Living in His shadow (Vayakhel)

In Parshat Vayakhel, we read how the construction of the Mishkan was overseen by its chief architect Betzalel, and according to numerous sources, it was this role as architect of the Mishkan which explains why he was given the name Betzalel.

Our Rabbis explain that the name Betzalel is a construct of the words ב-צל-אל which means ‘in the shadow of God’, which leads the Midrash Tanchuma (Vayakhel 3) to explain that the connection between Betzalel’s name and the Mishkan project is that the Mishkan enabled the people to ‘dwell in the shadow of the Most High’ (Tehillim 91:1). From here we learn that one of the functions of the Mishkan was to show how the people should live in the shadow of God.

Alternatively, the Gemara (Brachot 55a) suggests that Betzalel was given this name because he constructed the Mishkan with such profound intuition which led Moshe to ask him ‘perhaps you were in the shadow of God (ב-צל-אל) which is how you know all this?!’ From here we learn that the way we live our lives should reflect the exalted moments when we have felt as if we were in the shadow of God.

In fact, we find numerous references in Tanach to the idea that we should be happy to live in – and be protected by – the shadow of God, and there are numerous references within rabbinic literature to the idea that the shadow of an individual is a positive reflection of the impact they make on the world. At the same time, a regular retort is that we should avoid living in someone else’s shadow and that such a life can leave us in the dark.

To highlight this tension I would like to refer to the 2012 documentary film titled ‘The Rabbi’s Daughter’. This film explores the lives of three young women whose fathers are well known Rabbis in Israel. In each of these cases, these young women have chosen to live a less-religious life, and the film addresses the reasons for such a choice, as well as the nature of the relationship between each father and daughter following this decision.

In one of the most moving scenes (which itself can be watched here), Tamar Aviner – who is the daughter of the well-known Rabbi Shlomo Aviner – shows her father a computer animation that she has created. In the animation, Tamar is walking in the shadow of her father, and she asks her father for his reaction. Almost immediately after watching the clip, Rabbi Aviner recalls a verse from Bamidbar 14:9 which states ‘they have no shade’, and then quotes a commentary which explains that ‘they are protected only when they are in the shade’.

These few seconds of film capture a remarkable moment. While Tamar had felt that living in her father’s shadow cast a negative light on her life, her father’s response offered an alternative perspective, to which Tamar responds, with a smile, by saying ‘so according to that, I’m better off in the shade, right?’.

Whether we regard living in the shadow of others as a privilege or a burden will always depend on the nature of the relationship as each of us perceive it. However, what we learn from Betzalel is that we should be proud to ‘dwell in the shadow of the Most High’ and that, to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘our task is to let the divine emerge from our deeds’ (God in Search of Man p. 358).


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