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Vayakhel: Betzalel’s Wisdom For This Moment

02/28/2022 10:56:43 AM


Rabbi Ezray

My dear friend Rabbi Barry Katz is with his family this weekend for the Bar Mitzvah of his nephew. He had access to and put on the tefillin of his great grandfather who came from the shtetl of Geysin, Ukraine, south of Kyev. Putting on the tefillin connected him with the family story. His family never talked about why they left, but clearly there was antisemitism and things were not good. He wrote that he thought about the Ukrainian people there who are several generations away from the ones his great grandparents knew and who are now facing a brutal, brazen war initiated by Russia. Sitting at lunch with my father-in-law Ed and hearing from many of you, I heard the uneasy emotions accompanying Ukrainian roots, connections, history, awareness of current Ukrainian acknowledgement and recognition of this suffering. And it is not just the distant past, many have family and friends in the Ukraine caught up in the war. To watch the human suffering is gut wrenching. This moment is terrifying, anxious, upsetting, concerning, and overwhelming.

So how do we deal with this? We begin with honesty as to every emotion.  We turn to one another for support and give voice to our emotions. We step forward by supporting the Ukrainian people in any way we can and reflect on the right political and activist responses required. We feel their pain.

We also turn to characters in the Torah as we seek a spiritual context. Today I want to lift up Betzalel, a lesser-known biblical character with important traits to emulate.

Betzalel, the artisan entrusted with building the tabernacle lifted up the dignity of each individual. Go to Exodus 35:36 where we first meet Betzalel. The text tells us: See, the Lord has singled out by name Betzalel (p. 555), There is something about his name that the text tells us is important. The name Betzalel means “in the shadow of God.” The commentary at the bottom of the page says: “In the religious structure that he will build, people will be able to glimpse, in limited manner, the presence of God.” Betzalel’s talent was to bring a glimpse of God to every person. He lifts up the dignity and ability to be in relationship with God through architecture. When individuals are our focus, suffering magnifies, empathy pours out, and we begin to find small steps to respond which recognizes the unique dignity and importance of each and every individual.

How else do we glimpse God as Betzalel created opportunity to do? Tradition teaches that when we assist those in need, we create a space where God lives. We glimpse and feel God through our actions. Our challenge in coming days is to think about the best way to create solidarity and support for those in need of assistance in Ukraine. Let’s do it in big and small ways; each person finding the response which fits their own convictions and voice. Let’s be inspired by acts taking place on the ground. Did you read about the Kyev synagogue that opened its doors to those fleeing the violence? Rabbi Markovitch and his wife Inna have stockpiled six tons of food and 50 mattresses and shared: “It was very frightening because there is no infrastructure here, no bomb shelters, no organized information, or help from the government…the idea is that people could come here. There is no bomb shelter anywhere but at least we are together, and we can feed them.” Let’s channel that ethic and live the value of Betzalel and Rabbi Markovitch that each and every life is sacred and worthy of going to extraordinary lengths to protect, safeguard, and help them during this profound time of need.

What else might we learn from our Torah portion? Go back to the description of Betzalel. In Verse 31, we learn that God endowed him with chochmah: wisdom/skill, t’vu’nah: understanding/ability, and da’at: knowledge.  Look again at the commentary at the bottom of p. 555: Rashi defines chochmah as what a person learns from others; t’vunah as the result of one’s own insight and experience, and da’at as divine inspiration; ideas that suddenly come to a person from and unknown source. Like Betzalel, we use our gifts of wisdom, insight, and knowledge to help others in ways that make a difference.

If ever a time required wisdom, insight, and knowledge it is now. While each of us may have different points of view as to what this means in terms of policy, several truths stand out that I have gathered primarily from David Harris of the American Jewish Committee:

  • First, we call this what it is: naked aggression and blatant violation of international law. We cannot be silent or complacent when a nation is invaded and occupied.  We need to reflect on how use the power we possess to make a difference.
  • Second, absent military confrontation, we sustain a unified response even as time passes, and economies take hits from the imposition of sanctions.
  • Third, we understand that the ripples of this moment will ring for decades. The world has changed before our eyes in this past week, and we need long term responses to this moment. The courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, government, and army will inspire and guide our response.
  • Fourth, we step forward and lift our voice. It may be in protests, boycotts; or it may be in supporting causes assisting the Ukrainian people. Emboldened by protests in Russia where people are endangering their lives to make a stand, we join people around the world in lifting our voices. We respond to painful and odious misuse of Nazi characterization of Ukraine and remind the world that democratic Ukraine, led by a Jewish President Zlensky, whose family fought against the Nazis and whose relatives died at the hands of the Nazis. Putin’s claim of responding to Nazification is a brazen lie which must be condemned.
  • Fifth, we support organizations seeking to help the Ukrainian people and continue to support the large Jewish population in Ukraine and alleviate their suffering in any way we can. There are many organizations doing important work, particularly the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) that we have shared with our community, and I ask that you give generously. Let’s seek wisdom, insight, and knowledge as we act.

If I had to emphasize one characteristic of Betzalel for this moment it is the Hebrew word lev, heart. Let’s go back one last time to the Betzalel story. Look at the beginning of Chapter 36. In describing the people Betzalel gathered together, the Hebrew says: kol ish chacham lev (p. 556). It is translated as, “every skilled person,” but as the commentary at the bottom teaches, it literally means, “wise-hearted.” Leaders, and every human being, needs heart. Betzalel had heart. Be inspired by stories of heart, from both ancient and modern times.

Hold on to the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, who I have taught about in the past and who died far too young at age 62 this past week. The book Mountains Beyond Mountains, where Dr. Farmer’s stories of creating a network of community hospitals in Haiti and other places is described, gets its title from the fact that Dr. Farmer often would walk hours to patients in Haiti to ensure that they took their medicines. In an obituary about Dr. Farmer, one person recounted: “He had a very tender heart…Seeing pain and suffering was very hard for him. It just hurt him. I’m a social worker by training. One thing I learned is about detachment. He wasn’t detached from anyone. That’s the beauty of it.” Paul Farmer teaches us to cultivate the wise heart we learn about from Betzalel. We weep for every loss and feel the pain of those who suffer. That connection of heart emboldens us to act when people are in need.

Chacham Lev, a wise heart, demands that we envision what might be and how to bring it about. No matter how desperate things seem, we never allow ourselves to disconnect, to stop trying to help or to give up. Paul Farmer said: “I’m not cynical at all.  Cynicism is a dead end.” Instead, he sought new approaches. In describing Paul Farmer, Tracy Kidder, the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains said: “He had a way of looking around corners and of connecting things. He couldn’t obviously go and cure the whole world all by himself, but he could, with help of his friends, give proof of possibility.” Together, with the help of one another, let’s dig deep into our hearts of wisdom, reaching out to those who are impacted by this devastating war. Let’s allow our wise hearts to embolden us to act as best we can.

In a week when so much feels beyond our ability to influence and loss seems so pervasive, let’s hold onto the vision provided by Betzalel and Dr. Farmer, of blessed memory. We hold on to the dignity of each human being and feel the intense sense of loss. We know we cannot fix the world alone, but together we can see possibilities and support those who working for peace. I will conclude with the prayer Oseh Shalom.

Oseh Shalom Bim’romav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel v’imru Amen.  

May God who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us and all humanity and let us say Amen.

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782