Vayekhel-Pekudei: Equal Souls

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel-Pekudei / Shabbat HaHodesh 

“See, the Lord has singled out by name Betzalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft . . . He and Oholiav son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work. . . as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs.” (Shemot/ Exodus 35:30-35, abridged.)

Good Morning!

It’s going to be a busy weekend in Torah reading: we have a double portion to conclude the book of Exodus, and we also read a special portion for Shabbat HaHodesh, which always falls before the new moon of the month of Nissan (and hence about two weeks or a little more before Pesach.)

The Torah readings conclude the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary; in these final chapters, two craftsmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, oversee and carry out the actual fashioning of the many components of the sacred structure. These were made from wood, fabric, skins, precious metals and even jewels, and required skill and experience in fashioning. The Torah tells us that the two chief craftsmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, have a special sort of inspired holy spirit to do their work as artisans.

So far, so good, but notice in the verses above that there’s one important difference between Betzalel and Oholiav: the former is of the tribe of Yehudah, while the latter is of the tribe of Dan. Now, we might dismiss this as a random fact of genealogy, or the Torah’s desire to show the men in their social and personal context of family history and tribal affiliation, but of course the ancient rabbis see more to it than that.

Our friend Rashi, quoting an earlier rabbinic text, points out that Yehudah- the tribe of Betzalel- is the “greatest” of the tribes (presumably because line of King David comes from Yehudah), while Dan is one of the smaller or “lower” tribes, having descended from Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah. Yet as Rashi points out, the Holy One made the descendant of Yehudah and the descendant of Dan equal in the work of the Mishkan; he even brings a verse from Job to prove it:  “a rich one was not regarded more than the poor.” (Job 34:19)

Now we can understand Rashi’s comment is not about genealogy but about the inclusive nature of spiritual community. If all people are inherently b’tzelem Elohim [literally “in the Divine Image” but refers to our spiritual capacity] then of course it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, from a family of machers or a family of nudniks, high status or regular Joe. What matters is your dedication to the work of the community: spirituality, loving-kindness and actions for justice.

In the case of Betzalel and Oholiav, their special task was to make the physical structure of worship, but there are many ways to create sacred space and sacred community. The challenge for synagogues and other spiritual communities is to empower every seeker to contribute their unique gifts, and the job of every seeker is to discern how she is appointed to offer something unique and precious. It might be a gift of resources, time, compassion, skill or love, but only you can give it.

Shabbat Shalom,


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