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The Shadow of God (Vayakhel)

The following is a short homiletic idea on this week’s Parshah, originally written in 2014.

Given the same opportunities, why do some people excel at what they do while others remain merely average? This is the question which Malcom Gladwell sets out to answer in his best-selling book, OutliersGladwell’s methods are rarely conventional but his conclusions are always intriguing. In his opening chapter, for instance, Gladwell draws readers’ attention to a most peculiar piece of trivia: a highly disproportionate number of Canadian professional hockey players are born in January, February, or March – and the later in the year their birthdays fall, the less likely they are to appear on an NHL roster. Gladwell’s explanation for this phenomenon is fascinating. ““It’s simply that in Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1,” he observes. When we’re talking about five or six year olds, the differences between a kid born in January and his counterpart born in December are huge. The first kid is stronger and faster, and thus much more likely to make it onto the elite teams, which offer more practices and better coaching. That experience adds up. By age ten, the January baby has received years of high-level training that the December baby hasn’t. So nurture takes over where nature left off. Before you know it, one kid’s in the NHL, and the other never made it out of house-league.

One wonders how Gladwell would interpret this week’s Parshah. In it, Moshe announces that Hashem has chosen one of the members of Bnei Yisrael to oversee the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle):

Moshe said to the children of Israel: “See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah… (Exod. 35:30).

This appointment is surprising, when we think about it. If there was one profession which all of Bnei Yisrael should have been qualified for, it was construction. As slaves in Egypt they had spent centuries building the infrastructure of one of the world’s most formidable empires:

So the Egyptians appointed over the Israelites tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens, and the Israelites built store cities for Pharaoh, namely, Pithom and Raamses. (Exod. 1:11)

But if everyone knew how to build, what made Betzalel the “outlier” – the man chosen to serve as chief architect?


Serabit el-Kadim labor camp discovered in the Sinai Peninsula (read on for more).

Though the Torah doesn’t tell us much about Betzalel, it does seem to place unusual emphasis upon his name. Thus, in Parshat Ki Tissa, Hashem explicitly draws attention to Betzalel’s name when announcing his commission: “Behold, I have called by name Betzalel…” (Exod. 31:2); in our Parshah, Moshe likewise focuses on Betzalel’s name, as we saw in the citation above: “Behold, the Lord has called by name Betzalel…” (Exod. 35:30). So to understand what it was that made Betzalel unique, perhaps we need to unpack his name.

(This, incidentally, is true throughout Tanach: names often reflect essence. Adam’s name, for instance, means “earth” because he was created from the earth. Chava’s name means “life” because she was the mother of all life. Noach’s name means “consoler” because he brought consolation to the world after the flood. Avraham’s name means “father of many nations” because from him stem many great civilizations. Yitzchak’s name means “he will laugh” because his mother laughed out of disbelief when she heard that she would have a child so late in life. Yaakov’s name means “ankle-grabber,” because he grabbed onto Esav’s ankle when leaving the womb, and “trickster,” because he tricked his brother into selling the birthright. Yisrael – Yaakov’s other name – means “he who has prevailed with man and with God,” because he wrestled the angel of God and won. The list goes on and on).

So, then: what does the name “Betzalel” mean?

The name Betzalel means “in the shadow of God.” The combination of these two concepts – “shadow” and “God” – is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which being that “shadows” often appear in Tanach as symbols of death. In fact, the Biblical word “צלמוות” – which translators usually render simply as “death” – is actually a combination of the words צל and מוות and thus means, more precisely, “the shadow of death.”

When Bnei Yisrael were building storehouses for Pharaoh, Egypt indeed represented the “shadow of death.” The people worked from dawn till dusk performing backbreaking labor, with no sign of their situation improving. So despondent were these slaves that when Moshe approached them with the news that Hashem would soon redeem them, they ignored him, “for their spirits were crushed and their work was unbearable” (Exod. 6:9). In short, the situation was desperate. Hashem was nowhere to be seen. He was gone.

Or was He merely lurking beyond the “shadows?”

To preserve one’s faith in oneself, in God, and in mankind during the bleakest of moments is terribly challenging, and we cannot judge those who feel it impossible to do so. But when everything is taken away from us – that, ironically, is when hope is needed most. As Victor Frankl put it in Man’s Search for Meaning“Everything can be taken from a man except the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set or circumstances.” Frankl spoke from experience: he not only survived Auschwitz, but saved countless others as well, using his background in psychiatry to help his fellow inmates cope with their losses and find the courage to face another day.

What Victor Frankl taught, the greatest of all Jewish monarchs, King David, beautifully expressed in one of his most celebrated chapters of tehillim, which is traditionally sung during shalosh seudos, the third meal on Shabbat: “Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I do not fear, for You, God, are with me…” (Psalms 23:4). King David, the man of faith and of hope, managed to find the shadow of God even within the shadow of death. For him, צלמוות became בצלאל.

And so we return to בצלאל – Betzalel. Most slaves wondered where Hashem was in Egypt, and understandably so. But not all did. At the ancient labor camp of Serabit el-Khadim, in the Sinai Peninsula, archaeologists discovered a remarkable inscription which reads: “O E-l, save me from these mines!” Somehow, some anonymous slave managed to recognize Hashem’s presence deep in the Egyptian underground. Maybe that slave was Betzalel and maybe it wasn’t – we’ll never know, but the idea’s the same either way. Betzalel, his name suggests, firmly believed that even when it’s too dark to see Hashem, He’s still there, somewhere in the shadows. All of Bnei Yisrael knew how to build, but Betzalel was chosen to build the mishkan – the “home for God on earth,” as it were – because the project’s chief architect had to recognize the limits of the structure he was erecting. He had to realize that Hashem doesn’t “live” in the mishkan. Hashem isn’t confined to our holy places or sacred spaces. He isn’t there for us only in moments of bliss and blessing. Hashem is everywhere – even in the minefields of Egypt. Only, we have to know how to see him – and, if need be, to search beyond the shadows.

As the Kotzker Rebbe so memorably put it: “Where is God, you may ask? God is where you let Him in.”

Shabbat shalom!


  1. Judah Kerbel says:

    Thanks! This was beautiful.
    Not entirely related to the main point of the topic, but I often wondered – in communities that essentially focus on learning Torah and not much else, how does one become a “gadol” so much more so than another? If most are presumably spending a similar amount of time, how does one (or a few) people emerge at the top?

    • alexmaged says:

      Thank you Judah! Your comment offers me the opportunity to add an important post-script:

      Not all “outliers,” of course, can be explained through recourse to the sort of theories Gladwell or others propose, despite how compelling (or, at least, entertaining!) they may be. At some point, pure, God-given talent plays a role as well. Note in this regard that “God-given talent” is the only criterion the Torah explicitly identifies by way of accounting for Betzalel’s excellence: “See, I have called by name, Betzalel… I have filled him with a Godly spirit…” (Exod. 31:2-3). Few attempts to isolate the source of a Gadol’s greatness would be complete without mention of this “inborn” component. (See, however, R. Hutner’s celebrated letter to his talmid on this topic, where he warns against the negative psychological effects of placing too much emphasis on this component when we speak of our Gedolim: http://etzion.org.il/en/r-hutner%D3%B3-life-and-works-and-his-theory-education).

      Yet already by the time of Chazal we find efforts to “dig deeper”—to try to explain Betzalel’s greatness in terms of merit rather than attributing it to arbitrary divine grace. Hence the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah reports that it was in the merit of Hur, Betzalel’s grandfather, that Hashem granted architectural wisdom to Betzalel: Hur died trying to prevent the Jewish people from worshipping the Golden Calf (see San. 7a), so Hashem rewarded him with a descendant who would lead the Jews in proper worship, viz., by building the Mishkan. From here emerges a second source of greatness: zechus avos. Or, in its more naturalistic iteration: “familial upbringing.” (See, for more, R. Eliyahu Dessler’s essay on this topic in Michtav M’Eliyahu, where he suggests that the former is in fact predicated upon the latter).

      But there is also a third factor: personal effort, i.e. “hishtadlus.” Hashem gives us certain talents, and our parents teach us how to direct them, but it’s ultimately in our hands to decide whether we will use those talents or not. Part of the attempt being made in this week’s DT is to locate a portion of Betzalel’s greatness that lies not only in what Hashem or his parents gave him, but also in the attitudes and behaviors which he embodied through his own conscious effort. It’s just a drash, of course—(though the point about the meaning of Betzalel’s name and its thematic connection with his occupation probably has a basis in pshat, even if the causative mechanism I’m proposing is purely homiletic)—but that, in a nutshell, was its point: to create the exegetical space for thinking of Betzalel’s greatness in terms of this third, personal factor as well.

      Good Shabbos!

  2. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thanks so much for your beautiful essay Alex. Hope you’re doing well. Have a wonderful week.

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