Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

The commandments had been given by God, the tools were out, the materials assembled, and Bnai Yisrael were ready to take the next step forward in their evolution—the building of the Mishkan. With it would come a means of relating to God that had never existed in the history of mankind. It was a construction project like no other, and the person assigned this extremely difficult task was Betzalel, first introduced to us in Parshas Ki Tisa. It was a job that required a tremendous talmid chacham, with unparalleled scientific knowledge and artistic talent. Clearly, this individual must have stood out from the rest of Bnai Yisrael.

And yet, with everything seemingly set to move forward, a most bizarre discussion takes place between Moshe and Betzalel.  

The Torah writes as follows (Shemos 38:22):

“Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah, made all that Hashem commanded Moshe.”

The verse seems quite straightforward, yet Rashi points out an important subtlety:

“That which he (Moshe) commanded him (Betzalel) is not written here, but, rather, "all that God commanded Moshe," [thereby implying that] even things which his teacher (Moshe) had not told him, his own opinion was in agreement with what was said to Moshe at Sinai.”

At this point, one gets a clear sense that Betzalel possesses a high degree of chachma and insight. Rashi then points us to the Talmud, which has as follows (Berachos 55):

“R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Johanan: Betzalel was so called on account of his

wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses; Go and tell Betzalel to make me a tabernacle, an ark and vessels, Moses went and reversed the order, saying, Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Betzalel said to him: Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, Make me an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels? Moses replied: Perhaps you were in the shadow of God and knew!”

This Aggadic piece raises quite a few troubling issues. First and foremost, are we to believe that what defined Betzalel’s chachma was his ability to reverse the order given by Moshe? His argument to Moshe seems to be elementary at best, a debate about different construction techniques. How does this reveal brilliance? Another issue is Betzalel’s concern, namely where to store the keylim. Why not store them under a tarp or in a tent? Is this really a legitimate concern? Furthermore, why did Moshe reverse the order to begin with?

Rashi offers an insight into Moshe’s rationale in switching the order of building the Mishkan. He explains that the commandment to build from Mishkan walls to keylim was given over in Parshas Ki Tisa. The original commandment of design, however, was given in Parshas Termuah. The order there went from keylim to Mishkan walls. According to Rashi, therefore, Moshe was not actually “changing” the order - rather, he was sticking with the original order. If this is the case, then what exactly was the nature of the debate between Moshe and Betzalel? Why did Moshe choose the original order? Betzalel’s thinking seems pretty intuitive.

Like any Aggada, one must be careful not to approach it literally. As this piece in the Talmud clearly demonstrates, a purely superficial reading leads to conclusions that would equate Betzalel’s chachma to that of an elementary school student. The focus must be on the ideas expressed.

The starting point might be to develop an approach as to the concept of the Mishkan and the keylim. Rabbeinu Chananel (Shemos 25:23) offers an intriguing explanation of the shulchan, the table in the Mishkan. He writes:

“The shulchan references the kings of Yisrael that organize at their tables the great leaders of Yisrael.”

He continues, explaining how each measurement of this kli, its position in the Mishkan, and its design, reflected the idea of kingship. 

Finally, he writes how this understanding of the shulchan really applies to all the keylim.

What we see from his explanation is the crux of what the Mishkan, and the Beis Hamikdash, represent. There was a beauty and precision to the entire Mishkan, each design artistic and each measurement exact. However, to think that the objective of these instructions was to create an architectural and artistic wonder, and nothing else, would be a severe distortion of that which God intended. Rabbeinu Chananel is pointing out that each measurement and each design was a vehicle to a greater understanding of God. The study of each kli, from the overall structure to the most detailed measurement, leads a person down a road replete with chachmas Hashem. The shulchan was but one example, offering insights in the idea of malchus. As a result, one can see that each kli served a most important role, bringing a person to a higher level of yediyas Hashem. 

This might help explain Moshe’s decision to reverse the order. Moshe had received the commandment to build the Mishkan twice. In Parshas Teruma, he was given the specifics of each kli, going from kli to the outer structure. In Parshas Ki Tisa, when given the commandment to instruct Betzalel in the construction of the Mishkan, Moshe was told from Mishkan walls to kli. At this point, there were two legitimate possibilities as to how to proceed. Moshe chose kli to Mishkan walls. Why? It could be that he was concerned about a possible distortion by Bnai Yisrael as to the role of the outer walls of the Mishkan. Building the outer walls in the beginning would signify a purely structural benefit to the keylim. In other words, if the walls were built first, people might think they functioned merely to store the keylim. However, the commandment for the walls, including the precise measurements and designs, came from God. This being the case, the walls themselves had a status as a “kli” -  not necessarily in a purely halachic sense, but in the fact they were part of the construct of the Mishkan. The walls too would be studied and analyzed, with chachmas Hashem permeating through their very form, similar to the shulchan. In order to demonstrate that the walls were a kli like the others, Moshe instructed Betzalel to follow the order in Parshas Terumah. Bnai Yisrael would therefore view the outer walls in the exact same light as the other keylim.

Betzalel, however, had a different perspective. It could be he agreed with Moshe as to the concept of the walls being a kli. However, he also saw the walls having a unique function, one that was not imbued in any of the other keylim. Betzalel, in his example of how a house is normally built, was not referring to the normal order in construction. He was referring to a more conceptual concept in how the structure of a house and its different internal “keylim” relate to each other. If one were to set up a couch, bed, table and easy chair in a field, he would have four individual pieces of furniture. Each would have its own function, but there would be no relationship between them whatsoever. However, with four walls and a roof, the different pieces of furniture are now related to each other, producing the entity of a “studio apartment” (for example). The walls are a metzaref, taking the individual components and tying them together. This concept existed in the Mishkan. It is true the walls themselves were to be considered as a kli. But Betzalel deduced a deeper idea. Each kli had its own chachma to it, each one a portal into a deeper understanding of God. Yet there was another system of chachma that existed as well, namely how the keylim all came together to produce “Mishkan”. While the shulchan represented kingship and the menora represented the chachamim (according to Rabbeinu Chananel), these ideas existed independent of one another. With the outer structure built, a means of relating them to each other came to be, expressing a greater reflection of God’s infinite chachma. 

The Mishkan and the construction of it was not an ordinary contractor’s job that could be planned out by purely practical consideration. It was necessary for Betzalel, guided by Moshe’s commandments from God, to approach every aspect of the Mishkan’s construction from the perspective of the yedias Hashem the Mishkan would impart. God had offered two seemingly conflicting alternatives, but Betzalel, in his chachma, understood that the primary consideration was ensuring that every stage of the building, from the first stone to the final kli, would serve to reflect the one true purpose of the Mishkan.