On The Weekly Torah Portion of Vayakhel

What is the origin of the miraculous phenomenon of human creativity? How is it that we are the only creatures on the planet capable of performing such enormous creative (the destructive) acts, of the kind that were once attributed to God alone? This is one of the subjects that this week’s Torah portion, vayakhel (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20), touches upon, in the context of the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle that has been the subject of the last few weekly portions.

As mentioned earlier, ancient lore considered the tabernacle to be a mirror of the structure of the human psyche as well as the structure of the universe. The art of creating the tabernacle, then, is a mirror of, or a commentary on, the primordial act of creation spoken of in Genesis, on one hand, and the nature of human creativity on the other.

We are told that the artisan who was charged with overseeing the construction of the temple was called Bezalel (בצלאל). The name itself reveals to us the ideas of the Torah about the creative process. The name Bezalel means “in God’s shadow”, an image that in Biblical idiom means “shielded by God”. For example, we are told in the Psalms:

מַה יָּקָר חַסְדְּךָ אֱלֹהִים וּבְנֵי אָדָם בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ יֶחֱסָיוּן:
How precious is your faithful care, O God! Mankind shelters in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:8)

In addition to his revealing name, the Torah informs us, on a number of occasions, that Bezalel’s skills were a result of a gift of profound wisdom granted to him by God:

וַיְמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת וּבְכָל מְלָאכָה:
[God] has endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge of every kind of craft. (Exodus 35:31)

What is that special wisdom the Bezalel received? The Jewish tradition tells as the God created this world by means of speech: God commands vayahi or (ויהי אור), “let there be light,” light indeed manifests, because the letters of the Torah, the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, are said to contain within them the fundamental vibrations of the universe, and the divine creative wisdom is combining these letters in such a way that the words represent the vibrational quality of the object which they represent. Said differently: the word used by the Torah for an object (e.g., or for light) are not arbitrary symbols, but contain the essence of the object portrayed.

Ancient lore has it, that the special wisdom afforded to Bezalel was the very skill with which God has created the universe: the skill to create through the combinations and permutations of the letters of the alphabet. Later traditions attributed this knowledge to saintly rabbis, such as the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, the legendary creator of the Golem (Incidentally, the Maharal’s father was called Bezalel).

Judaism is not alone in considering letters, the fundamental components of speech, as the primordial energies that lie at the basis of physical creation. The Hindu mythology relates to the texts of the Veda as the speech of Brahma, the creator. Like the Torah in Judaism, the Hindus consider the fundamental vibrations of the Veda to be the blueprint through which creation has come about. They also believe that the words of the Veda are not arbitrary symbols, but that each word contains the vibratory essence of the object to which they refer.

And just like in the Jewish tradition, the Vedic notion is that the knowledge of those fundamental energies can be created not just for the creation of the universe but also for specific acts of artistic creativity. For example, in the Mahabharata, and enormous Indian epic about the war between the clans of the lunar dynasty, the magical palace of the Pandavas is said to have been constructed through mantras, Vedic sounds, by Vishwakarman, the architect of the Gods.

How are we to understand this in our day and age? I believe that the text offers us profound commentary about human creativity. The letters of the alphabet are quantified values of the fundamental Energy-and-Intelligence that created the universe, which is beyond any quantification. This idea is particularly clear in the Hebrew tradition, since the Hebrew letters are also—or some would say primarily—numbers. As expressions of divine intelligence, they are quantified expressions of that which cannot be quantified, cannot be expressed.

While some may understand the story of Bezalel to be about an ancient figure in the desert, I prefer to see in it a universal commentary about how we create. Bezalel is each and every one of us, when we harness our creative potential. That creativity, which we personalize, is not really ours. Its source is mysterious. Read some of the descriptions of creative people about their moments of creative inspirations and they sound remarkably similar to the descriptions of mystics of all traditions about their insights into the deepest nature of reality.

One of the takeaways of the Torah portion of vayakhel is that human creativity is divine and should be harnessed for what the Torah sees as the purpose of life—to make every corner of the Earth sing the glory of heaven. This Torah portion reminds us that this is our task.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)