God spoke to Moses, saying: See? I have called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and with insight and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 31:1-3)
Moses said to the children of Israel: See? God has called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And he has filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus 35:30-31)
Betzaleil (בְּצַלְאֵל) = In the shadow of God. b- (=in, at, by, with) + tzeil (=shadow, shade) + eil (= god)
In the Torah portions of the last few weeks, God told Moses everything that should be included in a portable sanctuary the Israelites would make for God. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (And he assembled), Moses passes on the lists to the Israelites, and points out (See?) that God has chosen Betzaleil to be in charge of creating all the items properly. Everyone can see that God has filled Betzaleil with a divine spirit or inspiration, so it is easy to believe God has singled him our or “called him by name”–a name that is oddly appropriate for his mission.
What does it mean to be, or to create, in the shadow of God? Today we use the word “shadow” as a metaphor for so many things. For example, being in someone’s shadow means going unnoticed. The shadow side of a person or institution is the unacknowledged, unconscious, or repressed side. Shadowing someone is following their every move.
But in the Hebrew Bible, the meanings of the word “shadow” are more limited. The word tzeil appears 48 times, and 40 of those references are either literal (such as the shadow of a tree or a sundial) or a metaphor for shelter and protection. The first time the word appears is in Lot’s speech to the men of Sodom, begging them not to molest his two angelic visitors:
Here please, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Please let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them whatever is good in your eyes. Only don’t do a thing to these men, because they came into the shadow of my roof. (Genesis/Bereishit 19:8)
Here “the shadow of my roof” means “under my protection”. Once Lot has offered the visitors the hospitality of his house, he feels honor-bound to protect them from the mob.
Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, some people are under the “shadow” or protection of a government, and the luckiest people are in the “shadow” of God’s hand or wings.
In the shadow of Your wings I seek refuge. (Psalm 57:2)
Those of us who live in more moderate climates might not think of a shadow as a protection or a shelter, but in the deserts of the Middle East a shadow meant shade from the burning sun.
The other eight occurrences of the word tzeil, shadow, are all connected with a person’s lifespan. When that days of your life are like a shadow, it means they are brief and fleeting.
Humankind is like a puff of air; his days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:4)
Both of these metaphors can be applied to the master craftsman Betzaleil. Since he is human, his life is short compared to God’s. By extension, his creations, however dazzling and holy, are a mere shadow of God’s creation of the universe.
On the other hand, Betzaleil is in the shadow of God, so God protects and shelters him as well as naming him. His inspiration for designing all the holy objects comes from the spirit of God, and therefore everything will come out right.
A literal shadow is like a silhouette; you see the outline of the original, but none of the details or colors. This kind of shadow fits the Hebrew word tzelem, which is sometimes translated as “shadow”, but more often translated as “image”. The word tzelem, which may well be related to the word tzeil, appears in the first account of God’s creation of the universe:
And God said: Let us make humankind betzalmeinu, in our likeness, and they will rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the beasts, and over all the land, and over all creepers that creep on the land. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)
betzalmeinu (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ) = in our image
Humans are shadows of God in the sense that we are like silhouettes of the divine. As two-dimensional images, our power, both to rule and to create, is limited yet still extensive. We cannot rule over the laws of nature, but we have a lot of control over this earth and its creatures. (We can even change the earth’s climate.) We cannot create a universe, but we can recombine existing elements to create new things within our universe. When we humans are at our best, when we are inspired to create, like Betzaleil, we shadow or imitate the divine. Only God can make a tree, but some poems are also inspiring.
So, I imagine, was the entire work of art of the portable sanctuary, and later of the temple. It inspired the children of Israel to keep returning to their God, over the centuries, and it kept their religion alive until it could metamorphose and survive without a temple.
When God calls us by name, either to rule or to create, we are given a heavy responsibility. We humans have more power than we think, for good and for ill. May we use it wisely.