Thursday, March 3, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And it came to pass in the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month that the sanctuary was raised up. And Moses raised up the sanctuary. (Ex. 40:17)

Parashat Pikudei culminates the lengthy description of the design and construction of the portable sanctuary and its appurtenances. Three major project participants, individual and collective, are mentioned in the four and a half parashiyot devoted to this project: anonymous contributors [nedivei lev]; the creative and managerial team [chakhmei lev]; and project leader [Moshe Rabbeinu].

The grand vision of Moses inspired this very important project.  In Midrash ha-Gadol our sages compare the building of the sanctuary to the creation of the world—and actually suggest that it was the greater of the two enterprises. Indeed, the Torah devotes only one short chapter to God’s creation of the world but no fewer than fourteen to the fashioning of the sanctuary, its furnishings and the robes of its priests. God’s vision was a home for His creatures. Moses’ vision was a home for God, the finite focus of the infinite Presence.

But visions, however grand, are only abstract concepts. The transformation of concepts into concrete form is the responsibility of architects and artisans. The more gifted the designer, the greater is the probability that the blueprint will faithfully reflect the vision. Bezalel was an architect of the extraordinary talent required for this task. Oholiav and his team of managers and artisans took the project to its final stage by transforming Bezalel’s blueprint into an inspiring sacred structure.

The Torah names the leading chakhmei lev. But of the myriad nedivei lev only the major donors are identified. The precious stones contributed by the princes alone merit special mention. Significantly, this does not diminish the importance of the small contributions. The omission of their names is not a reflection of their insignificance, but merely a function of limited document space.

The Jewish attitude to the relative importance of “little people” is articulated in a remarkable midrash:

Nine people entered the Garden of Eden while still alive  : Enoch; Elijah; Eliezer, Abraham’s servant; Jethro; Eved Melekh, the Ethiopian; Hiram, King of Tyre; Ya’avetz, the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince; Serach, the daughter of Asher; and Batya the daughter of Pharaoh. There are some who say that they removed Hiram from the list and replaced him with Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi.” (Yalkut Shimoni on Gen. 5:23-24, no. 42).

Ari Barbalan insightfully points out that the people on the list have two things in common. They are all peripheral characters, mentioned briefly and in passing, and are helpers of the main protagonists. Only the larger than life Elijah seems   out of place on this list. In the biblical narrative he is anything but peripheral. He is the main character in the Ahab-Jezebel drama.   Ahab was arguably the most successful of all the kings of ancient Israel. He expanded the national borders and forged important alliances. Yet Scripture makes him peripheral to Elijah. So why is Elijah lumped together with fundamentally peripheral figures? The Elijah who is included in the list is Elijah as he is depicted in rabbinic literature. He appears at crucial moments in Jewish history when his help is needed and then disappears just as suddenly as he appears. He is present to assist at every circumcision [brit] and is the invisible guest at every Passover Seder table, helping celebrate the redemption from Egyptian slavery. (Ta’anit 20b; Chagiga 15b; Berakhot 3a; Bava Metzi’a 85b, 114b; Sanhedrin 98a).

Now to the other characters on the list: Pharaoh’s daughter helps save Moses. Eved Melekh rescues the Prophet Jeremiah from the pit in which he is confined for preaching his unpopular message. Hiram supplies the wood for Solomon’s Temple. Because he is an unrepentant idolater, some considered him unworthy of being spared the experience of death. Jethro, formerly counselor to the wicked Pharaoh, is briefly his son-in-law Moses’ counselor. Eliezer assists in finding a wife for Isaac.

Paradoxically, Abraham and Isaac are not spared the agony of death, but their servant is--on account of just one act. Joseph is not on the list of immortals, but the humble woman who located his remains is. Jeremiah, one of the three so-called Major Prophets, is excluded, but his foreign, dark skinned rescuer is included. Moses, the central figure in the Torah does not escape death, but his pagan father-in-law does.  Biblical giants are omitted, and sinners are included. What is the message of this seemingly absurd midrash?

Barbalan suggests that the sages are teaching that the periphery is sometimes more important than the core. In the eyes of God, the small contributions of relatively minor and even flawed people are sometimes more important to God than the massive contributions of the renowned heroes of the human spirit. The contributions of the nedivei lev, the anonymous, unsung masses, were, in the last analysis, no less important than those of the chakhmei lev.

People of modest means and limited skill sets often despair of participating meaningfully in important and significant projects. The midrash comes to remind them of the centrality of peripheral roles. Helpers are often held in higher esteem by God than are their leaders.

The nedivei lev are honored in the Torah alongside the better known, illustrious chakhmei lev. The dwelling for the divine Presence was not the accomplishment of Moses, the architects, managers and artisans alone. Without the “little people” the holy sanctuary would not have been built. In the inscrutable divine calculus, small, caring gestures often merit great reward.

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