper, stone-cutting for setting and woodcarving–to perform every craft of skillful design. He [G-d] gave him the ability to teach, both him and Oholiav the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He [G-d] filled them with wise hearts to do every craft of the carver…

In this statement the Torah clarifies why Bezalel and Oholiav were chosen to serve as the chief craftsmen. Not only were they rare talents, skilled in many varied and challenging crafts, but they also had the unique ability to teach these crafts to others.

The commentaries and the Midrashim, however, explain that Bezalel was not only chosen for his talents and his ability to teach others, he was also chosen for his pedigree, his so-called “yichus.” That is why the Torah not only lists him as the son of Uri, but also as the grandson of Hur, and as a descendant of the tribe of Judah.

Apparently, the appointment of Bezalel was, in part, a reward from the Al-mighty for the family of Hur, who was killed by the worshipers of the Golden Calf when he attempted to stop the people from defying G-d. The tribe of Judah is mentioned as well because they sanctified the name of G-d more than any other tribe by being the first to jump into the Red Sea when it split at the time of the Exodus.

The brief scriptural portion announcing the appointment of Bezalel teaches a number of significant lessons regarding leadership. Obviously, a competent leader must posses the required talents, whether scholarship, oratorical ability, artistic skills, or other skills that may be needed at that moment. A second important criteria for a leader is experience and devotion.

I once asked the world famous glass-blower, Gianni Toso (who is today an observant Jew), how long it took him to blow a glass figurine. He answered, “An hour-and-a-half and four hundred years!” The actual blowing takes an hour, or an hour-and-a-half, but the skills that are necessary to do so are an aggregate that he inherited from his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, all renowned Venetian glass-blowers.

Bezalel was not only the possessor of great skills, he was a member of an extraordinary family known for their total devotion to G-d and their legendary leadership of Israel. As already noted, his grandfather, Hur, gave up his life resisting the worshipers of the Golden Calf. His great-grandfather, Nachshon, the Prince of the tribe of Judah, was the first to jump into the sea before it split.

The Talmud, in tractate Berachot 55a, provides us with an extraordinary insight about leadership:

Rabbi Isaac said: A leader must not be appointed over a community without the community first being consulted. As it says, “See the Lord has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? He replied, Master of the Universe, if You think him suitable, surely I must also! Said [G-d] to him: All the same, go and consult them. He went and asked Israel: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? They replied: If the Holy One, Blessed be He, and you [Moses] consider him suitable, surely we must as well.

The Talmud, in effect, states that in addition to talents, skills and family legacy, a leader must be one who has superior interpersonal skills and a winning way with people.

The Tashbetz (Rabbi Simon ben Tzemach Duran, 1361-1444, famous decisor of Jewish law in Spain and Algiers), entry numbers 155 and 172, cited by the Torah Temimah (authored by Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein) derives a significant legal implication from the above quoted Talmudic statement. He states that a rabbi (judge) or prince in Israel who has been appointed by the king without the permission and consent of the community has only limited authority in his judgments. Therefore, if such a judge erred in judgment, he would have to pay the aggrieved party for his losses, whereas an expert judge who is accepted by the community would not be liable in the event of a legal error.

It is rather interesting to note that none of the above sources cite what are conventionally regarded as some of the most important qualities for leadership–-a sense of authority, strong-mindedness, and a willingness to stand up to criticism. While it is true that Bezalel was “only” an architect and not a temporal leader such as a king or president, nevertheless, the rabbinic sources derive from the description of Bezalel the qualities necessary for temporal leadership.

Clearly, the implication is that superior leadership does not necessarily derive from power, from being strong-armed or strong-minded, although those qualities may be necessary in certain circumstances, but rather from the ability to be acceptable to the community, and to master people skills.

I recently had the occasion to see a recording of British Prime Minister Tony Blair defend himself in the House of Commons while debating various members of Parliament regarding the environment and alternate fuel sources. I was fascinated by the free-wheeling style of the British Parliament, but was even more taken by the gifted manner in which Prime Minister Blair defended himself. Besides having what seemed to be encyclopedic knowledge of the facts at his command, even on obscure issues, Blair often invoked humor to disarm his opponents. In effect, he charmed his audience into submission and acquiescence. It was an amazing display of talent, which explains why Tony Blair is the longest-serving Labour Party Prime Minister in the history of England, despite facing some of the greatest political challenges.

While I doubt if Tony Blair is familiar with the statement in the Babylonian Talmud underscoring the need for a leader to be accepted by the community, it certainly is reassuring to see how insightful this 2,000 year Talmudic statement is, and how much it has to teach us about contemporary life, despite its great antiquity.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month of Nissan is read from Exodus 12:1-20.