Ability and Vision

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein





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by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik








Ability and Vision

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Moshe said to Bnei Yisrael: Behold, God has called upon Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda; and He has filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding and knowledge, and in all types of workmanship; to devise skillful work, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass; and in the cutting of stones for setting, and in the carving of wood, to perform all types of skillful workmanship. And He has put it into his heart to teach – both he and Oholiav, son of Achisamakh, of the tribe of Dan; He has filled them with wisdom of heart, to perform all workmanship of craft and of skill… (Shemot 35:30-35)


The Torah describes the great wisdom of Betzalel, finding expression in both his planning ability and his outstanding professional workmanship. Chazal (Berakhot 55a) describe an additional aspect of Betzalel's insight:


Rabbi Shmuel, son of Nachmani, taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: [He was called] “Betzalel” because of his wisdom. The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moshe, “Go and say to Betzalel: Make Me a Mishkan, an Ark, and vessels,” but when Moshe went to him he changed the order and said, “Make an Ark, and vessels, and a Mishkan.”

Betzalel said to him, “Moshe, our teacher, the usual procedure is that a person first builds a house, and only afterwards brings vessels into it. But you are saying, ‘Make Me (i.e., for God) an Ark, and vessels, and a Mishkan’! [If I proceed according to that order,] where will I put the vessels that I make? Perhaps God told you, ‘Make Me a Mishkan, an Ark, and vessels?’”

Moshe said to him, “It is as though you were in God’s shadow (be-tzel el), and thus you knew!”


On the face of it, it is difficult to understand why Moshe commanded first the construction of the vessels and only afterwards the Mishkan itself. In fact, two separate questions are involved here. First, in terms of logic, it is clear that Betzalel was right: does it make any sense to first procure furnishings and them to go about looking for somewhere to live? Second, even if Moshe believed, for whatever reason, that it was better to make the vessels first, why would he change the order of God's command, which specifically mentioned the Mishkan first?


The Gemara (Shabbat 87a) teaches that on three occasions Moshe instructed something of his own initiative, and each time God affirmed what he had said. For each of these instances the Gemara provides a convincing explanation for Moshe's initiative; we must seek a solid explanation in our case, too.


In order to understand Moshe's change of order, let us consider Ramban's comment from parashat Teruma (25:2):


The essence of the Mishkan is a place for the resting of the Divine Presence – represented by the Ark, as it written, “And I shall meet with you there, and I shall speak with you from above the covering.” Therefore, over here God mentions first the Ark and the covering, for they are the most important; following on the Ark are the Table and the Menorah, which are vessels in the same way that the Ark is, and then comes the command concerning the Mishkan itself, which is constructed for their sake. But in parashat Vayakhel, Moshe mentions first the Mishkan, the Tent and its covering – and so Betzalel proceeded, since this was proper to make first.


Ramban views the relationship between God's command and Moshe's command in an inverse way to the understanding of the Gemara, but more importantly for our discussion, he also explains the significance of having the Mishkan or the vessels mentioned first. The vessels, and especially the Ark, represent the ultimate purpose of building the Mishkan. The construction of the Mishkan is intended solely to create a place where God's Presence can rest, and where He can meet with Bnei Yisrael; this purpose is realized through the Ark and its covering. While in practical terms it certainly makes sense to build the Mishkan first and the vessels only afterwards, in terms of ultimate purpose and importance, the Ark and the other vessels are the top priority.


This provides us with the answer to our question. God commanded Moshe to build a Mishkan, and then the vessels, because this is the proper order in practical terms. However, Moshe Rabbeinu, the man of vision, perceives the lofty purpose of the building of the Mishkan, and in order to inspire those who will be engaged in the labor, he first describes the climax of the construction – the creation of the wondrous vessel through which a direct link will exist between God and Bnei Yisrael. Only afterwards does he describe the rest of the Mishkan itself. However, Betzalel – the man of action – understands right away that the construction must be undertaken in the opposite order: first the house, and only afterwards the furnishings.


The midrash (Shemot Rabba 52:4) teaches:


There were several wise artisans, and they came to Moshe, being unable to establish the Mishkan. As King Shlomo taught, “Many daughters have acted with valor, but you have surpassed all of them” – Moshe was the most outstanding of all of them… Each of them brought his work to Moshe, and said, “Here are boards,” “here are the bars.” As soon as Moshe laid his eyes upon the various components, the holy spirit rested upon him and he was able to erect the Mishkan.


The midrash would seem to be emphasizing that in order to construct the Mishkan, it was not sufficient that there were talented artisans who would perform their work with accuracy and precision. It was also necessary that there be someone with vision, who could imbue the project with life and turn the various elements and constituents into a Mishkan.


If this is so concerning a structure of wood and stone, how much more important it is concerning the building of a person and the molding of his personality. As students in the beit midrash, we concern ourselves principally with the study of the contents of the Torah from different perspectives, and we accumulate skill in analyzing and clarifying various sugyot in the Gemara. This study is a necessary requirement in order to grow in Torah and in fear of Heaven, but it is not sufficient. In order to build a true Torah personality, increasing one's practical ability in studying Torah is not enough. We are also required to be people of vision, such that we constantly aspire to be filled with the fear of Heaven and saturated by it.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Vayakhel 5754 [1994].)