Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: A lesson in democracy

Torah Temima provides us with a pithy slice of a larger discussion, the function and strengthening of democracy – still critical today in Israel, the United States and around the world

 LISTEN TO the voice of the people. Pictured: Protesting judicial reform. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
LISTEN TO the voice of the people. Pictured: Protesting judicial reform.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

The Torah commentary Torah Temima, published in 1902, was compiled by Rabbi Baruch Epstein. Its title comes from “torat Hashem temima” (the Torah of God is perfect)” (Ps. 19:8). A magnum opus, Torah Temima culls the vastness of rabbinic literature into short commentaries that invite the reader to dive further into what Epstein provides. This week’s parasha, Vayakhel, is a case in point.

We read, “Moses said to the Children of Israel: ‘See the Lord has called in the name of Bezalel, the son of Uri the son of Hur from the tribe of Judah’” (Ex. 35:30).

On that verse we find in Torah Temima (Ex 35:30): “‘See, the Lord has called in the name’: R. Yitzhak said: A leader does not appoint over the people without their first being consulted, as it is written: ‘See, the Lord has called the name Bezalel.’ The Holy One, blessed be God, said to Moses: ‘Moses, is Bezalel acceptable to you?’ Moses answered: ‘Lord of the Universe, if he is acceptable to You, how much more so is he acceptable to me!’ Whereupon God responded: ‘Even so, go and tell the Jews’” (Brachot 55a).

The function and strengthening of democracy

Torah Temima provides us with a pithy slice of a larger discussion. The topic presented – the function and strengthening of democracy – is critical today in Israel, the United States and around the world. David Schacht notes in that “the Torah Temimah is defending the practice of gaining the consent of the governed.” The weekly demonstrations in Israel are a reminder to the Knesset and the Israeli government that passing laws without the consent of the majority of a country’s citizens runs against this Jewish value.

This Talmudic discussion opens: “Rabbi Yohanan said: Three matters are proclaimed by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself: Famine, abundance and a good leader. Famine, as it is written: ‘For the Lord has called for a famine....’ (II Kings 8:1). Plenty, as it is written: ‘And I will call for the grain and will increase it, and lay no famine upon you’ (Ezekiel 36:29). A good leader, as it is written: ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: See, I have called by name Bezalel....’ (Ex. 31:1–2).”

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

This is an interesting list – famine, plenty and a good leader. Is there a connection? The first two – famine and abundance – relate to food. The third phrase, “parnas tov” (a good leader), referred during the Talmudic period to “both the religious leader and the administrator of the community,” according to Cyrus Adler and Gotthard Deutsch in the Jewish Encyclopedia. (ed. 1906, vol. 9, p. 541). At the end of the day, if we think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is one of our most basic needs. A well-functioning society, with a leader to guide and administer it, therefore must provide what is necessary to feed the community.

The Talmudic discussion then moves to the section we began with, above: the way Moses agreed to the choice of Bezalel to oversee the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was a model of good leadership. Commenting, Rabbi Zvi Ehrman writes, “R. Isaac injects a democratic note.... The inference is that, as a matter of principle, leaders should never be appointed save in consultation with the people” (Talmud El Am, Brachot, vol. 4, pp. 1,003-1,004). We find a related ruling within a rabbinic discussion on how Halacha (Jewish law) should be interpreted and applied:

“Rava bar Rav Hanan said to Abaye, and some say to Rav Yosef: What is the Halacha? He said to him: ‘Go out and observe what the people are doing’” (Brachot 45a).

Relatedly, the halachic system models for us that change is a slow, evolutionary process, not the warp speed we are seeing at present in the Knesset – particularly with the changing of fundamental structures and laws for the Jewish state.

THE TALMUD then explores the qualities that made Bezalel a good choice:

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said, Rabbi Yonatan said: Bezalel was called on account of his wisdom. When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Go say to Bezalel, ‘Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels’ (see Ex. 31:7–11), Moses went and reversed the order and told Bezalel: ‘Make an ark, and vessels and a tabernacle’ (see Ex. 25–26). Bezalel said to Moses: Moses, our teacher, the worldly practice is a person builds a house and afterward places the vessels, and you say: Make an ark, and vessels and a tabernacle. The vessels that I make, where shall I put them? Perhaps God told you the following: ‘Make a tabernacle, ark, and vessels’ (see Ex. 36). Moses said to Bezalel: Perhaps you were in God’s shadow (betzel El), and so you knew” (Brachot 55a).

The point is astounding: Moses changed the order of construction as dictated by God, and Bezalel is presented as understanding God clearer than Moses! Rabbi Ellie Munk (The Call of the Torah, Ex. 35:31) offers a fascinating explanation derived from the commentary Shita Mekubetzet. Based on that 16th-century commentary, Munk writes, “When Moses reversed the order of the commands, he did so in order to be able to demonstrate Bezalel’s stature to the people.” That is to say, according to the Shita Mekubetzet, Moses shuffled the command of God intentionally. By doing so, Moses lowered himself in the eyes of the people to show how wise Bezalel was. While a radical reading in so many ways, it fits the character of Moses, who we are told was the most humble person on the face of the Earth (Num. 12:3).

Having shown that Bezalel was able to understand God closely, emphasized with the wordplay on his name – Bezalel and the Hebrew “betzel El,” meaning “in the shadow of God” – the Talmud presents in what ways he was so wise:

“Rav Yehuda said, Rav said: Bezalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created. It is written here: ‘And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge....’ (Ex. 31:3); and it is written there [with regard to creation of heaven and earth]: ‘The Lord, by wisdom, founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens’ (Proverbs 3:19), and it is written: ‘By His knowledge the depths were broken up and the skies drop down the dew’ (ibid. 3:20). Rabbi Yohanan said: The Holy One, blessed be God, only grants wisdom to one who possesses wisdom, as it is stated: ‘He gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to those who know understanding’ (Daniel 2:21). Rav Tahalifa, from the West [Eretz Yisrael], heard and repeated it before Rabbi Abbahu. [Rabbi Abbahu] said to him: You learned from there; we learn it from here, as it is written: ‘And in the hearts of all who are wisehearted I have placed wisdom’ (Ex. 31:6)” (Brachot 55a).

As Ehrman explains, we learn that Bezalel “was endowed with the qualities that went to fashioning heaven and the earth” (Talmud El Am, Brachot, vol. 4, p. 1,005). In addition, we are told that “wisdom” is increased from initial work at obtaining wisdom.

This sugya, a Talmudic conversation on a topic, opens with a directive that for democracy to flourish, its leaders must give ear to the voice of the people. It closes with an emphasis on the importance of the attribute of wisdom. According to Nechama Leibowitz, quoting Rashi, wisdom is “what a person learns from others” (Studies in Shemot, p. 677). This fittingly echoes the opening message of our sugya to listen to the voice of the people, particularly when they take to the streets week after week. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.