It's one thing to acknowledge the idea of diversity within a community. It's quite another to accommodate, even celebrate, diversity within a community. Certainly Jewish tradition holds up examples of the latter, especially at this point in our Torah story.
We are in the last chapters of Shemot-Exodus. We have been slogging through the "DIY" section of the Torah-building the Mishkan to very specific instructions. Remember the great barn-raising number in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ? The entire community came by to raise the roof, literally, and everyone had a job to do. Everyone's skill was welcome, both with the work of their hands and the generosity in their hearts. "Everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came…" (Ex 35:21) Bezalel, the artist/artisan, was like the general contractor: "[God] has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft, and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper…" (Exodus 35:31) The same words were said earlier in Chapter 31.
Why does the Torah repeat, "skill, ability, knowledge, and inspired"? And why state what, at first glance, seem to be synonyms? In Hebrew, the text reads, " b'chochma, bit'vunah, u'v'da'at..machshavah". They are four separate words. Of course, the great commentators wrote about this. Rashi (11 th century France) said chochma , wisdom, is what we learn from others; t'vunah, ability, is what we understand by thinking it through; da'at , knowledge, is knowledge that God is God, Holy and Divine; and machshava ¸ inspiration, is skillful thinking. Ibn Ezra (12 th century Spain and an avid language geek) said the four distinctions were calculation, introspection, imagination, and workmanship.
When we think of education, we often think of the rote repetition of facts; at least, that's what much of my education was. When was the Magna Carta written? Name the 13 original colonies. What's the Pythagorean Theorem? Sometimes you need that fact-based recall. But it's not enough, and Torah knows that. Bezalel wasn't chosen to do important work simply because he could cut a straight line. Bezalel had the depth and creativity to turn basic talent into great artistry. Talent will only get you so far. Talent may be God-given, but artistry takes work. Consider Rashi's comment that ability comes from thinking things through. For Ibn Ezra, one must have the time and space to imagine and reflect. Lasting education includes all these elements, plus the actual skill.
There's more to the lesson that Bezalel brings us. Just as Torah recognizes that each of the people had something different to bring to the great Mishkan-raising, so do we recognize that individuals bring a different way of learning to any task. Bezalel was remarkable because he encompassed the widest range of learning and doing. Many of us know people who learn differently. Kinetic, visual, auditory, reading/writing are only a few of the ways professionals distinguish between learning styles. Few are only one or the other, fewer are like Bezalel.
People cut, sewed, hammered, pounded, polished, braided, wove, and more. They brought materials and money. They all made it happen, in their own unique, individual ways. This is what makes a true communal effort; this is what raises the communal roof. Jewish tradition teaches us that ability manifests itself in many ways, and a community does best when everyone's gifts are appreciated.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com .