By Andrew Nusbaum, Adar II, 5779 – March 2019
Today’s parsha concludes the Book of Exodus. We might assume that this grand narrative of flight and national identity would end with a great battle, or maybe a rousing speech. Instead, we encounter a “reckoning”, a detailed listing of exactly what went into the making of the Tabernacle.
There are a few details I’d like to highlight. The first is what the Tabernacle was made of. We are told it was assembled from skins of a creature called the Tahash, a giant animal about 45 feet tall with multi-colored skin and one prominent horn on its forehead. Some versions of the Chumash translate Tahash as “dolphin”, or perhaps dugong, or even a narwhal, but another interpretation sees it as a land animal, perhaps an antelope, a giant Eurasian rhinoceros, or even a unicorn. This, in fact, is the origin for the British royal family having the unicorn as part of their family crest. (Modern zoologists have suggested a giraffe.)
The rabbis of the Talmud discussed the mystery of the Tahash in a few places, but, not surprisingly, the rabbis are far more interested in whether it was kosher rather than providing us with more clues to its true identity.
Another fascinating detail is the choshen, the quasi-magical breastplate worn by the High Priest. The breastplate was made of twelve different semi-precious stones, representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel, which would light up in certain patterns to reflect God’s will, a form of divination called cleromancy. Commentators have noted the symbolism of bringing together different stones, of different value and rarity, and creating one holy object designed to help the High Priest and the people make good— and godly— decisions. In fact, one Talmudic sage claimed that wearing the breastplate helped atone for past sins of the Israelites!
Finally, it is fascinating that in the opening lines of this Parsha, not only do we encounter many details about the construction of the Tabernacle – but it also says that the chief builder was Bezalel of the tribe of Judah, a master craftsman– and grandson of Moses’ sister Miriam. Oholiab of the tribe of Dan was Bezalel’s chief architect, and Itamar, a Priest and the son of Aaron, supervised the specific labor assigned to the Levites.
Why should we care? Why does the Torah care? Why does it matter who built the Tabernacle?
A midrash may help answer this question. We are told that there was a certain intricate menorah that God designed for the Tabernacle. It was described to Moses multiple times, but he was unable to grasp how it could work, much less how to construct it. Bezalel, on the other hand, grasped it immediately. Moses proclaimed that Bezalel truly had been chosen by God for his task, as God said previously in Parsha Ki Tissa, “I will fill him with the spirit of Elohim—with wisdom, understanding and knowledge.” (Ex. 31:1-3) There is even a clue to this in Bezalel’s own name, which means “in the shadow of God.” Later sages gave Bezalel the nickname Re’eh, the Seer, and Philo, the first-century, Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, wrote that Bezalel was “a symbol of pure knowledge.” High praise for a man who worked with his hands—especially when you factor in the rabbinic math that claims Bezalel was only thirteen years old at the time!
Rabbi Isaac said that when God was deciding who to appoint to build the Tabernacle, Bezalel was the first choice, but God insisted on asking Moses before announcing it. Moses said that if the man was good enough for God, then surely he was good enough for Moses as well! Nevertheless, God said Moses needed to consult the people and get their approval. Rabbi Isaac’s gloss on this story is that one cannot appoint a leader of a group without consulting them.
This is interesting, because another translation of pekudei is “accounting.” Not only do our leaders need to be respected by the people, they also need to literally be accountable for their expenses— note that the parsha lists all of the Israelites’ monetary contributions and how they were used. Another midrash explains this by saying that this was to address any potential concerns the people may have had about how Moses and the leadership were using their gold and other valuables. In effect, it is the Torah’s first audit—of leadership as well as finances.
It is of course, less important whether any of the stories about Bezalel are true than the fact that the tradition chose to remember and elevate him. And not only him, but also his assistant, Oholiab. What is the significance of Oholiab? We must remember that not all the tribes became equally important or powerful. The most wealthy and influential tribe, from which we derive our name Jews, was Judah. Can you guess the least powerful tribe? Dan.
The rabbis wrote that this contrast was deliberate, to reflect that before God, “the great and the lowly are equal.” In the context of serving God, neither position nor lineage makes one person better than another. All contributions to the community are important.
To the rabbis, the Tabernacle was a model of the cosmos, as reflected in multiple verses in the seventh Aliyah of this parsha. These verses reflect God’s satisfaction with the Mishkan with the seven approvals for the days of creation, as well as the fact that the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, inhabited that space as fire and cloud and communicated with Moses there. The medieval commentator Nahmanides takes this concept one step further and writes that the Mishkan was the continuation of revelation into history—a place where the presence of God could be continually felt.
This is why the details matter so much. This is why it is important to honor the workers such as Bezalel. To not give honor and respect to those who helped create the mirror of the heavens on earth would be akin to not giving God credit for the larger universe! Bezalel is not just a skilled craftsman, he is a holy man in close contact with God, working to create a divine sanctuary on earth.
Today we have no Mishkan, but we have many sanctuaries. And we have many Bezalels and Oholiabs, in addition to Moseses and Itamars. Whether it is paying bills, volunteering for events, or serving on a committee, the Jewish community has always demanded engagement — ours is not a spectator sport. And if we think of our communities as a reflection of the Heavens, this is as it should be. We must never forget that just as we depend on our leaders, we also depend on our volunteers, and our workers. Without Bezalel, Moses would have been worshipping God in the open air, getting sand in his face. Without the time and generosity of countless volunteers, thousands of small synagogues would never have a minyan, celebrate holidays, or engage in holy acts of kindness. When we do our inner accounting, we must remember *all* the people who help make our community possible.
Finally, one last thought, about the nature of creation and its connection to modern community. Before God created the universe, we are told all was tohu va-vohu, unformed and void, formless chaos. After creation, when order and structure was imposed, God proclaimed the finished product tov me’od, or very good.
In order to make the universe, the kabbalists taught, there had to be a contraction—God had to find some way to minimize God-self to make room for creation. Today, we see the same challenge in many communities—how can leaders inspire, but also not get in the way? How can we create structure and systems without reducing creativity or causing conflicts? Perhaps one way is to follow the example of Moses and Bezalel—a good leader finds the right person for the job, provides them with resources, and then lets them do what they’re good at.
If the tabernacle is a microcosm of the heavens, so too are our modern-day communities. Whether they are tohu va-vohu or tov me’od depends on us.