I offer this d’var Torah at the end of a week that for me has been exceptionally disturbing in the wake of the President’s dishonesty, self-centered heartlessness and bullying tactics along with the Republican congressional leadership’s efforts to make good on its promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, rather than correct its problems, and thus take health insurance from twenty-four million poor and older Americans over the course of the next decade.
I have found myself these past eighteen months since the presidential campaign began and especially since 11/8 and 1/20 to be in constant need of a mental, emotional, and spiritual corrective to the corrosive spirit that has taken over so much of this country.
Learning Torah has always been for me such a corrective endeavor. And so, I offer here an edited d’var Torah that I posted originally three years ago concerning Betzalel, the master architect and builder of the Tabernacle.
God instructed Moses to choose Betzalel to design and build the Tabernacle that would carry the tablets of the law (Exodus 38:22-39:31). On the face of it, these verses describe a matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan for an ancient structure. It’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites that would impress itself upon the hearts, minds, and souls of generations of Jews to come.
Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. Only someone with extraordinary qualities of heart, mind, spirit, and skill could do the job.
We learn that Betzalel was endowed with wisdom (chochmah), insight (binah), and understanding (da-at). Rashi suggests that chochmah refers to the wisdom we learn from others; binah is the understanding we acquire from life experience; da-at is mystical intuition.
Though Betzalel was apparently the right choice, God asked Moses if he himself believed that Betzalel was suited to perform this sacred task. Moses replied: “Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!” Not yet satisfied, God instructed Moses: “Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Betzalel.”
Moses did so and the people replied: “If Betzalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too.”
The rabbis emphasized that Betzalel was not only God’s and Moses’ choice but the people’s choice.
This simple story of Betzalel’s selection teaches that Judaism regards a person’s devotion to God, Torah, and the people of Israel to be the key virtues of a Jewish artist.
Mark Chagall went further when he wrote: “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.”
The story of Betzalel and the commentary that was written over time are reminders that each one of us, the artist and non-artist, ought to train ourselves to continuously direct one of our eyes heavenward and direct the other eye upon human affairs thereby drawing us nearer to one another in love and support and to the cosmic core of the universe.
This is an orientation that can serve each of us well and, I suggest, can help direct the leadership of our country to fulfill the higher purposes towards which American democracy has sought to fulfill.