A HAMMER, A CHISEL AND — A LOOM? Kee Tissa — Ex. 31
This week’s Torah reading includes a variety of subjects, from the first census of the people of Israel to the structure of their first house of worship, the sacrifices to be offered there, priestly clothing, Sabbath observance, Moses ascending the mountain and the famous story of the Golden Calf.
One very brief section comes at the beginning of Chapter 31 of Exodus, and it should not be ignored. It designates a man named Betzalel of the tribe of Judah as chief builder of the Tabernacle and all its ceremonial articles. He and his associate Oholiab of the tribe of Dan are among those described as “wise-hearted” and they can be trusted with the sacred task of “making all that I have commanded.” Speaking of Betzalel, the Torah says in the name of G-d: “I have filled him with the Divine spirit, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship.” Three requirements: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Rashi’s commentary elaborates: Wisdom is what you learn from others; understanding is how you apply it; knowledge is what you know without being taught. In other words, brains, action and talent. Necessary equipment for any good craftsman.
The Torah goes on, to define Betzalel’s job: “to devise skillful works, to work in gold, in silver and in brass, in cutting stones for setting, in carving wood, to work in all manner of workmanship.” No specialist, Betzalel — he could do it all. With some help from Oholiab — and perhaps some grunters who don’t get named here — he had to build and set up the tent of meeting, the altars and their vessels, the laver (read tub) and its base. They also had to design and turn out the clothing for Aaron and his sons, and they had to make the anointing oil and the incense that brought the sacred odor into the Tabernacle.
What craftsman can combine all these skills? Reading the qualities and responsibilities credited to Betzalel, we can appreciate why modern Israeli producers of artwork use his name.
We should also appreciate the importance that the Torah gives to physical construction and the skills it demands. From the Tabernacle in the desert to Solomon’s Temple, to the great houses of assembly and worship throughout history, our dedicated builders provide us with the homes of holiness.