Architects – Shabbat Ki Tisa 2024

March 1, 2024




Shabbat Ki Tisa 2024


What personal qualities are required for a person to take an idea, whose source is from a mysterious realm, and make it real in this world?


Creative artists know this question well. Painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, architects, composers, poets – in every realm of creative activity there are those who say that the ideas that come to them are ultimately not theirs. The source is mysterious; the work of the artist is to turn that mystery into reality.


In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, there are terms for those qualities that help us take ideas and make them real. The terms for those qualities needed are “chokhmah, tevunah ve-da’at” – “wisdom, insight and knowledge.” In Exodus 30, God reveals to Betzalel an image of the tabernacle that the Israelites are to build. Betzalel becomes the visionary architect, who is to render a divine plan into reality. “Be-tzal-el” literally means “in the shadow of God.” The Hebrew word “tzel,” “shadow,” is the root of the word, “tzelem,” “image.” A shadow outlines an image.


This term, “b’tzal-el,” takes us back to Genesis 1: 27: “Vayivra Elohim et ha-Adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto,” “And God created the human being in His image; in the image of God He created him.” The Adam (human being) is later split into male and female. The female later gains the name Eve (mother of all life).


The name Betzalel suggests a continuation of Adam and Eve, who were exiled from the garden when they tasted of the tree of knowledge. Betzalel, on the other hand, is creating a structure to get us back to the Garden, to the Trees of Knowledge and Life.


The ancient Rabbis who created our liturgy some 1800 years ago used these same words, “wisdom, insight and knowledge,” as the basis for the first blessing of the 13 weekday prayers. The first of the middle 13 weekday blessings says (in the Sefardic prayer book),


You graciously bestow upon human beings knowledge (da’at), and teach to mortals insight (binah). Graciously bestow upon us, from you, wisdom, insight and knowledge.


In the prayer book, the unique qualities of the inspired architect are now graciously bestowed upon every human being. This prayer seems to be a direct response to the Garden of Eden story. In that narrative, we were forbidden to eat of the fruit of the Trees of Life and Knowledge (Da’at). Here, God graciously bestows knowledge to every human being.


And – if Torah is a “Tree of Life to all to hold fast to it (Proverbs 3:18)” – we are given the ability to adhere to the Tree of Life, as well. We don’t have to live east of Eden anymore; we can return to the Garden.


This blessing in the prayer book is philosophic in nature, as it reflects on the nature of the human being. This prayer is an example of the “wisdom tradition” in the Bible – mostly concentrated in Proverbs, parts of Psalms, the book of Job, and Ecclesiastes. That wisdom tradition continues into the rabbinic era, and like those in the Platonic and Stoic schools of thought, the Sages believed that there is an “upper wisdom,” a spiritual and moral blueprint of the universe, as well as the inner universe. This upper wisdom, emanated from the Divine, seeks to be known and lived by human beings.


From this perspective, Betzalel, the visionary architect who is building the Tabernacle, is a poetic archetype for each of us. This idea teaches us that in every moment of conscious life, we are building an inner Tabernacle, a structure that allows for meaning and purpose to constantly unfold within us into the present. This idea, that we are constant architects, is one that can cause us to slow down and consider. Think of every aspect of your life as the building material – your living space, your body, your relationships, your work, your conduct, your thoughts, feelings, values and all the other dimensions of your life.


We often forget that we are building a structure with our limited time here. As we hurl or plod through life, our focus can fall just to the next moment, the next problem to solve. When we pause and step back, we might realize now and then that this structure we are building, sometimes a bit haphazardly, is collapsing, if not into shambles, then maybe into disarray.


This little blessing, “You graciously bestow upon human beings knowledge,” said 18 times a week by a traditional Jew, reminds us constantly that we are like Betzalel, rendering a Divine image into reality. Think that the Divine is imaging some blueprint of you into your soul, and only you can bring this vision of you into being.

Unlike the Mishkan, the tabernacle built in the desert, the blueprint for our souls is dynamic, changing through time and circumstances. We never receive a final version. We don’t know with any certainty whether we are forming our lives from imperfectly understood images or outdated blueprints.


We build anyway, with love and care and all the precision we can come up with. We work, we risk, we repair, we redesign, we start over. Life is done with us before we can ever finish. We build anyway.

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