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The Wise Approach

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha, Moses tells the Jewish people that God has appointed Betzalel as chief craftsman to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:30). The Talmud (Brachot 55a) explains that Betzalel got this position due to his great wisdom, as follows: Although God initially commanded Moses to build the Tabernacle and only afterwards commanded him to build the Ark, when Moses told Betzalel what to build, he reversed the order of these instructions.

Betzalel questioned Moses about this order. If the way of the world is to first build a home and only then fill it with furniture, why would it make sense to build the furniture before the structure? Perhaps God had commanded the Tabernacle and the Ark to be built in a different order? Moses saw from this insight that Betzalel was aligned with God's knowledge, and that the name Betzalel (from the words "b'tzel E-l," meaning, "in the shadow of God") was fitting for him.

The Midrash (Shmot Rabba 50:2) has a seemingly contradictory perspective on these events. According to the Midrash, the verse, "Betzalel made the Ark" (Exodus 37:1) clarifies the verse in Proverbs (9:9) that states, "Give to a wise person, and he increases wisdom." How is this verse a reference to Betzalel?

The Midrash states that when Moses told Betzalel to build the Tabernacle, Betzalel asked him about the nature of it. Moses replied that the Tabernacle would be a place for the Divine Presence to rest, from which God would teach Torah to the Jewish people. Betzalel inquired where the Torah would be placed. Moses explained that the Tabernacle would be built first, and afterwards the Ark would be crafted, in which to put the Torah. Betzalel replied that this was not honorable to the Torah; therefore, he would make the Ark first.

This Midrash seems to blatantly contradict the Talmudic passage we mentioned above. Which structure was built first, the Tabernacle or the Ark, and what were the reasons for that order?

The Shem MiShmuel proposes an insight. In his view, there are two approaches in serving God. The approach that is suitable for most people is to study Torah first, so that eventually the intellectual knowledge we acquire will enable us to correct our undesirable character traits. In other words, we must first fill the mind with an awareness of God, and then infuse that awareness into the limbs of our body to perfect our behavior.

By contrast, the second approach is applicable only to an elite few. In this method, we sanctify our behavior first, working to eliminate any character flaws we may have and exerting ourselves to perfect our actions. Only after we have done this do we merit to be filled with Torah.


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Based on this idea, we can begin to resolve the contradiction between the order of events in the Talmud and the Midrash. Let us first understand the connection between the two structures we mentioned before (Tabernacle and Ark) and the two elements that the Shem MiShmuel discusses (mind and body). The Tabernacle, which was built using physical labor and craftsmanship, represents the physical control of the limbs. The Ark, on the other hand, where the Torah is placed, represents the intellectual pursuit of Torah knowledge.

The Torah portions of Trumah and Vayakhel both deal with the construction of the Tabernacle. Although Parshat Trumah precedes this week's parsha of Vayakhel in the Torah itself, the commentator Levush HaOra (Exodus 38:22) writes that the events of Parshat Trumah chronologically took place after Parshat Vayakhel. We learn this from the first verse of this week's portion: "And Moses gathered the people" (Exodus 35:1). Rashi states that this gathering took place the day after Yom Kippur, when Moses returned to the people and informed them that they could achieve atonement for the Golden Calf by building of the Tabernacle. This is when Moses mentioned the Tabernacle first and the Ark second. At a later date, in Parshat Trumah, Moses taught the people all the details that the Tabernacle should contain - mentioning the Ark first and the Tabernacle second.

According to the Zohar, Moses was pursued by forces of evil from the time of his youth. He had to exert himself tremendously to refine his actions and behavior. Only after he had perfected his character did he merit to receive the awareness and understanding of Torah. This is why he initially tells the people in Parshat Vayakhel to build the Tabernacle first. The Tabernacle represents physical action and behavioral change - the approach that is appropriate only for an elite few.

This approach resonated with Moses, since it is the approach he lived. The Midrash, in which Moses mentions building the Tabernacle first, is therefore referring to the instructions given in Parshat Vayakhel. Betzalel's objection - that it would dishonor the Torah to build the Tabernacle first - implies that there is an alternative method of drawing close to God. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for the people to follow a different pattern.

Apparently, Moses agreed with Betzalel's assessment. In his subsequent address to the people, in Parshat Trumah, he reversed the order of the building instructions, mentioning the Ark first. This is the approach to which the Talmud refers, when Moses tells Betzalel to build the Ark before the Tabernacle. As mentioned, the Ark represents intellectual awareness. The approach where awareness precedes major behavioral refinement is more appropriate for the masses. Betzalel's question here is not merely logical (why would one build the furniture before the house?) but also because Moses's previous instructions were in the reverse order. Why did Moses change the order? Moses sees from this question that Betzalel is truly intent on performing God's will and is therefore fittingly named.

We see from here that there is no contradiction between the Talmud and the Midrash. The Talmud is referring to the approach of Parshat Trumah, where the Ark (awareness) comes before the Tabernacle (action). This approach is the more common one. The Midrash is referring to the approach of Parshat Vayakhel, where the Tabernacle (action) comes before the Ark (awareness) - an approach that is appropriate only for an elite few.

May we each merit to find our unique connection to God, and may we soon merit to serve God in totality, with the building of the Ark and the Temple.

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