an antique drawing of a great cloud hovering over the mishkan with israelites worshipping
"The Tabernacle in the Wilderness" from the 1890 Holman Bible

Step aside, Golden Calf. This week’s Torah portion is a lesson in cooperation.

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11–34:35

This week’s Torah portion discusses many commandments that were given to Moses in order to complete the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, in both structure and function.

For many readers, these laws are eclipsed by the devastating account of the golden calf and its aftermath. Further, the narrative of the Torah does not seem to follow the chronological order of events (according to many of the classic commentators, including Rashi, the foremost medieval commentator).

For this reason, it seems that many people just gloss over the first half of the parashah and concentrate on the tragedy of the golden calf.

Nonetheless, there are several lessons that can be gleaned from the directives that are given at the beginning of the portion.

At the start of the 31st chapter, God tells Moses that he has called by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur of the tribe of Judah.

“I have filled him with the Divine spirit, with wisdom, discernment and knowledge and with every craft; to weave tapestries, to work with gold, silver, and copper; to cut stone for the settings; and to carve from wood.” (Exodus 31:3-5)

In the previous parashahs, we are told the instructions for the collection of the materials and the actual architecture of the Mishkan. At this point, we are informed of who is going to be the project manager. It is Bezalel from the tribe of Judah. He also happens to be part of a special pedigree. His grandfather, Hur, was the son of Miriam, Moses’ sister.

It seems significant that Bezalel was singled out for this great awesome responsibility. Appointing someone from outside the Levites seems to make strategic sense because the Levites were the only ones permitted to minister inside the Mishkan.

If they directed the entire project, as well, it might seem less likely that all the other tribes would feel bought in and connected to the central focal point of service of God. Judah was the tribe that led the entire camp of Israel through their journeys in the desert. They commanded the first of the four squadrons, each composed of three tribes, and they led the way.

Another strategic move on God’s part was the appointment of the second in command, Ohaliav, son of Achisomoch. (Exodus 31:6)

Ohaliav was from the tribe of Dan. In his commentary on Exodus 35:34, Rashi notes that Dan was considered of the lowliest of the tribes. In fact, Dan was the leader of the final squadron that traveled in the wilderness. In this way, the entire Jewish people, from top to bottom, felt that they were included in the construction of the Mishkan.

There is an additional quality that is mentioned in the description of what God endowed Bezalel and Ohaliav with during the actual building of the Mishkan in Parshat Vayakhel.

“And the ability to teach was put into his heart, he along with Ohaliav ben Achisomoch of the tribe of Dan.” (Exodus 35:34)

It was not enough to give them the talent and ability to perform all the crafts that were necessary for working with the various materials that would be used in the construction. It was necessary for them to be given Divine assistance in their teaching skills, as well.

It is not a given assumption that someone with talent can teach others to mimic their own skills.

This endeavor was to be a communal endeavor that included many others from all the tribes.

The only way for that to be effective would require both Bezalel and Ohaliav to instruct the people so that there would be widespread participation.

Returning to the discussion of Bezalel, in particular, it seems surprising that he would be the one chosen to take such a leadership role given his relatively young age.

Keeping in mind that he was the great-grandson of Miriam, who was still alive at this point, it is understood that he was not very old. In fact, his father, Uri, might have made a more logical choice, given that God Himself was imbuing all the skills, talents and knowledge that one would require.

Perhaps Uri was skipped over because of other circumstances.

During the episode of the golden calf, the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 7) states that Hur, the son of Miriam, was killed by the mob because he tried to protest. The Sages’ opinion can be supported from the fact that Hur played a central role in the beginning of Exodus, and then is no longer found in the narrative.

If that is indeed the case, then Uri would be in a state of mourning for the death of his father. It follows that it would be inappropriate for Uri to play such a central role in building the Mishkan, since he is in the category of an avel (mourner). Therefore, the job fell to his son, Bezalel.

This speaks to the notion that our service of God needs to be done with simcha (joy).

Bezalel is the next in line, and God allows him to play this pivotal role. Aside from the condition of joy, it is also clear that there needs to be participation from the masses and that they have to be invited to build the Mishkan.

The parashah begins with a collection of a half silver shekel from the head of every household so that the foundation of the structure would be completed with full participation.

The employ of Bezalel and Ohaliav, who come from different tribes, only further emphasizes the inclusive nature of the project. We look forward to once again having a unified Jewish people in their service of God.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.