Vayakhel/Pekudei – A Teachable Moment
There was no tender, no submissions of bids, for the task of building the Mishkan. God’s choice for chief architect and supervisor of the build, as relayed by Moses, was Bezalel. Along with his assistant Oholiav, Bezalel managed and oversaw every aspect of the construction and work. It was a massive responsibility, but the Torah relates that Bezalel was endowed accordingly with the wisdom and skills to carry out this task to perfection. “And he filled him with a spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship. And to devise plans, to work with gold, silver and brass. And in cutting stones for settings and in carving of wood, to do all skilled crafts.” (Exodus 35:31-33)
Bezalel was made a genius overnight, a true master of all trades. He was sensitive to the chemistry of the different alloys, and he knew how to refine, cast and coat the metals in accordance with their unique properties. He achieved instantaneously the expert’s gentle touch of woodworking that normally comes only to the best craftsman and only after many years of experience. He had the skills of the finest gemologist and the craftsmanship of the greatest of textile workers. He also had the broad perspective to administer the building and manage the workforce with harmony.
On top of all these skills Bezalel and Oholiav were given one more expertise, the ability to teach these skills to others. “And to instruct He placed in his heart, he and Oholiav son of Achisamach from the tribe of Dan.” (ibid 34)
The Or Hachaim, an 18th century scholar and kabbalist, points out that even the wisest and most skilled of craftspeople are not always capable of teaching their crafts to others. Teaching demands a very different skill set, and many experts of a particular science or craft are not the most skilled at teaching that to others. Bezalel, in addition to his artisan-ship, was endowed with mastery in teaching, the gift of translating his skills to those seeking to learn, so that the work could be completed to the highest standards by the teams that gathered.
At the opening of the WJCC art exhibition last week the MC related to us that many years ago, when he began a course on drawing, the instructor announced that there is no one who cannot learn to draw. At the end of the course the instructor conceded to this student that she was wrong. She concluded that he could not be taught to draw, he was the exception to the rule. This reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with a former teacher, who had left her career in teaching and entered the police force, becoming the commanding officer of a neighbourhood patrol base at which I volunteered. A liberal thinker, this former teacher insisted that there was no such thing as talent – no student was less or more capable than others. No person, she adamantly declared, is incapable of learning a particular skill. I conceded that eventually even the slowest learner would pick up the knowledge the teacher imparted, but I argued that some students take to particular subjects and grasp more quickly. A carpentry apprentice might have two left hands and his training will take twice as long. But if the apprentice keeps working at it, and continues to apply himself without giving up, he would eventually get it right. The difference in the time it takes a student to pick up a skill or learn new material is where talent can be found.
My argument for talent may or may not be correct. Assuming it is generally true, it remains the case that there is no one who is unteachable. With enough time and effort anyone should acquire the skills they seek. Perhaps there are people who cannot be taught, but more likely it is the teacher who reaches his or her teaching limitations. Marva Collins, an American educator who in 1975 founded a school to raise black children living in Garfield Park, a Chicago slum, out of their cycle of poverty and crime, once noted that “When our students fail we as teachers too have failed.” Perhaps all students can learn to draw, even the “exception.” It is more likely that the instructor reached her limitations with that student, unable to penetrate and reach his buried abilities. A more skilled instructor may have succeeded where she gave up.
The Or Hachaim continues with another comment. “And to instruct He placed in his heart…” It is one thing to know how to teach, but another thing to be willing to impart knowledge. The Or Hachaim cites a Mishnah in tractate Yoma, where we are told of various people who closely guarded secrets. One priestly family knew the art of forming the showbread for the Temple, another family knew the precise formula to cause the smoke from the burning incense to rise in a perfectly straight column. The Mishnah concludes that those who share their knowledge are worthy of the phrase “zecher tzadik l’vracha,” the memory of the righteous is for blessing, while those who refuse to share their knowledge are described by the ending phrase of that same verse – “v’shem resha’im yirkav,” the name of the wicked will rot. It is a great gift to know how to teach, and with that gift is an expectation that we use it to share the knowledge we have.