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Jewish Journal

Bezalel - Master Architect of Sacred Space - Parashat Vayakhel-Pekude

by Rabbi John Rosove

March 7, 2013 | 10:51 am

Bezalel, as in Exodus 31, by James Tissot. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Shabbat shalom!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley...

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