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Drash on Parashat Ki Tissa 2019

Drash on Parashat Ki Tissa 2019

Rabbi Fred Morgan
UPJ Movement Rabbi

This week’s portion tells the famous story of the egel zahav, the ”golden calf” fashioned by Aaron for the Jewish people to worship when they panic at Moses’ late arrival down from the mountain.  But this isn’t the first act of craftsmanship that is recorded in our portion.  

The portion also contains directions for the building of the Mishkan, the sanctuary that will house God’s presence among the people in their wanderings through the wilderness.   This work is assigned to a master builder, Betzalel ben Uri, who will be assisted by Oholiav ben Achisamakh (Exodus 31:1-6). 

Why wasn’t Moses himself appointed to build the Mishkan? Because this is not his skill set.  He has great abilities as the leader who faced up to Pharaoh, coordinated the exodus out of Egypt and unified the people during their Great March across the desert to the Promised Land.  But he does not have the skills to “fashion artifacts of holiness capable of bringing people to God” (the phrase is taken from the Etz Chayim Torah commentary on this passage). 

Betzalel has those skills.  God says, “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge ( b’chokhma u-vit’vuna u-v’da’at ) in every kind of craft.”  Whether we understand this verse as describing a divine inspiration, an inner drive or an innate talent, whether we give it a theological or psychological or biological meaning, it is clear that Betzalel has the skills required to complete this holy work. 

This is why, when the premier school for the visual arts was established in Jerusalem in 1906, the founder, Boris Schatz, called it the Betzalel Academy of Art and Design.  This is where inspiration in the arts takes place; throughout its history the Betzalel Academy has been a mishkan for artistic creativity.

Not everyone is a Betzalel, just as not everyone is a Moses. Each of us has our own peculiar talents and areas of expertise.  As the Chasidic leader Zusya of Hanipol famously put it, “When I die and go to heaven, the ministering angels won’t ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’; they will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”  What Zusya means by this is that he won’t be held accountable for other people’s talents, but he will be held accountable for his own.  He is expected to do the best with his own unique skills and character that he can. 

We can apply the same thinking to communities.  Our congregations are made up of people who have much to offer, but they don’t all offer the same things.  They have many different skills, and a challenge of leadership (itself comprising special skills not possessed by everyone) is to identify the skill sets in different people and encourage people to use their special skills for the benefit of the community.   A “born teacher” may be able to work in the religion school or with bnei-mitzvah students but is perhaps not well suited to chairing a committee or sitting on the synagogue Board.  A great organiser who likes to make lists may be well suited to putting on a shul event which involves oversight for lots of details, but the same person may not be the ideas person whom we approach to dream up the event in the first place. Importantly, all the different skill sets need to be recognised and acknowledged for the community to work properly, including those that are applied behind the scenes.

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