The Case for Bezalel

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

 

The Case for Bezalel – Part 2

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            The double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim contains much material that pertains to the matter of "holiness" or "kedusha."  The first section begins with a solemn description of the Yom Kippur service of the High Priest, goes on to outline various prohibitions associated with the offering of sacrifices outside of the holy precincts as well as the consumption of animal blood, and then sets out a series of proscribed immoral sexual practices and relationships associated with both the Egyptians as well as the Canaanites.  The section concludes:

 

Do not defile yourselves with all of these things, for the nations that I drive out from before you were defiled by all these things.  The land became defiled and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land spewed forth its inhabitants.  But you shall observe My statutes and laws and not do any of these abominations, the citizen as well as the convert that dwells among you.  All of these abominations were performed by the people who dwelt in the land before you, and the land became defiled.  Let not the land spew you forth for defiling it, just as it expelled the nation that was before you…(18:24-28).

 

Parashat Kedoshim, while much more eclectic in content, nevertheless also unmistakably bears the imprimatur of "holiness."  Its various laws, pertaining to a wide range of civil, ritual and moral issues, conclude with a section of forbidden sexual liaisons that mirrors perfectly the end of Parashat Acharei Mot.  This mirroring effect is amplified by the cautionary note sounded at the end of Parashat Kedoshim:

 

Observe My statutes and My laws and perform them so that the land into which I bring you to settle shall not instead spew you forth.  Do not follow the statutes of the nation that I drive out from before you, for they did all of these things and I become disgusted with them.  Therefore I say to you that you shall inherit their land and I shall give it to you in order to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.  I am God your Lord who separated you from among the nations…(20:22-24).

 

This week, while we will direct our attention to the completion of previous tasks, we will attempt to remain cognizant of our double Parasha's central themes.

 

BEZALEL BEN URI BEN CHUR

 

            Recall that towards the end of Sefer Shemot, we had began to investigate the lineage of Bezalel of the tribe of Yehuda, the chief artisan of the Mishkan.  We noted that while both he as well as his able assistant Aholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan were singled out by name, the mention of Bezalel also included a reference to his grandfather:  "God spoke to Moshe saying: "Behold, I single out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Chur from the tribe of Yehuda…Behold I have provided as his assistant Aholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan…"  We presumed at the time that the mention of Chur shed some additional light on Bezalel's identity, and proceeded to investigate other places in the Torah where he was mentioned.  Though Uri the father of Bezalel was a figure as obscure as Achisamach the father of Aholiav, Chur was a name that rang a proverbial bell. 

 

            While the references were fleeting and never explored further in the text, there were at least two other places in the Torah where Chur was mentioned, both of them antecedent to the construction of the Mishkan and both of them significant.  The geographical context of the first mention was the arid wilderness of Seen that the people of Israel entered after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds.  At the place called Refidim, Israel was confronted by the hostile tribe of Amalek and Moshe called upon Yehoshua to raise a militia and to engage the marauders on the battlefield.  Meanwhile, Moshe ascended the adjacent hill and raised his hands aloft.  As long as his hands were held high, Israel prevailed, but as soon as the tired leader lowered them, Amalek overcame the Israelites.  Thus it was that two of Moshe's trusted assistants had to help him hold his hands high:

 

Moshe's hands were heavy so they took a stone and placed it under him so that he sat down.  Aharon and CHUR supported his hands, one on the one side and one on the other, so that his hands were steadfast until the setting of the sun… (Shemot 17:12). 

 

While the mention of Aharon at this juncture should elicit no surprise since we had met Moshe's older brother early in Sefer Shemot's opening chapters, the reference to Chur is quite unexpected.  We had neither heard of him earlier nor expected that he might be so important as to be at Moshe's side at this time, in the august company of Aharon.  But such was precisely the case.  Evidently, Chur was an important personage with a significant leadership role in his own right in spite of the fact that the Torah never made mention of him before this episode.  Perhaps he was one of the "elders of Israel" whom Moshe had gathered when he first returned to Egypt from Midian on the eve of his initial attempt to free the Israelites from Pharaoh's clutches (see Shemot 3:16).

 

THE SECOND REFERENCE

 

            The second reference to Chur was even more telling.  In the aftermath of the Revelation at Sinai, God had summoned Moshe to ascend on high in order to receive the tablets inscribed with His Decalogue, and in that passage Chur reappeared.  As Moshe prepared to take his leave of the people and climb to Sinai's smoldering summit, he appointed Aharon AND CHUR as provisional leaders in his place, in the final passage of Parashat Mishpatim just before the Mishkan narratives were introduced in Parashat Teruma:

 

God said to Moshe: "Ascend the mountain to Me and remain there so that I might give you the tablets of stone with the instructions and the commandments that I have written to guide them."  Moshe arose with his protיgי Yehoshua, and Moshe ascended to the mountain of the Lord.  To the elders Moshe said: "wait for us here until we return to you, BEHOLD AHARON AND CHUR ARE WITH YOU, WHOSOEVER HAS A MATTER SHALL APPROACH THEM."  Moshe ascended to the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain… (Shemot 24:12-15).

 

In both situations, then, Chur was mentioned in the same breath as Aharon and there the text made reference to his leadership role.  Though he did not appear to be Moshe's apprentice as loyal Yehoshua was, nor was he his brother as doting Aharon was, he must have been very important nonetheless.  When Moshe tired Chur and Aharon sustained him.  When Moshe was absent Chur and Aharon replaced him.  Might he have been Moshe's trusted friend and able assistant?

 

            But then Chur mysteriously disappeared from the text of the Torah for he was not mentioned even one more time in his own right.  Only the designation of Bezalel as chief artisan of the Mishkan provided us with a final fleeting reference.

 

BEZALEL'S GENEALOGY

 

            A perusal of the relevant genealogical lists preserved with care in the book of Divrei Ha-yamim (Chronicles) provides us with some more information:

 

The sons of Yehuda were Er, Onan and Sheila, these three born to him by the daughter of Shu'a the Canaanite…Tamar his daughter-in-law bore him Peretz and Zerach…the sons of Peretz were Chezron and Chamul…The sons of Chezron were Yerachmeal, Ram and Keluvai.  Ram bore Aminadav and Aminadav bore Nachshon, the prince of the tribe of Yehuda…Kalev the son of Chezron took Efrat and she bore to him Chur.  Chur bore Uri and Uri bore Bezalel (Divrei Ha-yamim I:2:3-20).

 

From the passage above, it emerges that Kalev the father of Chur and Ram the father of Aminadav were brothers, both of whom had important children.  Aminadav bore Nachshon while Chur bore Bezalel.  The indirect link to Moshe is mentioned elsewhere, for in Parashat Shemot we were told that Aharon the brother of Moshe took as his wife a certain "Elisheva the daughter of Aminadav, the sister of Nachshon as his wife" (Shemot 6:23).  In other words, Aharon's wife and Bezalel were second cousins, thus making Chur a member of Moshe's extended family.  While none of this is sufficient to explain Chur's special role or his untimely disappearance from the Torah's narratives, it does highlight his connection (and the connection of his family) to both the tribe of Yehuda's noble strain as well as to Aharon and Moshe, the Levite leaders of Israel.

 

THE ACCOUNT OF THE MIDRASH

 

            At this juncture, we must turn to a Rabbinic tradition that sheds much light on our investigation.  The context of the Midrash is that fateful moment after the people have approached Aharon to "make a god for us that will go before us, for we know not was has become of that man Moshe who brought us forth from the land of Egypt" (Shemot Chapter 32).  Aharon demands of them to surrender their gold for the project and then reluctantly accedes to their wishes, hoping against hope that in the meantime Moshe will return.  But no such deliverance transpires, so that:

 

He (Aharon) took it from them and he fashioned it with a stylus into a molten calf.  They (the people) exclaimed: "These are your gods, Oh Israel, which brought you forth from the land of Egypt!"  Aharon saw, and he built an altar ("vayiVeN mizbeach") before it.  Aharon called out and said: "tomorrow shall be a festival to God!"  The people arose early on the morrow, and they offered burnt offerings and presented peace-offerings.  They then reclined to eat and to drink, and then they arose to make merry…(Shemot 32:4-6). 

 

In our mind's eye, we see a throng of apprehensive Israelites surrounding the wizened leader, making anxious enquiries concerning the whereabouts of their beloved Moshe who had ascended Mount Sinai weeks before and had yet to return.  But neither Aharon nor his able assistant Chur have any news.  Some of the people, feeling lost and forlorn in the barren wilderness that stretches out interminably from Sinai's feet, comfort themselves with memories of similar situations when all hope seemed lost, difficult moments when they were still enslaved to their Egyptian overlords.  At that time, had these Israelites not turned to fetishes of stone and metal, wood and clay, tangible and glittering gods whose mythology provided some distraction and relief from life's insurmountable challenges?  And so now they approached Aharon and demanded his assistance in fashioning a molten image of a calf, potent symbol of vigor and youth, harbinger of springtime and of the hope that it engenders. 

 

            Aharon's acquiescence is surprising, especially in light of God's thundering condemnation of idolatry scarcely six weeks earlier at the revelation of the Decalogue.  We must assume, as many commentaries do, that Aharon hoped to delay the inevitable by raising the proverbial ante.  "First surrender the gold," he said, "and then we shall proceed," assuming that newly-freed slaves would not part with their dazzling treasures so quickly.  But here, Aharon miscalculated, underestimating the primitive fear that gripped the minds of his people at that time.  How quickly the gold was gathered!  Now the process could not be reversed: "Aharon saw, and he built an altar ("vayiVeN mizbeach") before it.  Aharon called out and said: "tomorrow shall be a festival to God!" 

 

            Of course, though Aharon's conduct is reprehensible he cannot be charged with criminal intent.  We wonder, of course, where Chur is during this entire episode, for although he had been appointed with Aharon as provisional leader in Moshe's stead, we hear nothing of him.  The Rabbis, sensitive to Chur's absence and interested in providing us with grounds for Aharon's exoneration, present us with a delightfully creative and provocative reading:

 

At that time, Chur arose to oppose the people.  He said to them: "have you lost your heads?  Have you forgotten the miracles that God wrought on your behalf?"  The people immediately moved against him and killed him!  They then gathered around Aharon…and they said: "(if you do not cooperate then) we shall do to you what we did to him!"  When Aharon saw that, he was afraid, as the verse states "Aharon saw, and he built an altar ("vayiVeN mizbeach") before it.  Aharon called out and said: "tomorrow shall be a festival to God!" What does it mean that "he built an altar"?  It means that he understood from the fate of the one who had been killed before him! (Midrash Shemot Rabba 41:7).

 

The Midrash reads "vayiVeN" ("he built," from the root "BaNaH") as "he understood" (from the root "BUN"), and "Mizbeach" ("an altar") as "miZeVaCh" ("from the sacrifice of"), thus yielding what is a grammatically unlikely but thematically demanded reading: Aharon yielded to the people's will because he was afraid for his life; Chur was not mentioned in the narrative because the people had dispatched him!  These intertwined conclusions explain both Aharon's motives as well as Chur's omission.  We must of course presume that the Torah chose to intentionally leave out these unsavory details because it sought to preserve Israel's already tattered honor: let the mention of the idolatrous sin of the golden calf be sufficient!  Must we also record the murder of Moshe's second-in-command?  The Midrash, however, preserves the tradition, pinning it upon the relevant text in a most ingenious way.

 

RECONSIDERING THE QUESTIONS

 

            All of this returns us to our earlier questions.  We enquired at the beginning of our investigation why it is that the Torah breaks with convention in order to record the name of Bezalel's grandfather.  We wondered why a figure as illustrious as Chur – Moshe's own deputy! – should disappear from the Torah's narratives, after the episode of the lawgiver's ascent to Sinai's summit, with nary a trace.  We speculated about God's selection of Bezalel as chief artisan of the Mishkan and why he of all people was chosen for the illustrious task.  And now all of the strands have come together, a direct function of the ancient Rabbis' most plausible tradition.  Bezalel, the grandson of slain Chur, takes his grandfather's place, picking up the pieces of his shattered life.  Bezalel is chosen to construct the house of God because Chur, a man who did not live to see his life's work realized, was a loyal and dedicated champion of the Deity.  The sin of the golden calf – the pivotal event in the chronology – is here overcome by the election of Bezalel who through his labors will rectify it.  In the former episode, the people of Israel succumbed to idolatry and merrily contributed their gold to fashion a false god, cruelly killing anyone who stood in their way.  In the latter, Israel generously contributed their precious funds once again, this time for the glory of God's house that had to be built by the direct descendent of the hapless victim.

 

            And what of Aharon and his role in all of this?  According to the Midrash (and this is the straightforward reading of the Biblical text), though Aharon was responsible for fashioning the golden calf, the debacle was an unintended byproduct of his attempts to avert what he judged to be imminent disaster.  It should be noted, however, that according to the Midrash quoted earlier, Chur is not killed until AFTER the golden calf has already been constructed.  It is at the moment of initiating worship of the fetish that Chur intervenes and dies.  It is in the aftermath of that death that Aharon constructs the altar and proclaims a festival to God.  Is it not entirely fitting that Aharon should achieve absolution for his role in precipitating Chur's untimely demise by serving God for the rest of his days in the house that is constructed by Chur's own grandson as a testament to God's forgiveness?

 

Shabbat Shalom