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.