Torah Commentary on Va-Yakhel/Pekudei by Bettijane Eisenpreis

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Parashah for March 18, 2023

On Saturday, March 18, Temple Emanu-El welcomes Orly Erez-Likhovski, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), who will discuss religious pluralism in Israel. Click here to learn more about this special service and luncheon.

Torah Commentary by Bettijane Eisenpreis

“And Moses said to the Israelites: See the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft. He and Oholiab son of Ahisimach of the tribe of Dan…Let then Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons whom the Lord has endowed with skill and ability to perform expertly all the tasks concerned with the service of the sanctuary carry out all that the Lord has commanded.”
Exodus 35:30-36:1

There are many heroic individuals whose names appear in the Torah – prophets like Moses priests like Aaron, leaders like Caleb and Joshua, and female role models like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – men and women of belief and action. But Bezalel and Oholiab are unique, distinguished not by their prophetic or military prowess but by their artistic skill. Nowhere else is someone mentioned by name for their “skill and ability.”

The Second Commandment tells us not to make any graven images. Worship of idols was prevalent in the ancient Near East and Judaism took a giant step forward when it forbade kneeling down before “any graven image or any manner of likeness.” The ancient Hebrews copied much from the civilizations around them, but they stopped short at idolatry. However, the prohibition wasn’t against artistic expression; it was against worship of the material and the visible. It was only in subsequent generations that we occasionally went overboard.

The fact that Bezalel and Oholiab were mentioned, with great approval, in the Torah shows that artistic expression was important to those early Hebrews. The finest woods, the choicest fabrics, precious stones and metals were all essential for building the wilderness tabernacle. One has to wonder how those former slaves amassed such riches and how, having amassed them, they carried them with them when they escaped through the Red Sea. There are various theories, including that this is not really a description of the portable ark that was carried through the wilderness but instead of elements of the Davidic Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps it is metaphorical – a description of the elegance with which God should be worshipped.

But let us focus on Bezalel – who was he and why was he so special? First of all, he came from the right family. He was the grandson of Hur of the tribe of Judah, most often mentioned with Aaron.  Oholiab, too, was important, but it is Bezalel whose name has lived throughout the ages. Hur probably had other grandchildren, but their names are not attached to the most famous art school in Israel.

Bezalel is famous for his artistic ability, which came directly from God. The Tabernacle was beautiful and it was holy. Was it holy because it was beautiful, or were they not connected? Sometimes Judaism is ambivalent about this. Time and again, our tradition tells us of humble people and places that were nevertheless blessed by God. And there are also stories of beautiful places, like the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabees, that became corrupted. But when people like Bezalel, who was gifted by God with skill and knowledge, lend that skill to a holy cause, the result is doubly holy.

As a congregation, we are the beneficiaries of that combination of skill and reverence. For those of you who did not live through the renovation of the Temple, let me assure you that Bezalel and Oholiab would have been proud! Yes, I know you are supposed to be able to pray anywhere, but when I turn around in my seat on the Sabbath and watch the sun streaming through the rose window, then there is no doubt in my mind that God has blessed us with beauty and joy and peace.

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