"Men of Spirit and Men of Action"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
Summarized by Dov Karoll
            The second verse of Pekudei (38:22) states that Betzalel built the mishkan just as God had commanded Moshe.  Rashi (s.v. U-vetzalel, citing Berakhot 55a) points out that the order in which Betzalel built corresponded to the order which God had commanded Moshe, but differed from the order which Moshe had commanded Betzalel.  When God told Moshe to appoint Betzalel to build the mishkan (31:1-11), He commanded the construction of the ohel, the tent of meeting, first.  Only afterward did He command the construction of the keilim (vessels).  However, when Moshe informed the people about the appointment of Betzalel (35:30-35), he mentioned his ability to use the raw materials for the keilim (gold, silver, wood) first, and subsequently described his talent at utilizing the materials for the structure (the various dyed fabrics).
            Rashi records a dialogue between Moshe and Betzalel explaining why Betzalel reversed the order Moshe had told him.  Betzalel asked Moshe: Is it not customary to first build a house, and only afterward to put in its utensils?  Moshe responded that that is precisely what God commanded him to do.
            Why do Moshe and Betzalel approach the order differently?  Moshe's perspective is that of a "man of spirit" - he organizes the different parts of the mishkan according to their order of importance.  Since the vessels are of primary significance, and the tent serves only as its cover, Moshe mentions the vessels first.  Betzalel, on the other hand, is a "man of action," and he views the mishkan from the perspective of an architect.  The architect does not focus on what is more important, but rather on the physical layout of the building.
            As a "man of spirit," Moshe represents those whose spiritual priorities are set straight.  He realizes what actions are central in significance, and which are more peripheral.  He then trains his focus on those elements which are primary, while treating the secondary elements as such.  However, Betzalel, the "man of action," knows the technical details and can carry out his assigned task.  His fulfillment of mitzvot is done "by the book," though it may be lacking a deep understanding of what he is doing.
            In modern times, there are many people who follow the model of Betzalel.  They know precisely what they are to do, down to every last detail.  However, people very often lack the model of Moshe - the perspective and the spirit to realize the true significance of their actions, and which are more central.  For people whose Judaism is based exclusively upon book reading, and not from living in an environment surrounded by other observant Jews, this problem is particularly relevant.  In my house, growing up, there were no great Torah giants.  Nonetheless, it was always perfectly clear which actions were of high significance, and which were more peripheral.  People always had their priorities straight.
            Sometimes, people who read the Shulchan Arukh, or other books of Halakha, learn halakhot such as Shabbat (OC 242-416) and Keriat Shema (OC 58-88), which are central issues.  They also see rulings about what order a person should put on his shoes and the like (OC 2), which are customs much less central.  However, a person could get the impression (and people sometimes do) that these practices are all on the same level.  People very often assume that everything included under the category of "Halakha" is equivalent.  They do not distinguish between biblical laws, rabbinic laws, and customs, nor can they tell the difference between cardinal values and secondary ones.  Out of an understanding such as this, a person can lose perspective, and place great emphasis upon peripheral elements.  This is a very dangerous flaw.
            What a person should do, in addition to determining the relative significance of different actions, is try to bring certain spiritual elements into the more central actions.  He should choose a certain important action, and go beyond the call of duty with regard to it.  This can mean extending the time set aside for studying Torah, or doing some comparable action which shows one's particular love and enjoyment of that particular mitzva.
Sometimes, this can be accomplished by investing all available effort into a mitzva in a difficult situation.  This is significant even if the effort will fall short of the normal expectations of that mitzva.  For example, when I was in a forced labor camp during the Holocaust, I used to put my cleanest shirt (although it also was far from clean) in my pocket on Friday morning.  I would then put it on an hour or so before Shabbat.  Although it was a far cry from my normal Shabbat dress, it was very meaningful for me to put on that shirt, even more meaningful than dressing for Shabbat usually is.  Since all of my emotions were focused on this one action (because this was all I could do), it was very meaningful.  Since I was forced to work on Shabbat, this constituted the extent of my preparing for and honoring Shabbat.
            A person should try to have this intent sometimes even when he is able to fulfill all the necessary elements of the mitzva.  If occasionally he truly experiences the beauty of a mitzva, he should use that experience to infuse his daily action with some of that same enthusiasm.  Hopefully, through setting straight his religious priorities, and through the infusion of additional spirituality to some of those mitzvot, we will be able to more closely model Moshe - the man of spirit.
(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Pekudei 5757.)