Finding Our Hidden Talents: Reflections Vayakhel-Pekudei
Please enjoy a D'var Torah this week from Joseph Eskin, who will be a Yoetz (staff trainer) at camp this summer. Joseph was also Rosh Tikvah for three summers and Rosh Limudei Yahadut. A lifetime Ramahnik, Joseph, a 2013 graduate of the University of Michigan, is currently teaching history at Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in New York.
In one of my early summers as a counselor, I had a camper in my cabin who never seemed to be completely present. I would describe him as “head in the clouds.” He participated absentmindedly in activities, daydreamed constantly, and was easily distracted. During Nikayon, I would watch him begin his job, only to turn around minutes later to see him napping in his bed. He was a sweet kid, pleasant and happy to be at camp, yet I worried that he was not focused enough to engage deeply in any of our activities. One night, our eidah, along with a couple others, participated in a large game of Simon Says. After a few easy rounds, the counselor playing “Simon” started going faster, and campers started being eliminated rapidly. As the number of players still in dwindled, the staff looked around and realized that our absent-minded camper was still standing. In fact, he was totally locked in. When the counselor said “Simon says,” the camper was the quickest to move; when Simon didn’t say, he was motionless. It was breathtaking. Our activity ended, he emerged victorious, and he was mobbed by the other campers, a massive smile across his face.
I remembered this scene as I read this week’s parasha of Vayakhel-Pekudei. Early in the reading, Moses tells the Israelites that all who are feeling generous should gather their precious materials and donate them to the building of the Mishkan. As they busy themselves collecting their gifts, suddenly, Moses’s voice rings out, announcing that God has singled out one man – Bezalel ben-Uri ben-Hur – as the gifted artist who will lead the construction project. I imagine the scene must have looked very much like that Simon Says game I witnessed years ago: out of a wild frenzy of activity, one person emerges improbably, possessing just the skill required for this particular moment. Perhaps, up until this point, none of the other Israelites knew Bezalel was so gifted artistically. It is even possible that, up until the moment Moses pointed to him and announced that he was chosen by God, Bezalel himself was not aware of his talents.
The element of surprise in the discovery of Bezalel raises questions: Why is this the moment Moses chooses to announce that Bezalel will lead the project? Would it not have made sense to announce the chief architect first, and only afterward to send the people out to gather materials? How is it possible that none of the Israelites had noticed Bezalel’s talent until now? I think one key to answering these questions is the word Moses uses to announce God’s singling out of Bezalel: ראו, “see.” Moses does not simply decree that Bezalel is an artist with God-given talent; rather, he urges the people to look and see for themselves.
What was Bezalel doing at this moment that would make his talents visible? Like all the other members of the community, Bezalel must have been gathering up precious materials and bringing them to the center of the camp. As the fabrics, fine wood, and precious metals piled up in an unwieldy but beautiful array, Bezalel’s eyes must have widened, his fingers started to twitch. As those around him continued their running back and forth, Bezalel must have stood still and begun to work, tying disparate pieces together, creating harmony out of chaos, discovering within himself a passion and a confidence he did not know he had. Perhaps at first only those closest to Bezalel saw what was happening, but whispers quickly spread and more eyes turned to see this genius at work, until finally Moses announced what would have been evident to the whole community: that Bezalel was endowed with the divine spirit.
Until the construction of the Mishkan, members of B’nai Yisrael had never had the opportunity to participate in a major artistic project. Aside from the obvious advantages of the Mishkan – most importantly, it is the place where God’s presence can dwell among the people – the process of building it also allowed Bezalel to discover his God-given talent, and for those around him to celebrate him for it. One of the joys of Camp Ramah is that the summer is filled with such a wide range of activities – from art projects to kayaking, from Torah study to softball, from musical performances to radio shows, from campouts to trivia games – that campers can showcase the things they are good at, or perhaps even discover things they didn’t yet know they love to do. This week we read about one man who found an outlet for the spark of the Divine within him. May this be a week in which all of us find such inspiration, and in which we notice the spark of the Divine in all those around us. Shabbat Shalom!