When Building or Teaching, Put Your Heart into It


The Jewish people’s initial foray into freedom can really be seen as a failure to launch. The recent Golden Calf incident represents as much an anxiety about the present as being tethered to the past, albeit one tainted by subjugation and abuse. Things get so bad, even God wants to press restart and begin again with Moses. 

Thankfully, God forgives the Israelites and grants them not just a momentary chance for atonement, but an enduring space and process for repentance with the Mishkan. Draped in regret, guilt and shame, the Jewish people embark on constructing this mobile Tabernacle. The Mishkan represents a moonshot, an aspirational enterprise designed to enable God and the Jewish people to connect and move forward. 

Betzalel, the Mishkan’s lead architect, is re-introduced in this week’s Torah reading as construction commences. In addition to managing the nuts and bolts, a noteworthy responsibility seems shoehorned into his job description: “And God also put into his heart the ability to teach.” (Exodus 35:34) With all of the details necessary to actualize this massive structure, what’s the value of the foreman simultaneously serving as lead educator?

The answer is that there are multiple agendas in the blueprints of this divinely ordained project. 

Training the Israelites has to be the first priority, argues Ramban, because these former slaves have no experience with this sort of intricate work. This 13th-century sage writes: “Israel in Egypt had been crushed under the work in mortar and in bricks, and had acquired no knowledge of how to work with silver and gold, and the cutting of precious stones, and had never seen them at all.” The Israelites may have built Pharaoh’s edifices, but their tasks were limited in skill and precision. In Ramban’s eyes, biblical job training represents a pragmatic step in cultivating the Israelite workforce.

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, it is vital that the Tabernacle constitute not only a breathtaking locus of spirituality, but also a platform for nurturing and celebrating the people’s spirit. The 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra asserts that finding a leader who could share their expertise with others was paramount. With so much on the line, God endows Betzalel and the project’s assistant director, Ohaliav, with the skills of educators.

The reason for Betzalel’s appointment is deeper than the many hardhats he must wear. To uncover the nexus between contractor and educator, consider how the Torah describes the Israelites engaged in this project: “And everyone whose heart inspired them came, and everyone whose heart moved them brought to God their offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments.” (Exodus 35:21) While this verse focuses on the people’s desire to contribute to the Tabernacle, what stands out is the word “heart.” 

When God appoints Betzalel, the imperative to teach is planted in his heart, connecting his heart to theirs. This dynamic reminds us of the famous Talmudic saying that “Words that come from the heart penetrate the heart.” (Berakhot 6b) In his book “The Courage to Teach,” Parker Palmer emphasizes that “[r]elational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” This craftsman’s curriculum is a nation-building exercise, one heart at a time. 

More than a single project, the Mishkan represents an open invitation for the people to begin again — to let go of their shame and regrets and to unite with common purpose.

More than a single project, the Mishkan represents an open invitation for the people to begin again — to let go of their shame and regrets and to unite with common purpose. Perhaps that is why, according to the Midrash, that while its construction was finished in the month of Kislev, the Mishkan’s dedication was delayed till Nisan. Similarly, we read about completing the Mishkan in this week’s portion as we also commemorate Shabbat Hachodesh, the Sabbath immediately preceding the Jewish month of Nisan, when Passover takes place.

This is a beautiful confluence of events. Nisan is the month we remember leaving Egypt by the moonlight and, equally important, beginning again.

Twenty-five years ago, I was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary. One of the lessons I internalized most deeply comes from my teacher and mentor, Rabbi William Lebeau: the rabbi is their sermon. More important than any words of wisdom delivered is how a spiritual leader – and any human being, for that matter – conducts their life. By living with integrity and purpose, we all have the chance to become our message by the power of our example. 

Betzalel personifies Rabbi Lebeau’s approach to spiritual and ethical leadership. This Biblical artist does more than construct the Mishkan; he teaches the Jewish people to trust in God, trust one another and trust themselves again. With an open heart and the knowledge that Passover is fast approaching, we are reminded of the complicated road to freedom and, equally important, what it feels like to embrace the possibilities before us.

Rabbi Charles E. Savenor is the Director of Congregational Education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

Candlelighting, Readings

Friday, March 12, 2021
Adar 28, 5781

Light candles at 5:42 pm

Saturday, March 13
Adar 29, 5781

First Torah: Vayak’hel-Pekudei: Exodus 35:1 – 40:38
Second Torah: Parshat Hachodesh: Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:18 – 46:15; Samuel I 20:18; Samuel I 20:42

Shabbat ends at 6:41 pm