Covering after covering. Beam after beam. Vessel after vessel. Garment after garment. With almost numbing repetitiveness, the Torah describes the construction of the Mishkan and the fashioning of the priestly garments. The Torah spares us few details from its initial presentation in Parshiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh. Every beam is counted, every socket is recorded. The dimensions for the holy vessels are carefully calculated, and the color scheme for the priestly garments is coordinated meticulously. The Torah even introduces each vessel and garment with an almost identical opening phrase – “VaYa’as Yeri’ot Izim,” “VaYa’as Et HaKerashim,” “VaYa’as Et HaShulchan,” “VaYa’as Et HaMenorah,” “VaYa’as Et HaKiyor,” “VaYa’as Et HaAifod,” VaYa’as Et HaChoshen,” et cetera.
There is one glaring discrepancy, however, in the otherwise rhythmic presentation. One vessel’s description differs from all the other components of the Mishkan’s construction. The Aron is presented with a different introductory phrase –“VaYa’as Betzal'eil Et HaAron,” “Betzal'eil fashioned the Aron” (Shemot 37:1),. Although the work for the other vessels was delegated to other skilled craftsmen and artisans, Betzal'eil demonstrated a personal investment in constructing the Aron. On the surface, it is strange. As the Ramban (Shemot 36:8) notes, the construction of the Aron was no more complex than the other vessels of the Mishkan. In fact, the other vessels required even greater attention to fine detail and skilled craftsmanship. Why did Betzal'eil personally involve himself specifically in the Aron’s construction?
The construction of the Mishkan was animated by a dual focus. On the one hand, the Mishkan was a location of immeasurable magnificence, grandeur, and physical beauty. The finest craftsmen participated in the project. They were blessed with exceptional innate skill and natural talents. The Torah describes these individuals as “Kol Ish Asher Nesa’o Libo,” “Every man whose heart stirred him” (35:21). The Ramban (op. cit.) explains that these people’s creative talent and imagination stemmed from their hearts—it came from within. Moreover, they were individuals blessed with extraordinary wisdom, insight, and know how – “VeChol Ish Chacham Leiv Asher Natan Hashem Chachmah U’Tevunah BeHeima LaDa’at LaAsot,” “Every wise-hearted man, in whom Hashem has put wisdom and understanding to know how to work” (36:1).
In addition, these craftsmen utilized the finest materials in employing their workmanship and skill—gold, silver, fine linen, exquisite stones, and leather. The Mishkan sparkled in its beauty and radiated in its sheer magnificence. There is a phrase in Chazal which appropriately captures the ethos of the Mishkan – “Ein Aniyut Bimkom Ashirut,” which means essentially, in a grand location, there can be no skimping or cutting corners.
However, the concentration on physical beauty and magnificence was also accompanied by a second focus. The efforts of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Jewish people were animated by a parallel interest. After all the materials were collected, all the vessels were fashioned, and all the garments were woven, Moshe Rabbeinu surveyed the scene. He was delighted that the Jewish people had absorbed and implemented all of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s instructions down to the last detail – “VaYar Moshe Et Kol HaMelacha VeHinei Asu Otah KaAsheir Tzivah Hashem Kein Assu,” “Moshe saw all the work, and behold, they had done it, as Hashem commanded it, they did it.” And he turned to the Jewish people with love, respect, and admiration, and he blessed them – “VayVarech Otam Moshe” (39:43). And what did Moshe say to the Jewish people at that poignant moment? The Torah is silent concerning the content of Moshe’s blessing. However, the Midrash fills in the gap and articulates Moshe’s blessing. He said – “YeHi Ratzon SheTishreh Shechinah BeMa’asei Yedeichem,” “May it be God’s will that His presence should rest upon your handiwork.” , “VayHi No’am Hashem Elokeinu Aleinu,” “May the pleasantness of Hashem, our God, rest upon us.” Moshe Rabbeinu and the Jewish people were preoccupied not only with physical beauty and grandeur, but with spiritual proximity and divine closeness. They were fashioning a residence for the Shechinah in the midst of their camp.
With this background, Betzal'eil’s personal interest in the construction of the Aron is sensible. “Tein LeChacham VeYichakem Od,” “Give to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser” (Mishlei 9:9). The Pasuk in Sefer Mishlei highlights the ability of a wise man to infer from his base knowledge unspoken conclusions and deductions. The Midrash Tanchuma (VaYakheil 6) relates this Pasuk to Betzal’eil. When Moshe received the commandment from HaKadosh Baruch Hu to construct the Mishkan, Betzal’eil asked Moshe, what is the function and purpose of this Mishkan? Moshe responded – “LiShkon Bo U’LeLameid Torah LeYisrael,” “HaKadosh Baruch Hu is interested in dwelling there, and instructing the Jewish people in a way of life as outlined by the Torah.”
Betzal'eil was a wise man. The Pasuk describes him as an individual suffused with “Ru’ach Elokim, BeChochmah, BiTvunah, UvDa’at, UvChol Melacha,” full of the spirit of God, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (Shemot 35:31). He understood full well the essence of the project he was orchestrating – a resting place for God’s presence, and a center from which direction and guidance would emanate. It is for this reason that “VaYa’As Betzal'eil Et HaAron,”—Betzal’eil wanted to personally fashion the Aron, the centerpiece of the Holy of Holies and the house for the Luchot. The Aron symbolized HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s residence in the Mishkan and the source of instruction that would issue to the entire nation.
The model of the Mishkan provides an indispensable paradigm in guiding our own attitude toward the Batei Hashem of our day, our respective Shuls and Batei Midrash. The same dual focus which animated and directed the efforts of Moshe Rabbeinu, Betzal'eil, and the entire Jewish people in the desert ought to shape our imagination and aspirations. On the one hand, it is appropriate, within reason, to be driven by a spirit of Ein Aniyut Bimkom Ashirut, to create a grand atmosphere and to develop beautiful and magnificent communal centers. At the same time, attention to physical beauty must be accompanied by a second aspiration, the inner yearning to create a Beit Hashem, a location where we can communicate directly with HaKadosh Baruch Hu in a focused atmosphere, an epicenter from which we can receive guidance and direction in our lives, and a communal focal point which will help to nurture relationships between members of our respective communities. If we are able to successfully balance this dual focus, hopefully we will be blessed with the realization described in the conclusion of this week’s Parashah – “VayChas He’Anan Et Ohel Mo’eid, UChvod Hashem Malei Et HaMishkan,” “The cloud of God covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan” (40:34).