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Bezalel: A Master Architect of Sacred Space

  • Bezalel: A Master Architect of Sacred Space

    P'kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38
D'var Torah By: 

In this week's portion, Parashat P'kudei, we learn about Bezalel, who was chosen to design and build the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. (Exodus 38:22-39:31) On the face of it, these verses describe the matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this is not merely an architectural plan. Rather, it is a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites, a vision that would impress itself upon the soul of generations of Jews to come.

Not just any craftsman was chosen to design and build the Mishkan. Bezalel was endowed with wisdom,chochmah; insight, binah; and understanding, da-at. (Exodus 35:30-34) What is the difference among these attributes? Rashi suggests that chochmah refers to the wisdom that we learn from others; binah is the understanding that we acquire from life experience; and da-at is mystical intuition. Following Rashi, Jewish legend claims that Bezalel was well versed in the Kabbalah and that he understood the full impact of the combinations of letters with which God created the heavens and the earth.

Bezalel was brilliant in mind, a master craftsman and architect, seasoned by life's experiences, openhearted and open-minded to the insights of his fellows, inspired with God's spirit, and endowed with the capacity to perceive the fundamental laws and truths that lie at the cosmic core of creation. Bezalel's name, which in Hebrew means "to rest in God's shadow," suggests that he intuited and was one with God's will.

And yet, a midrash argues that even these characteristics alone were not enough for him to assume this duty. According to this midrash, God asked Moses if Bezalel was suited for the sacred task of building theMishkan. Moses replied, "Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!" Whereupon God instructed Moses, "Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Bezalel." Moses did so, and the people replied, "If Bezalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too." From this the rabbis concluded that Bezalel was not only God's choice but the people's choice as well.

This simple story of Bezalel's selection suggests that tradition regards devotion to God, to Torah, and to the people of Israel to be the most important characteristics of a Jewish artist. Through the ages, Jewish artists have depicted in their work the suffering, pain, joys, and vision of our people. Mark Chagall wrote that "the artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art's sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life."

At the 1999 Orlando Biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie called upon us to refocus our attention on creating more vital, passionate, and meaningful communal prayer. Part of that refocusing must encompass how we use our sacred spaces. Following the example of Pekude, we must include our Jewish artists in such discussions because they, like Bezalel, have the capacity to help us direct one of our eyes heavenward while at the same time focusing the other on human affairs, thereby drawing us simultaneously nearer to one another and to the Cosmic Core of the universe. Shabbat Shalom!

John L. Rosove is the senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Hollywood, CA.

Attention is in the Details
Davar Acher By: 
Adele Lander Burke

The description of the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, in this week's Torah portion, Parashat P'kudei, is a continuation of the account that began last week in Parashat Vayak'heil. In some calendar years these two portions are combined and read in the same week, indicating the continuation of the narrative.

As we read both portions, we are struck by the incredible attention to detail depicted in the text. We can imagine the lush textiles, sparkling metals, and ingenious designs that were used for the creation of the portable sanctuary and the garments of the High Priest. We also ask the following: Why does the text provide so many mundane details here while in other parts of the Bible so much seems to have been left out? Wouldn't we have preferred to know more about Abraham's thoughts as he prepared to sacrifice Isaac than about how many talents of silver were needed to make the sockets for the Mishkan?

We can find one explanation when we consider the authorship of these portions. Bible scholars who follow the school of Critical Theory suggest that the biblical canon includes many stories that were written by different authors over a span of several hundred years. The ancestral stories may have been composed by a school of writers who were striving to create a literary record of our people's earliest history. The detailed stories of the creation of the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting were probably composed by priestly writers who were concerned with preserving and justifying the important role of the priestly rituals in Israelite history. Some scholars believe that the detailed descriptions presented in Vayakhel and Pekude are really about describing the accoutrements of the First Temple, which was built some 400 years after the Children of Israel's wandering in the desert. A wonderful introduction to Critical Theory appears in Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?

As we read this portion in the twenty-first century, we are reminded of the importance of treating our houses of worship with respect and love. When designing, remodeling, or maintaining our sanctuaries, we need to pay attention to the details. We should strive to create a space that truly reflects our relationship to God by considering the aesthetics of the process to be as important as the practical aspects of wiring, lighting, and plumbing. This process will only be infused with spiritual meaning if we keep in mind that what we are doing is honoring God and Torah by creating a special place in which to worship. Just as Moses chose Bezalel to head the design team, so, too, we should include Jewish artists on our planning teams to insure that we achieve and maintain a high aesthetic standard when we erect our houses of worship.

At the time of this writing in 2000, Adele Lander Burke was the director of museum and education at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA.

3/11/2000
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

P’kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 680-690; Revised Edition, pp. 627-636;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545-566