Rabbi Stephen Kahn

Following the catastrophic events of Ki Tisa, last week’s parshah, we begin this week with the final construction of the portable Mishkan in the wilderness.

And Moses said to the Israelites: See, Adonai has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. God has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.

(Exodus 35:30-31)

The commentators were interested in the descriptors given to Bezalel. What does the Torah mean when it teaches us that he was endowed with “skill, ability and knowledge?”

Our tradition’s great commentator Rashi (1040-1105) explains that “skill” is the trait of an individual who learns from others, “ability” comes as the product of one’s own insight and experience and “knowledge” is the manifestation of divine inspiration.

From Rashi’s commentary we learn that Bezalel was truly gifted: a “triple threat” of talent, creativity and experience. It would likely be impossible today to find one person who could list all three of these “skill sets,” on a resume. Yet, for anyone who has participated in any construction project, whether it be for a sacred space or not, we seek individuals who have the skills, abilities and knowledge to create places and spaces which reflect our own ideas and vision.

Thus, I would posit it was Bezalel’s skill, ability and knowledge that enabled our ancestors to find salvation from the sin of the Golden Calf and experience the Divine Presence. Like our own synagogues today, the paradigmatic Mishkan represented a renewed partnership between the Israelites and God. Under the direction of Bezalel (and Oholiav) and with the “free will” offerings of every Israelite, the Mishkan itself was both necessary and sufficient in enabling God to “dwell” with them.

Among the many difficult lessons of these turbulent times, we have learned that our leaders, both elected and otherwise, play a critical role in shaping the spiritual and mental psyche of a community. At a time where we face our own catastrophic events, as we witness the suffering of others both up close and from afar, and at a time when social distancing has become social isolation for so many, we crave the leadership and direction of individuals who have the skills, ability and knowledge to carry us to the “other side.”

In the absence of such leaders, we have learned how effortlessly and quickly we fall into the spiritual abyss of both time and space; a dark place where the influences of evil, fear mongering and conspiracy theories prevail. The question remains now as it did then, who can save us?

Given the chronology of this portion and the juxtaposition of this week’s narrative to last week’s, we may arrive at an important insight. Namely, miracles and the theophany at Mt. Sinai were not sufficient in truly delivering our ancestors from slavery to freedom. From this we may learn that human beings do not necessarily need divine intervention to survive times of suffering. Rather, we need each other as exemplars to create spaces and places of connection with the Divine.

In truth, like our ancestors in the wilderness, the harsh lesson of the tragedy of the Golden Calf was (and is) that we need each other. We need each other’s skills, abilities and knowledge to create a community — not in the abstract — of value, reason and meaning. We need each other to be reminded that the salvific force of goodness, mercy and “walking humbly with God” is within each one of us.

We need each other as reminders of God’s everlasting presence; that within us is both the individual and collective creativity, wisdom and skill to build spaces and places where God is indeed dwelling among us. JN

Rabbi Stephen Kahn is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.