I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I find people who can do any kind of visual art absolutely amazing. It’s as if they have an extra eye or an extra muscle, some sort of extra sense that allows them to see form where I see nothing. They take a pot of paint or a hunk of metal or stone, or whatever material, and truly create order out of chaos, just like God did in Genesis. I feel the same way about people who can make their bodies move so perfectly that the music comes from every finger and toe. My father used to tell me I could trip over the flowers in a rug, and he was right. True, I can sing. But I’ve always thought my voice came from beyond me, as if I had nothing to do with it. I know I’ve trained and practiced and worked, but that original talent came from someplace else, and I acknowledge it as the gift it is.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, a master artist is chosen to be the project manager for building the Tabernacle. He is Betzalel, and of the choice, God says, “I have filled him up with a spirit of God.” (Ex. 31: 3) Betzalel was a visual prophet, and like any prophet, he was unique within his generation.
Bezalel’s name alone hints at the grandeur and status he holds. He is Betzalel: betzel El (in God’s shadow). Or he is Betzelem-El (in God’s image). He is Betzelal ben Uri (son of light). He is light and shadow, refracting light. He sees not only what others do not, but he refracts or reflects the light of the gift he was given, so that others can see the results of that gift. The Hebrew mixes senses here: “See, I have called him” – sight and sound mixed up, just as it was at Sinai. Then we read: “I have endowed him with the divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge. Three very separate words; in Hebrew they are: b’chochma, u’vit’vunah, u’v’da-at”. The Torah doesn’t mince words, nor are synonyms there for no reason. How are these words different? As you can imagine, Rashi has something to say about it.
For Rashi, the three words speak to different kinds of knowing: chochma (wisdom) is what we learn from others. Tvunah (ability) is what we understand by thinking about something. And da’at (knowledge) is the knowing of the Divine – where that extra, indescribable element lies that can’t be explained. Betzalel has not only the skills, but the independent thought needed to apply them, to think in ways that others don’t see. In v. 4, the English reads that Betzalel was chosen “to make designs..” but the Hebrew is lachsov machshvot”.. to think thoughts.
Rashi’s commentary speaks to what makes an artist different from one with skill-there is the need to learn from others. Then the artist takes what s/he has learned and turns it over and over, almost like a gem that is cut and polished. It’s what we understand after we’ve reflected on something. And then, that last step that brings the art to its height – da’at, something that comes from outside the artist. Rashi calls it “the holy spirit.”
I’ve never like the children’s book, “The Rainbow Fish.” The fish that had all those beautiful scales had to give away what made him special. He was as color-less as the other fish, just so they wouldn’t feel bad. That never seemed like the right answer to me; rather, the other fish should have been encouraged to find their own color, without taking away from someone else. The truth is, some people do dance better than others, and some people sing better. Betzalel certainly had an artist’s soul and skill, so much more so that God picked him out of everybody else. But everyone else still found ways to contribute to building the ICC…Israelite Community’s Center.
The world is filled with true artists. We are blessed when we come across them, reveling in the beauty they bring into the world. Surround yourself with their gifts, or make something of your own gifts. No matter which it is, let’s bless the source of those gifts, grateful that they exist in our world. Through them, through what started as a gift and has been polished and honed to perfection, we recognize the place that has been built for God to dwell among us.