“Bezalel–Master Craftsman, Master Teacher”


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayakhel, the first of this week’s two parashiot, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moses designates Bezalel and Oholiab, to serve as the architects of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

The Torah, in Exodus 35:30, records that Moses said to the children of Israel: רְאוּ קָרָא השׁם בְּשֵׁם בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן אוּרִי בֶן חוּר לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה , See, the L-rd has proclaimed by name, Bezalel, the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. The Torah then clarifies that Bezalel, together with his assistant, Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, would be joined by other wise-hearted men, whom G-d has endowed with wisdom and insight, to do all the work for the labor of the sanctuary.

Most artists and artisans have specialized skills that are limited to a particular field of art. The Torah tells us that Bezalel was unique, and that the Al-mighty had filled him with a G-dly spirit–with wisdom, insight and knowledge, and the skills to master every craft, including weaving, working with gold, silver and copper, cutting precious stones, and wood carving.
According to tradition (Pekudei 5765-2005), Bezalel was only thirteen years old when he assumed this important role.

Apparently, choosing Bezalel and Oholiab to serve as the chief architects of the Tabernacle, was not an easy choice. Although there were many skilled workmen, their only specialty was working with bricks and mortar. Even though there were many volunteers, none of them had the particular skills that were necessary to build the Tabernacle.

Some of the people were unhappy with the fact that Moses chose Bezalel, who was the great-grandson of Moses’ sister, Miriam. That is why Moses had to clearly announce that it was not he who chose Bezalel, but rather that the L-rd had proclaimed Bezalel by name to serve as the chief architect.

Despite his many talents, according to the Midrash Rabbah, G-d’s choice of Bezalel was not due to his extraordinary skills. The Midrash maintains that Bezalel was chosen on the merits of the self-sacrifice of his grandfather, Hur, who lost his life trying to stop the people from worshiping the Golden Calf.

The sages compare the choice of Bezalel to the case of a king who was abandoned by his troops, and only one top general remained loyal. When the rebellion was suppressed, the king rewarded the general’s children, appointing them to serve as dukes and governors. Apparently, the passion that Hur showed when defending G-d’s honor, inspirited his grandson’s heart, and enabled Bezalel to perform the work in the Mishkan.

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni  suggests that Bezalel drew his talents and holiness from two parts of his family. Not only did Hur, give his life to defend G-d’s name, it was, after all, the tribe of Judah and Bezalel’s great-grandfather, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, who jumped into the waters of the Red Sea before any of other tribes.

The Ya’avetz suggests that just as Hur sacrificed himself to achieve atonement for the Golden Calf, so did his grandson, Bezalel, achieve atonement for the Golden Calf, by building the Tabernacle.

The Torah describes Bezalel, not only as a master craftsman, but also as a master teacher/educator. Scripture, in Exodus 35:34 states, וּלְהוֹרֹת נָתַן בְּלִבּוֹ: הוּא, וְאָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה דָן , And G-d put in his [Bezalel’s] heart the ability to teach, him and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan.

The Da’at Sofrim explains what it means when the Torah states that G-d put in Bezalel’s heart the ability to teach. There are wise people, says the Da’at Sofrim, who with all their wisdom, are unable to impart their knowledge to others. Bezalel and Oholiab had a special gift of being able to transmit their wisdom to others. There are others who know how to instruct and even criticize others, but do not have the actual skills themselves to build anything. Bezalel and Oholiab had both the ability to master the crafts themselves, and the ability to teach others.

While we often don’t realize, there are really only a few professions that are completely selfless–teaching, social services and practicing medicine.

Among the greatest challenges in life is the challenge to lead a moral and sanctified life. Perhaps an even greater challenge is to transmit that commitment to live a moral and sanctified life to the next generation. That is why it is often regarded as a truly special gift from heaven to successfully inspire others to live a G-dly life. Some individuals are able to do that by example, by serving as walking and living models of virtue and goodness. The evident holiness that these special people exude can be contagious.

Others are not natural Tzadikim, and need to work hard to become virtuous. They must struggle all the time to improve every day. Those models can sometimes be even more effective than those who are naturally noble and righteous, because they provide a more realistic paradigm for the average person to imitate.

Interestingly, according to tradition, Bezalel lost his ability to teach immediately after the Tabernacle was completed. It was left to Oholiab to continue educating the people, and help them master the crafts that he had mastered. Could this be seen as a sign that inspiration and charisma only go so far, and what is truly necessary for continuity is hard work?

Whether the model be Bezalel or Oholiab, both of them served as an inspiration for others, to help humanity build the holy Mishkan, the house in which G-d’s presence dwells, that will serve as a source of sanctity for the entire world.

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, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20.  This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Monday evening and Tuesday, March 27 and 28, 2017.