When Prophet Meets Artist / Parashat Vayakhel Pekdei

Bezalel seeks the logic embedded in the source, and thus adapts the text as he has received; in doing so, the midrash argues, he succeeds in arriving at the original text that came from God's lips.

The final two weekly readings in the Book of Exodus, to be read this Sabbath, depict the construction of the Portable Tabernacle, its furniture, vessels and utensils - from the time God issues his directives to the culmination of the work. God appoints Bezalel to be in charge of the entire project: "And Moses said unto the children of Israel: 'See, the Lord hath called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And he hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship" (Exodus 35:30-31 ).

In the following midrash, the sages speak about Bezalel's name and task: "Rabbi Samuel, son of Nahmani, citing Rabbi Jonathan, says: Bezalel's name is derived from his wisdom. Whereas God told Moses, 'Go and say to Bezalel: Make me a portable tabernacle, an ark, furniture, vessels and utensils' - Moses reversed the order, saying to him instead: 'Make me an ark, furniture, vessels, utensils and a portable tabernacle.' Bezalel replied, 'Moses, it is customary that a person builds a house and only afterward fills it, yet you have told me: "Make me an ark, furniture, vessels, utensils and a portable tabernacle." After I make the furnishings, where should I put them? Is it possible God told you, "Make me a portable tabernacle, an ark, furniture, vessels and utensils"?' Moses said: 'Is it perhaps possible that [when God spoke to me] you were bezalel [literally, 'in God's shadow'], and that you therefore know what he said to me?'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, p. 55a ).

There is a well-known hypothesis in philology: lectio difficilior potior - the more difficult reading or interpretation is that of the original version (literally, the "stronger" version ). Thus, if we have two versions of a text, one of which is harder to understand while the other is easier, and if there is no external hint as to which is the original version and which is less correct, it is more logical to conclude that someone corrected the harder one, than to assume that someone corrupted the simple version. Thus, the difficult version should be considered to be the first, and the simpler version a correction of it. This deduction is based on the attempt to cancel out the human factor and to arrive at the truly original text, which, while maybe hard to comprehend, is the "more original" of the two.

In contrast, Bezalel adopts the opposite tactic. In his view, the fact that the text Moses conveys to him is difficult to grasp attests to its being an incorrect version. Thus, Bezalel "corrects" the tough text by adapting it to what he believes is customary practice; in doing so, he successful reconstructs God's original word.

Unlike the philologists, Bezalel does not have absolute faith in the initial text, but he does have such faith in the creator of that text: God. According to Bezalel, if the text is not logical and does not conform to usual practice, it must be corrupt.

Through his reconstruction of the original divine text, and after refuting the mediator (Moses ) who "corrupted" it, Bezalel finds his way back to the original. He remains "in God's shadow" until Moses himself admits that Bezalel has an advantage over him. To arrive at the authentic word of God, as it was originally handed down to Moses, Bezalel uses the following tactic: He casts doubt on the text that has been relayed to him, and creates an alternative text that is more logical and better suited to usual practice.

The literary location of Bezalel "in God's shadow" - i.e., as someone who, with the power of his imagination, can reconstruct God's word in a manner that is more faithful to the original than what Moses offers - represents a retroactive "induction" of Bezalel into the ranks of the sages. Indeed, in the midrash, he is depicted as the prototype of the Talmudic scholar, who grapples with a difficult biblical text, updates it according to current norms and thereby reveals the text's original, true form. This was also done, for example, by the tanna (one of the rabbis whose opinions are quoted in the Mishna ) who interpreted "an eye for an eye" (Leviticus 24:20 ) thusly: "The term 'an eye for an eye' means financial compensation [and should not be understood literally]." By adapting biblical verses to accepted customs, the Talmudic scholar reveals what God truly seeks.

The philologist seeks the initial text that is closest to the source and, in doing so, assumes that if the text has been shaped in any way to conform to logic, it must be further from that source. In contrast, Bezalel seeks the logic embedded in the source, and thus adapts the text he has received; in doing so, the midrash argues, he succeeds in arriving at the original text that came from God's lips.

A famous story in the Babylonian Talmud relates that, when Moses ascended to heaven, he found God busy writing the Torah. When Moses asked God why there was a delay in granting it to the Israelites, God replied, "There is a certain man who will live a few generations in the future, and Akiva son of Joseph is his name. He will derive heaps and heaps of laws from all the crowns [i.e., the markings on letters in the Torah]."

Moses asked to see this individual and God sent him to the beit midrash (study hall ) of Rabbi Akiva, according to the Talmud: "Moses sat at the back in the eighth row of seats and had no idea what they were saying. His strength failed him. When they came to a certain matter, Akiva's students said to him, 'Master, how do you know this?' He said to them, 'It is a law [given] to Moses at Sinai.' Moses' [peace of] mind was restored.

"Moses then asked God, 'If you have a person like that, why are you giving the Torah to Israel through me?' God replied, 'Silence, this is what I have intended to do'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, p. 29b ).

Moses' above-mentioned expression of wonder - "Is it perhaps possible that [when God spoke to me] you were in God's shadow and that you therefore know what he said to me?" - shows he does not understand how Bezalel managed to reconstruct the correct, original text. After all, Moses himself was "in God's shadow": He heard God's command and, when God spoke to him, he did not see Bezalel. The method of interpretation and deduction used by the sages is completely foreign to Moses; in its presence, Moses' heart fills with wonder, he feels somewhat superfluous.

That feeling is amplified in the story about the beit midrash, where Moses explicitly asks God why he does not grant the Torah to Israel through Rabbi Akiva. Moses does not understand the "charm" in reconstructing God's word by means of the kind of textual interpretation used by the sages. Thus, he does not understand why he is needed for the granting of the Torah, and only when Rabbi Akiva shows there is a need for him is Moses' peace of mind restored.

Just as Rabbi Akiva needs Moses as the initial identifier of the source of the text he is examining, Bezalel needs Moses as the source of the corrupt text from which the original text can be reconstructed. Bezalel was not really "in the shadow of God"; his interpretive ability is what creates the impression that he was actually "in the shadow of God."

The prophet - Moses - does not understand how the artist - Bezalel - managed to get ahead of him. But the artist could not get ahead of Moses were it not for the corrupt text the Israelite leader had uttered.