The way of the world

The way of the world

Pekudei — Exodus 38:21-40:38

Many people have a misconception about Judaism that impedes their ability to take our religion seriously and to commit to living the Jewish way of life. Let me tell you about one such person, Richard, a dedicated participant in a class I once gave for individuals with a limited familiarity with the Jewish faith. Besides my lectures, I invited the students to meet with me informally.

Richard took me up on the invitation. “Rabbi,” he began, “Let me get right to the point. I am a practical guy. My friends refer to me as ‘the last of the great pragmatists.’ I hope you don’t mind my candor, but I must say that much of what you’ve been teaching us simply turns me off. It is all about symbolic religious practices, miracles, angels, an invisible deity, and belief in a world to come. What about this world, the real world of day-to-day living? I’m an architect by profession, married with two little children. What does the Judaism you’ve been teaching have to say to me?”

Richard’s objections were not new to me; I had heard them many times before. Here is how I answered him:

“Richard, you are making the same mistake as did Moshe Rabbenu!”

Richard was taken aback and protested, “You mean to say that I sound like the biblical Moses? You’re comparing me to him? Furthermore, I’m shocked to hear you, Rabbi, insinuating that Moses was capable of error!”

“Let me explain myself, Richard, and you will understand exactly where I’m coming from. Did you ever hear of a man named Bezalel?”

Sad to say, Richard was only familiar with the major heroes and heroines of the Bible. I quickly filled him in on Bezalel’s bio. I began by informing him that Bezalel too was an architect, with divinely granted gifts of wisdom and skill sufficient to qualify him as the chief architect of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle.

I then went on to share with him the anecdote related by none other than Rashi, in his commentary on the second verse in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei. The verse reads: “And Bezalel, son of Uri … made all that the Lord commanded Moses.” Rashi notes that the verse does not read, “all that Moses commanded him [i.e., Bezalel].” Rashi, basing his words upon a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 55a), tells of the following fascinating dispute between Bezalel and Moses:

Even with regard to those details that Moses, Bezalel’s master, did not transmit to him, Bezalel was able to discern the precise instructions that Moses was given by the Almighty. Moses had commanded Bezalel to first fashion the sacred furnishings of the Tabernacle and only then to construct the Tabernacle itself. Bezalel protested that this was not “the way of the world,” the minhag ha’olam. Rather, the “way of the world” was to first construct the house and only later to fashion its furnishings and place them in the finished structure. Moses responded, “You are right, Bezalel. That is precisely what I heard from the Holy One Blessed is He. Your name means, ‘In the shadow of the Lord.’ Indeed, you must have been in the Lord’s very shadow to have intuited His divine instructions accurately, whereas I myself failed to ‘get it right.’” And so, Bezalel proceeded to first complete the tabernacle itself and only then to fashion its sacred furnishings.

I explained to Richard that Moses is described in rabbinic literature as a kind of “split personality.” The upper half of his body was heavenly, and only the lower part of his body was of this earth. He had little tolerance for human foibles, and because of his emphasis upon sublime values and spiritual priorities, he sometimes lost sight of the “real world” and its need for practical solutions to mundane challenges.

“Moses,” I said to Richard, “was, in a sense, prone to the same misconception as are you and so many others. Surely, there is a component of our religion which deals with otherworldly matters, and which sounds so alien to those of us whose priorities are practical and of this world. Bezalel, on the other hand, knew of the necessity for pragmatism and practicality in everyday life. He well understood that often, the way to determine the Almighty’s will is not by awaiting voices from heaven, but by ascertaining what is useful and effective in the world we live in.”

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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