Parashat Pekudei: The Scholars of Torah & the Supporters of Torah
The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (55a) tells of the conversation Moshe had with Besalel, the man appointed by G-d to lead the construction of the Mishkan, when Moshe approached him to assign him his role. Moshe told him to first build the Aron (ark) and other furnishings of the Mishkan, and then construct the Mishkan in which these items would be kept. Besalel replied by pointing out that first one builds a house, and then he brings in the furniture. If the furniture were to be purchased first, there would be nowhere to keep it while the house is being built. As such, it would make more sense to first build the Mishkan before building the sacred articles, so those articles would have a home as soon as they are produced.
Moshe marveled at Besalel’s wisdom, asking, "Perhaps you were in the shadow of G-d?!" The words "Be’sel E-l" – "the shadow of G-d" – are a play on the name "Besalel," and Moshe thus described Besalel as residing "Be’sel E-l," as he knew that G-d had actually instructed that the Mishkan be built before the furnishings.
What is the meaning of this exchange? Why did Moshe first reverse the order of construction? Was there any need to "test" Besalel once he was handpicked by G-d for the job of leading this project?
The furnishings of the Mishkan – particularly the Aron, where the tablets were kept – represent the study of Torah, whereas the structure, which protects and maintains the Aron, represents those who support Torah, the generous donors who allocate part of their material blessings towards supporting Torah scholars. Just as the Mishkan "supports" the sacred articles, the donors support Torah by providing the scholars with their material needs so they can devote themselves to learning.
Moshe mentioned the Aron and other sacred articles first to indicate that the scholars of Torah are greater than those who support them. After all, while those who support Torah learning spend their time in the marketplace, buying, selling and working, the students of Torah spend their time intensively focused on the holy words of the Torah.
Besalel, however, expressed the other perspective, the viewpoint which sees the supporters as even greater than the scholars. Moshe is undoubtedly correct, that in one sense, those who devote themselves to fulltime engagement in Torah are greater than those who spend their time in the workplace. However, on the other hand, those who support Torah are the ones who facilitate the scholars’ fulltime study. They are the "building," so-to-speak, providing the framework that facilitates the "Aron," the scholars’ study of Torah. If the scholars have no source of material support, they would not be able to study. And so in this sense, the supporters are even greater, as Torah study could not take place without them.
King Shlomo teaches in the Book of Kohelet (7:12), "Ki Be’sel Ha’hochma Be’sel Ha’kessef" – "For being in the shadow of wisdom is [like] being in the shadow of money." The one who resides "in the shadow of wisdom," devoting himself to acquiring Torah scholarship, is the same as the one who resides "in the shadow of money," who devotes himself to the acquisition of money which he then uses to support Torah scholars. This message was taught by Besalel, who is thus described as dwelling "Be’sel E-l," in the "shadow of G-d," recognizing that both the scholars and their benefactors reside "in the shadow of G-d."
Torah scholarship is a joint venture, a partnership between two different groups of people who sincerely commit themselves to this lofty undertaking – the scholars who diligently apply themselves to master the complex, difficult and intricate texts of Torah, and the generous donors who generously share their hard-earned assets with the scholars to support them. This partnership is how our glorious, sacred Torah tradition has endured throughout the millennia, and how it will continue to grow and flourish, guiding and inspiring our nation until the coming of Mashiah, Amen.