What's In A Name
VAYACHEL-PEKUDEI (EXODUS 35:1−40:38)
10 March 2018 / 23 Adar 5778
In Honor of Betzalel Alexander and his Family
In the Torah portion Vayakhel, God commands the Israelites not to do any work in the sanctuary on Shabbat. The Israelites gather gifts for God. Moses says that Ohaliab and Bezalel should take the gifts of the Israelites and build God’s Sanctuary. In Pekudei, Aaron and the priests are given their clothing for work in the Sanctuary. This marks the completion of the Tabernacle construction. Moses anoints Aaron and his sons to make their priestly positions official. A cloud descends upon the Tent of Meeting, and God’s presence fills the Tabernacle.
Parshiot – Torah portions - take on weighted meaning when we associate them with particular life events and people. When my friends Robyn and Andrew invited me to participate in their child’s bris by sharing with him his Hebrew name, this week’s double portion - Vayachel-Pekudei – already carried special meaning for me. About a decade ago, one of my high school students, Avalon Levey, shared a d’var Torah on these parshiot during which she asked whether we are obligated to share our gifts, our talents, with the world. Must the person with perfect pitch share music? Must the best musician in the city? The second best? She left it an open question, one she and I revisit every year even if just in passing. My current class of 6th graders is coming to have a sense of the importance of shared narrative, of how our collective story makes us a people. For me, it is these layers of experience with each parsha that shape my sense of it and lend a depth of intimacy to a story that might otherwise feel at times peculiar and even foreign.
When we learned together about angels about a month ago, (right here in this blog) we learned that Maimonides taught that angels have no form until they are perceived, and then once perceived they take on the form of the perception. If we experience – or see – an angel, in that moment they become what we are experiencing.
I know, right?
My perception of Vayachel-Pekudei is forever shaped by my memories of a young woman developing her voice and claiming her own style of leadership, of the sweet, plump cheeks of a baby who needed to come in his own time – even though some of us worried that it was maybe a little early, of his mother’s hand on the top of his big brother’s head, and of his father’s intense and loving eyes gazing down at him.
With his parents’ permission, I share with you the words I shared with him.
Bryce, you will be called to the Torah by your Hebrew name, Betzalel Alexander, and I have the honor of telling you about that name.
Betzalel Alexander, my youngest friend,
I heard a drash once that a new person comes into the world in the very moment the world could not possibly have continued to exist without them.
You arrived just in time. Right on time.
Our mystical tradition teaches that a person is an olam kattan – a miniature world.
When I first heard you were born I asked your mom how you were.
“Small and strong,” she said.
You are a whole little world, our small and strong Betzalel Alexander.
We read of the biblical Betzalel in our Torah in Vayachel-Pekudei . They are the last parshiot in Exodus.
Betzalel was the son of Uri who was the son of Chur who was the son of Caleb who was a descendent Judah who was the son of Leah and Jacob. Some day I hope you have the opportunity to learn about each of these people.
You are named after your mom’s dad’s mom – your great grandmother – Bertha, may her memory always be a blessing. I know your family will make sure you learn about her, and about all of the people from whom you come.
Like you, the biblical Betzalel inherited a legacy of helping others, loving justice, and having an understanding and wise heart.
Betzalel is charged with building the Mishkan, the sanctuary, the place God has asked for so that God may dwell among the people. In Ex. 38:22 we read that Betzalel “had made all that God had commanded Moses.” He is a master craftsman, talented and able to see and help develop the talents of others.
Midrash teaches us (Ber. 55a) that from this verse we learn that although Moses commanded Betzalel to first make the vessels and then the tabernacle, God had originally instructed Moses the opposite. Betzalel didn’t want to create beautiful furnishings for the Mishkan only to leave them out in the weather while building the structure that would house them. Moses responded, “This is what I heard from the mouth of the Holy One. You were surely in the Shadow of God hearing what God commanded me.” And so Betzalel – meaning in the Shadow of God - first directed the creation of the Mishkan, and afterwards the creation of the vessels and furnishings. To help Betzalel in his work, God gave him wisdom and understanding. Betzalel used his wisdom and understanding to build community through building the Mishkan. People of many talents, many strengths, worked together.
The biblical Betzalel might be a little surprised by your second Hebrew name – Alexander. Alexander is a family name from your mom’s mom’s side – your grandmother’s side - for many generations.
Betzalel Alexander, I can just guess what you must be thinking.
You may not know much yet, but you know Alexander the Great was Greek, not Jewish, and Chanukah might be far off, but wasn’t there some trouble with the Greeks?
You are absolutely right, of course.
Alexander was born in 356 BCE. The Jews of Israel were the subjects of the Persian Empire, which Alexander of Greece conquered. In both the Talmud (Yoma 69a) and the Jewish historian Josephus’s Book of Antiquities (XI, 321-47) the High Priest of Jerusalem went out to greet Alexander fearing he would destroy the city.
Alexander dismounted and bowed to him. Alexander rarely, if ever, bowed to anyone. He spared Jerusalem, peacefully absorbing the Land of Israel into his growing empire. As tribute to his benign conquest, the Sages decreed that the Jewish firstborn of that era be named Alexander. It has been a common Jewish name ever since.
The name Alexander also means to defend or help people. You being in the shadow of God defending and helping people is an image your parents like a lot.
Betzalel Alexander, I have had the honor to tell you about your name, but the gift of your name comes from your parents, and your parents are a gift to every one of us here today. We are here for you, but we are here because of them.
I told you Betzalel’s big moment happens in Vayachel-Pekudei, which is the end of the book of Exodus.
In our Jewish tradition, each time we finish reading a book of the Torah, we rise as a community and declare chazak chazak v’nitchazek, “Be strong, be strong, and we will all be strengthened.” Chazak, chazak - twice because not all strength is the same and as Betzelel knew we need all of our strengths. V’nitchazek because when we strengthen ourselves, we strengthen each other, and strengthen our community.
Betzalel Alexander, as you go forward into your life: Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek.