Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This week we learn about Bezalel, the man chosen to design and build the Tabernacle that carried the tablets of the law that Moses brought down from Sinai. (Exodus 38:22-39:31)
On the face of it, these verses describe the matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan. Rather, it’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites, a standard of beauty and meaning that would impress itself upon the soul of generations of Jews to come in the land of Israel and all the lands of the Diaspora.
Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. The necessary qualities are spelled out in the text:
“See, God has called by name Bezalel ... and filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom (chochmah), with understanding (t'vunah), and with knowledge (da-at) in all work. And God instilled thoughts (lachshov machshavot) [in Bezalel’s mind] in order for him to make designs of all kinds...” (Exodus 35:30-32)
Because of the importance of the Mishkan in the iconography of Jewish tradition, our sages sought to understand the deepest meaning of this passage. Rashi says that chochmah is the wisdom we learn from others; t’vunah - the understanding we gain from life experience; and da-at - mystical intuition. Jewish legend assumes that Bezalel was well-versed in Kabbalah, that he understood the combinations of letters with which God created the heavens and the earth.
From all this Bezalel is presented as a master craftsman and architect, seasoned by life's experiences, open-hearted and open-minded to the needs and insights of the people, inspired with a Godly spirit, and understanding of the fundamental laws and truths at the core of creation.
The name “Bezalel” means "being in God's shadow," suggesting that he had attained the level of tzadik and achieved yihud, unity with God.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev says, yes, Bezalel’s function was to be the chief executive of this project to build the Mishkan, that is, in Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s words, “someone who would meticulously carry out instructions.” But the next verse adds another dimension when it says “v’lachshov machshavot” ([and God] “made him think thoughts”), meaning that Bezalel was asked not only to carry out God’s instructions, but to contribute “original ideas of his own.”
There are people today and throughout history who have made and do fine work replicating through drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture what they see objectively in nature and in the art and architecture of others. They seek, at the very least, to reconstruct what they see. The great artist, however, does more than repeat. He/she adds something ineffable to the work - a deeper and broader vision that is unique to the artist.
Bezalel was such an artist. Yet, a midrash says that even Bezalel's wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and originality weren’t sufficient to merit his assignment as chief designer, architect and manager of the building of the Mishkan.
A midrash has God asking Moses if he, Moses, thought Bezalel was suited for this holy duty. And, as if stunned by the question from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be God, Moses replied, "Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!" Whereupon God instructed Moses, "Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Bezalel." And Moses did so.
The people, also probably stunned, replied, "If Bezalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too."
From this, our sages concluded that Bezalel wasn’t only God's choice but also the people's choice.
Mark Chagall adds yet another dimension to the task of the artist when he wrote that "the artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art's sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life."
This story reminds us to consider well the nature of our own sacred spaces. They are not meant to be merely functional meeting halls with an ark and Torah scrolls on the eastern wall. Rather, they should reflect the highest aesthetic vision of our tradition and people, and thereby not only enhance our prayer experience in their spaces but construct stairways to heaven.
That is the architectural vision that our own architects at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg of Koning-Eizenberg Architects, Inc. have envisioned for our new chapel to be built.
It is our fervent hope that construction will begin soon thereby fulfilling at last the final stage of what we set out to do as a congregation more than ten years ago, to create a new synagogue upon the old (now 87 years old) as a whole and a new sacred space in which we may celebrate the holy and draw nearer to God.
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March 3, 2013 | 7:36 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Everyone is prognosticating whether Israel will be able to form a government. Allow me from abroad to add my two cents.
Point #1 – The election was not about foreign policy or security, though those remain important. Rather, it was about internal Israeli policy, the economy and fairness in service to the state, young people’s inability to afford the cost of living, the huge government funds being given over to settlements and the Hareidim (ultra-Orthodox), the latter of which give nothing back in taxes or military/civilian service to the state.
Point #2 – Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Habayit HaYehudi), who surprisingly earned 19 and 11 mandates respectively, have formed a strong bond. Either they both become part of the ruling coalition or neither does, thus making Bibi Netanyahu scramble for parties (so far unsuccessfully) to join the government. Strange bedfellows when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Lapid and Bennett agree that the economy and “sharing the burden” of military service must be addressed by the next government. Neither will join a coalition with any Hareidi party. Bibi has been unable to break them up. The Israeli public is growing in respect for both Lapid and Bennett as a result.
Point #3 – President Shimon Peres has given Bibi a two week extension to form a government. If Lapid and Bennett hold together it is my best guess that new elections will need to be called. It’s said that Bibi is heavily courting Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) to enter the government though she has refused to do so (but so did Tzipi Livni once upon a time - Tzipi and Bibi hate each other – but she made a deal anyway). If Bennett/Lapid do agree to come into the government with no ultra-Orthodox Hareidi parties, it is unclear what Livni will choose to do because her two-state interest is contrary to Bennett’s one-state position.
Point #4 – Bibi was deeply weakened in this election. His partnership with Yisrael Bateinu (Avigdor Lieberman, now under indictment) had hoped to garner 42 mandates. Instead the combined parties got 31 (20 are Likud and 11 are Yisrael Bateinu). Lapid and Bennett together hold 30 (19 and 11 respectively). According to current polls, if new elections are called Yair Lapid will earn in the mid to high 20s and will be asked to form the next government.
Point #5 – Shelly Yachimovich seriously weakened the Labor Party by her refusal to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution and because personally she is not well-liked. Meretz (6 mandates) and Yesh Atid were the beneficiaries of disgruntled former Labor supporters. Lapid and Bennett are well-liked not only because they focused their campaigns on what the Israelis really want and need, (i.e. to clean up the economy, eliminate the disparity in government benefits going to Hareidim and the settlements, to make it obligatory for all Israelis - Hareidim included - to serve in the military or civilian service, and to clean up corruption.
Point #6 – Religious pluralism, though not the top issue of the campaign, will be affected by the government that is formed. If the ultra-Orthodox are kept out, this is very good for the Reform and Conservative movements and for secular Israeli Jews who make up 80% of the country. Civil marriage, reducing government support for ultra-Orthodox communities, granting more support for progressive religious communities (i.e. Reform and Conservative), women’s rights, civil marriage, immigrant rights, etc. will advance. Yair Lapid once wrote an article in Maariv saying that “We are all Reform Jews.” His children became b’nai mitzvah at Beit Daniel, our starship Reform synagogue of Tel Aviv and he is very close to Rabbi Meir Azari, Beit Daniel’s Rabbi.
Point #7 – The domestic issues that were the main focus of this election are now potentially in conflict with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Vis a vis the Palestinians, Israelis have thrown up their hands. They want a two-state solution by a substantial majority (Bennett does not), but they do not really know whether the Palestinians want the same, though polls say the Palestinians too are in favor. Israelis, however, are not at all convinced that President Abbas of the PA can deliver a Palestinian state. The Israelis know that Iran remains a mortal threat, but are confident that President Obama will lead on the issue.
Conclusion – I believe Bibi will be unsuccessful in forming a new government and that new elections will be called – probably in May. If so, Yair Lapid could become Prime Minister. Of course, I could be completely wrong.
My wish for Israel is a strong and pragmatic middle of the road government without the ultra-Orthodox parties, and then real movement on both the domestic issues and a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
March 1, 2013 | 6:20 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight to “atone for your souls.” (Exodus 30:13)
The Tosafot surmises that
"Moses was perplexed, thinking to himself, 'What can a person possibly give that will serve as atonement for his soul?' Thereupon, God showed him a 'coin of fire.'"
Question - How can a "coin of fire" grant atonement for one's soul?
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson answered with a parable:
A person once served as an apprentice to a silver and goldsmith. The artisan taught his apprentice all the necessary details except for one, which he omitted because of its utter simplicity: in order to melt gold and silver and change its shape, a fire must be lit under the metals.
Setting out on his own, the apprentice faithfully followed all the particulars his master taught him, leaving out that one "minor" detail that his teacher had omitted, the need for a fire. Because of this omission, of course, nothing happened. The silver and gold remained as they were, and the apprentice could fashion nothing at all.
God similarly responded to Moses by showing him a ‘coin of fire,’ (the half-shekel). (Likkuti Sichos, Vol. III, pages 923-28; from Parashat Shekalim - "An Undivided Half-Shekel")
The parable explains that merely offering a half-shekel coin doesn't bring about atonement. But, when the coin is offered with fire, referring to soul-fire, then the half-shekel atones even for a sin as grievous as the sin of the Golden Calf.
Another question - Why does Torah ask for only a half-shekel and not a whole shekel?
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explains in a complex Kabbalistic discussion (Kedushat Levi, vol. 2, p 494, Lambda Press) that what we’re dealing with here are purely spiritual matters, that when an Israelite gives a half-shekel of twenty gerah weight, it isn’t about the monetary value we earthly beings require to physically sustain a community. Rather, it’s about how we may enter into God’s presence.
The first letter in the word Keter (Crown - the highest emanation of God on the Kabbalist chart of emanations) is chaf, and chaf equals twenty according to Hebrew letter-number equivalents, the same as the weight of the half-shekel, thereby indicating that the 20 gerah (chaf-Keter) weight half-shekel is a spiritual metaphor of ascent towards yihud (unity) with God at the highest level.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak explains that without the spiritual fire no offering, no gift, no presentation from the heart will succeed in linking heaven and earth. Soul-fire is the critical element that enables yihud, union, between us and God.
It is part of the human condition that we are broken, flawed, distracted, seducible, unfocused, fragmented, disloyal, weak, and imperfect. The golden calf incident is the most spectacular example in the Biblical period of betrayal perpetrated by the people against God. Only 39 days before the making of the golden calf (in this week's Torah reading) they heard the commandment against worshipping false gods, and they made the object and celebrated it as a god in spite of what they had only recently experienced at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Those who had turned away from God badly needed a means to return to holiness. Restoration, thankfully, is always possible. Rabbi Simon Jacobson writes that "Moses offers us a rare - once in history - glimpse into the intimate secret of communicating with the Divine, as he beseeches God to forgive and reconcile with the people.... Moses implores God, ‘Show me Your face.’ [And in response] God forgives.”
Mending our relationship with God (and with those we love and community) is a fundamentally restorative and healing process, and it begins with the offering of the half-shekel.
Judaism teaches that we are most whole when we enter into authentic, trusting, loyal, loving, and passionately committed relationships with family and friends, with a sacred community and with God. That is the lesson of the half-shekel "coin of fire."
For those of us who do not believe there is a God or, at the very least are skeptical about ever experiencing a relationship with the Divine, then I suggest that you let authentic relationships with loved ones and with community suffice. Perhaps the Divine-human experience will follow.
Our Torah portion and the Midrashic literature teach that the ‘coin of fire,’ the half-shekel, facilitates atonement (read instead "at-one-ment"). When that occurs, when we offer a coin of fire we become, in effect, God’s light, as it says in Proverbs (20:27) - Nishmat adam ner Adonai - “The human soul is the lamp of God.”