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 My name is Ariel Root Wolpe. I am a Jewish musician, artist, and community organizer. I love figuring out spiritual community and transforming people's hearts through music.


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The Lowest of the Tribes

Valerie Wolpe

 Shabbat shalom everyone! I want to share with you some thoughts about this week’s parsha as we enter a day of much needed rest. I will be delivering these thoughts tonight at Sason, a lay-led Kabbalat shabbat service organized by myself and other rabbinical students at Ziegler. Wherever you are this shabbat, I hope this bit of Torah reaches you. 

Here is where we are in our desert journey. In Vayakhel-Pekudei, the people of Israel come together in the name of God. Moshe begins with the instruction to observe shabbat, and describes the spirit and wisdom of God embodied by the people of Israel. Women and men come together through generous hearts, “nideiv lev,” as they hand over their treasures to build the Mishkan and Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting.  Today, we co-created soulful davening; the Torah tells us a story of our ancestors setting this precedent, by joining forces to bring gifts to God and invest in their holy space. 

God singles out Bezalel, son of Uri of the tribe of Judah, praising him for showing leadership and generosity in his efforts to build the Mishkan. For four verse Moshe is describing how God has blessed Bezalel, and then in Exodus 35:34 Moshe says,

 וּלְהוֹרֹת נָתַן בְּלִבּוֹ הוּא וְאָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה דָן 

And He put into his heart to teach, both him [Bezalel] and Oholiav, the son of Akhisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 

The text goes on to explain that God imbued them both with wisdom of the heart, to do all sorts of fine craftsman work on the Mishkan. The focus on just Bezalel shifts to include Oholiav. When I first read this I wondered, where did Oholiav come from, and why wasn’t he included from the beginning? Rashi asks the same question, and responds by teaches us about who Oholiav is: 

ואהליאב: משבט דן, מן הירודין שבשבטים מבני השפחות

And Oholiav: of the tribe of Dan, of the lowest of the tribes, of the sons of the handmaidens.

Rashi draws a distinction between two of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Tribe of Dan holds lowest social status of all the tribes, because Dan is the son of Jacob and Rachel’s maidservant. Judah was born of Jacob and Leah and thus holds a much higher status. So why is the lowest tribe honored alongside the greatest with God-gifted wisdom and the power to teach? Rashi explains:

, והשוהו המקום לבצלאל למאלכת המשכן, והוא מגדולי השבטים, לקיים מה שנאמר (איוב לד יט) ולא נכר שוע לפני דל 

Yet God compared him [Oholiav] to Bezalel for the work of the Mishkan, and he [Bezalel] was of the greatest of the tribes [Judah], to fulfill what is said: “and a prince was not recognized before a poor man” (Job 34:19).

In this chapter of Job, we read about how God sees us an equal beings, for we are all the work of His hands and all return to dust at our end. Therefore God would not favor a prince over a poor man—there is no true difference. Rashi draws an analogy between the prince and Bezalel, and between the poor man and Oholiav. Although we perceive an inherent difference between them due to their tribal origins, God equally touches their hearts and inspires them to teach and to build. 

Out in the desert, our social roles are becoming increasingly defined. As slaves, we were equally powerless—now we are tribes living by reputation, judges gaining authority, priests fulfilling the rituals for worship. But when it comes to building the Mishkan, status falls away and the Israelites build collectively, motivated only by nideiv lev. Each one of us holds potential to serve our community, and to rise to the honor of building a holy space. 

Rashi’s word for God in his commentary is “Makom,” literally “place.” Rashi is speaking about the God’s presence on earth, in the community, in the Mishkan. Today we understand Mishkan as also meaning the place within ourselves where God dwells. I’d like to offer that our prayer together, right now, in this holy room, can be our the building blocks of our Mishkan. Through nideiv lev we can build up a Tent around each other, and by singing our praises, nourish the sanctity within our own bodies. And to create a Mishkan that lasts and grows, we must commit our generosity, our humility, and the belief that we all hold within us unique gifts and treasures. 

I want to leave us with a question.  In your life, in this Mishkan of this moment, who are you—Bezalel or Oholiav? Are you stepping up to the roles that are expected of you, the holy work of your status, like one from the Tribe of Judah? Or are you Oholiav, from the tribe of Dan, pushing past your doubts and self perception, inviting the wisdom and works of holiness to run through you? Both men are honored, yet Oholiav is the much more needed of the two. By aspiring to his example, we can teach our hearts to lift towards giving, and together, we can reach new heights of community. 

Shabbat Shalom.