There are certain people we meet whose talents and gifts defy explanation, are even mind boggling, leaving us overwhelmed, moved, and speechless! The singer whose ability to reach perfect pitch every time stirs a chord; the writer whose words tell the story exactly as it should be imagined — every single time; the artist whose images paint a story of meaning and emotion; the speaker who knows just what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
Such is the natural talent of the artisan spoken of in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. Informing Moses that he will now have help in building the tabernacle, God tells him: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom (çëîä), ability (úáåðä) and knowledge (ãòú) in every kind of craft to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood - to work in every kind of craft. (Exodus 31:1-5)
Bezalel is the artisan extraordinary whose talents include being an architect, designer, stonecutter, metal expert, and woodsman. Something like superman, he transcends human ability and spiritual awareness. And, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 69b), all of this he accomplished at the tender age of 13.
As the Torah text itself tells us, these abilities are not simply skills he has acquired along the way, but he has been singled out by God, endowed with natural talent which is nothing short of God’s spirit residing in him. The Medieval commentators, Rashi and Ramban, certainly agree.
According to Rashi, each of the three words used to describe that with which he was endowed is another element of his skill and talent. çëîä, wisdom, is what a person hears from others and learns. Wisdom is the plain, factual knowledge, the sort of stuff that one can find in encyclopedias, or in the case of the artisan, this is the mechanics of the artistry that one person can teach another: what tools to use, techniques for metals, and the like. úáåðä , ability, is understanding something through one's own intelligence from within that which one has already learned. This is the original thinking that one has through learning from others. In other words, by learning the mechanics from others, Bezalel was able to add to that knowledge, innovating new skills and expertise inspired by that which he learned from others. ãòú, knowledge, is ruach Elohim, the holy spirit of God. For the artist, this is what we usually refer to as inspiration, the indescribable, intangible spirit that moves the artist to fashion a unique creation.
Even more remarkable in thinking about Bezalel is that which Ramban’s commentary reminds us — historically, there is no reason to think Bezalel should have been able to develop this talent at all. After all, he says, "Israel in Egypt had been crushed under the work in mortar and in brick (Exodus 1:14) and had acquired no knowledge of how to work in silver and gold, and the cutting of precious stones, and had never seen them at all... therefore, it was a wonder that there was found amongst them such a great wise-hearted man who knew how to work with silver and gold, and in cutting of stones and in carving of wood, a craftsman, an embroiderer, and a weaver. For even amongst those who study before the experts, you cannot find one who is proficient in all these crafts. And even those who know them and are used to doing them, if their hands are continually engaged in work with lime and mud, they lose the ability to do with them such artistic and delicate work."
No one would have expected Bezalel, a recently released slave, to possess such innate talent in crafts to which he had no exposure. But, says Ramban, he also possessed sacred knowledge that only Moses possessed up until this point in the life of the Jewish people: "Moreover, he [Bezalel] was a great sage in wisdom, and in ability, and in knowledge to understand the secret of the Tabernacle and all its vessels, why they were commanded and to what they hinted." "Therefore," Nachmanides concludes, "God said to Moses that when he sees this wonder he should know that, I filled him with the spirit of God (Exodus 31:3).
Bezalel, it seems, understood that the highest aspiration for his God-given talent was to put it to good use in creating the tabernacle, and therefore, bring others closer to God. That is the truest sense of ruach Elohim – when the holy spirit of God inspires a person to share his or her talents, offering a gift to the world that would otherwise be missing. Such was the case with Bezalel. Such is the case with the musician, the painter, the writer, the speaker. And, such is the case with every person we meet.
Each of us is endowed with the wisdom to learn that which someone else can teach us, and each of us has the ability to take that knowledge and integrate it with our own additions. Moreover, each of us has those gifts within us that are truly inspired by God which, when shared with the world, become a manifestation of ruach Elohim flowing in and through us. As we read of creation of the Tabernacle through such talent, may we each also be able to identify those gifts within ourselves while also marveling at the gifts shared with us by those around us.