Monday, February 25, 2008

Vayakhel 2


Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda did all that G-d commanded Moshe” (28; 22). Rashi quotes the Talmud (Brachot 55a): The Torah does not say “That which Betzalel was commanded”, but rather “All that Hashem had commanded Moshe”. This implies that even with regard to matters which Moshe did not tell him, Betzalel’s mind was in accord with that which had been said to Moshe at Sinai. For Moshe commanded Betzalel to make the furnishings first, and afterwards the Mishkan. Betzalel said to him, “The common practice is to first make a house, and afterwards to put furnishings in it”. Moshe said to him, “Thus as you said I heard from the mouth of G-d, perhaps you were in G-d’s shadow (a play on the name Betzalel, B’tzel - El, in the shadow of G-d), for indeed that is what G-d commanded me [first the Mishkan and then the furnishings].

This raises several questions. Firstly, how could Moshe have misunderstood what G-d told him regarding the construction of the Mishkan? Was he not referred to by G-d as his “trustworthy servant” (Shabbat Mincha)? Secondly, how could Betzalel dare to question Moshe about what he heard at Mount Sinai. If Moshe said to first make the furnishings why was Betzalel so brazen as to question him? Finally, it seems so obvious that one should build a house before making the fittings and furnishings for it. Why does Moshe praise Betzalel so highly for his understanding, which seems so basic that anyone should have spotted it?

Elsewhere (Exodus 35; 30) Rashi tells us that Chur, Betzalel’s father, was the son of Miriam, Moshe’s sister. Normally the Torah only describes a person by their name and the name of their father. Perhaps the Torah is telling us here that Betzalel was following in the footsteps not only of his father, but also of his grandfather and his great grandmother, that in some way he had the same qualities that Miriam possessed.

Miriam was always the realist. It was she who persuaded her father to remarry his wife despite Pharaoh’s decree that all male children be thrown into the Nile. Miriam was able to see that Amram’s decree was harsher than that of Pharaoh, in that it would have ensured that there were no Jewish children at all, whereas Pharaoh only decreed on the males. She watched over Moshe as he was placed in the Nile to see what would become of him, and she arranged for her mother to be Moshe’s wet nurse. Miriam passed on this ‘sensible’ approach to life to her great grandson Betzalel, so that he was the one chosen by G-d to oversee the construction of the Mishkan.

Moshe was the spiritual leader of the people, and as such was continually treading a fine line between total spirituality and communication with G-d, and being the spokesperson for the nation. To Moshe there was no such thing as independent reality, only G-d’s will which was to be obeyed, and taught to the Jewish people.

The Mishkan was no ordinary building. Each part of it was imbued with spiritual qualities and metaphysical meaning. Moshe saw that the Mishkan was beyond human logic and understanding, and therefore anything that G-d told him he conveyed to the builders without question. Betzalel, however, understood that though the Mishkan was to be the dwelling place of the Divine, nevertheless it was physical and as such could not contradict human logic.

Just as Descartes could only believe in his own existence because of his belief in a good G-d who would not give people logic that had no relationship to reality, so too Betzalel knew that though the Mishkan could be beyond human comprehension it could not by illogical. For G-d to dwell within the constraints of the finite world He must limit Himself to abiding by the laws of this world.
Furthermore, the primary value of the Mishkan was that it provided a paradigm for human interaction with G-d. If the Mishkan had been built contrary to the reality of the world, we would have had no way of bringing G-d into the world, except within the very defined bounds of the Mishkan. Betzalel understood that for the Mishkan to have meaning it must conform to normal human behaviour.

Now we can answer the three questions with which we began. When G-d commanded Moshe about the Mishkan, He left the order in which the items were to be built open to two interpretations, in order that we should realise that the Torah does not contradict our logic, and that people are able to interpret the Torah based on the more logical option. It was this point that Betzalel was questioning, not what Moshe actually heard on Mount Sinai.

Betzalel claimed that G-d would not command us to build a Mishkan which went against our logic. He was telling Moshe that the main function of the Mishkan was to facilitate interaction between people and G-d, and as such it had to be comprehensible. Moshe immediately acknowledged that this was G-d’s purpose, and conceded that he had misinterpreted G-d’s instruction. This does not imply that Moshe misunderstood anything else that he learnt on Mount Sinai, but rather that G-d gave him the opportunity to learn from Betzalel the importance of remaining in touch with the normal way of the world.

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