Those Who Can, Teach

Vayak'heil, Exodus 35:1–38:20

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Gropper

Focal Point

Now Moshe said to the Children of Israel: See, YHWH has called by name Betzalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehuda, he has filled him with the spirit of God in practical-wisdom, in discernment and in knowledge, and in all kinds of workmanship to design designs, to make (them) in gold, in silver and in bronze, in the carving of stones for setting and in the carving of wood, to make all kinds of designed workmanship, and (the ability) to instruct he has put in his mind. . . . (Exodus 35:30-34, translation by Everett Fox, The Schocken Bible, vol. 1, The Five Books of Moses [New York: Schocken Books, 1995], p. 465-467)

D'var Torah

Prior to entering rabbinical school, I spent four years as a ski instructor. People came to me, skis and poles in hand, asking me to turn them into a skier. Besides knowing the fundamentals of the sport, I had to assess the level of challenge each student could handle: Bunny slope or cliff jumping? A nice groomed run or one with moguls the size of a small SUV? As a ski instructor, I had to master what I learned from my own teachers: the understanding of what is best for the student, and knowledge of the sport. And while teaching was exciting, nothing matched the thrill of watching a student venture out on his or her own.

The Torah teaches that Betzalel, the chief architect of the Mishkan, was endowed with the attributes of wisdom, discernment, knowledge, and an ability to teach. In Betzalel's case, he knew how to use precious metals. He knew how to carve stones and wood, and he knew how to make all kinds of designs. Betzalel was chosen to build the first divinely ordained place of worship. As slaves, the Israelites built cities for Pharaoh. Now they were to build their own tabernacle for God and Betzalel was selected to manage the job.

Why Betzalel? What were his credentials? We read in Vayak'heil that he was filled with ruach Elohim, "the spirit of God" in wisdom, in discernment, and in knowledge in all kinds of workmanship. Rashi teaches that Betzalel had chochmah, "skills" or "wisdom," learned from others; his own t'vunah , "insight and experience"; and divine inspiration, described here as daat or "knowledge." He had all that was necessary to build the Mishkan wherein God could dwell.

However, possessing chochmah, t'vunah, and daat was not enough. While wisdom, discernment, and knowledge guided his decision-making process, what he did with these gifts made all the difference. In Exodus 35:34, we learn that Betzalel was given the ability to instruct others-ul'horot natan b'libo. The key word here is l'horot. The JPS translation shows this phrase as "to give directions" ( The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, general editor, W. Gunther Plaut; general editor, revised edition, David E. S. Stein [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 614). Yet l'horot has the same Hebrew root as morah, "teacher," and Torah, "instruction." This is why I prefer Fox's translation for this passage, "(the ability) to instruct he has put in his mind." Betzalel was more than a project manager-he was a teacher. He took his wisdom, his discernment, and his knowledge and used these gifts to empower others. He taught others how to sew tapestries together, how to work in silver and in gold, how to listen to instructions, and what special touches were necessary to make a building holy enough for God to dwell in. Betzalel was endowed with the spirit of God because of his ability and willingness to teach and empower others.

A clue toward the importance of teaching and empowering others is borne out in the space between this week'sparashah, Vayak'heil, and last week's parashah, Ki Tisa. Last week, in Ki Tisa we read, "See, I have called by name Betzalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehuda. I have filled him with the spirit of God in practical-wisdom, discernment and knowledge, in all kinds of workmanship, to design designs . . ." (Exodus 31:2-4, Fox translation, p. 433). That's it. Here, there is no further description of Betzalel's qualities. The phrase ul'horot natan b'libo is absent. In Vayak'heil, the presence of ul'horot natan b'libo is clearly felt and the implications are vastly different.

Why do these two texts mirror each other in almost every way except this? I believe it's because a fundamental shift takes place between the two parashiyot. In Ki Tisa , Betzael has wisdom, discernment, and knowledge of every craft, but he does not have the ability to teach. What happens? The people get frustrated and construct the Golden Calf, an idolatrous object. The Golden Calf is merely a transient object that is worshiped, rather than an enduring idea. It is a temporary object that has meaning for a single generation at a single moment in time. In Vayak'heil, Betzalel takes his wisdom, discernment, and knowledge and teaches others. And when he empowers others, God's dwelling place is constructed. It is a meeting place for the Creator and the created. And it embodies instruction, which allows this meeting to live on eternally.

When we do not make it our mission to take all the wisdom, understanding, and knowledge that we possess and pass it on to others, we create temporary idols that die when we die. Knowledge that is not transmitted is idolatrous. It makes the keeper of information into an idol who must be approached and worshiped for the answer. However, if we take the words ul'horot natan b'libo to heart and make our role as teachers of Torah central to our lives, we create something like the Mishkan. We create something eternal and a place where God can dwell among us.

By the Way

  • Our Rabbis taught: Ben Kamzar would not teach anything about [his art of] writing. It was said about him that he would take four pens between his fingers, and if there was a word of four letters he would write it at once. They said to him: "What reason have you for refusing to teach it?" . . . Ben Kamzar could not find one . . . . With regard to Ben Kamzar and his like it is said: "But the name of the wicked shall rot." (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 38b)

  • Whenever Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Chiya were in a dispute, Rabbi Chanina said to Rabbi Chiya: "Would you dispute with me? If, heaven forfend! the Torah were forgotten in Israel, I would restore it by my argumentative powers." To which Rabbi Chiya rejoined: "Would you dispute with me, who achieved that the Torah should not be forgotten in Israel? What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from the flax cords], trapped deers, whose flesh I gave to orphans, and prepared scrolls [from their skins], upon which I wrote the five books [of Moses]. Then I went to a town [which contained no teachers] and taught the five books to five children, and the six orders [of the Talmud] to six children. And I bade them: 'Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and the Mishnah'; and thus I preserved the Torah from being forgotten in Israel." This is what Rabbi [meant when he] said, "How great are the works of Chiya!" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M'tzia 85b)

  • Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connection among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts-meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self. (Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998], p. 11)

Your Guide

  1. Betzalel means "in the image of God." How might empowering others allow the image of God to shine forth in that person?

  2. Think about your own teachers. Who was like Betzalel? Who like Ben Kamzar? Whose lessons have endured? Why?

  3. Have you ever had the opportunity to truly empower another person? What was it like? How did it feel? What did you have to "give up" in the process? Was the reward worth the cost, and if so, how?

Rabbi Daniel Gropper is the rabbi of Community Synagogue in Rye, New York. He holds a master's degree in Jewish education and was once a ski instructor.

Reference Materials

Vayak’heil, Exodus 35:1-38:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 666-679; Revised Edition, pp. 611-624;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 521-544