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We Need Experts

Parashat Ki Tisa 5784

Delivered March 1, 2024


Imagine that you are one of the 600,000 Israelites. God redeemed you from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. You witnessed Moses standing at the Sea of Reeds, lifting his staff as the waters part. You danced with Miriam on the other side of the sea, realizing for the first time in generations, you and your people are free.

 

Currently, you wander through the wilderness. Moses brought down God’s tablets, and only a few days ago, asked you to bring your finest materials to build the Mishkan, a sacred space at the center of your camp. Moses said only those whose hearts so moved them should bring these gifts. You think,“He’s brought us this far…” So, you gather the gold and silver you “borrowed” from the Egyptians. There are hard woods, fine linen, and precious stones-all sorts of high quality raw materials heaped up in the middle of the camp. Looking at everything that you and your neighbors brought, you wonder how all of this is going to come together to create God’s dwelling place.

 

Moses has an answer to this. He calls forward Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, from the tribe of Judah. Moses tells you that God has filled Betzalel with Ruach Elohim, God’s spirit, b'chokhmah (with wisdom), u’vi-t’vunah (with understanding), u’v’da-at (and with knowledge)–all forms of ability.1

 

Hearing Moses declare this appointment, you hear grumblings from others standing around you. “Why him?” They wonder, “Who made Betzalel the expert in all things sanctuary building?”

 

That is when you remember something you heard from the Elders, an echo of what Moses just declared. Chokhmah, binah, and da-at–that is what God gives Betzalel to be the sanctuary’s master craftsman. You have heard about those attributes before. God created the Universe with those three qualities. God used chokhmah to create the Heavens. Binah was deployed for the Earth. And da-at for the depths.2

 

If we are to think of the cosmos as a fractal, as I spoke about the other week, then it only makes sense that God would give Betzalel those three attributes for the building of the Mishkan. As it is for the world, so it is for the Mishkan, and for Solomon too when he builds the Temple. It is those three qualities are also promised to the one who would rebuild the Temple in some future imagination. Whether we are talking about the creation of the Universe, the crafting of the Mishkan, or the expertise we put in our own endeavors–it takes chokhmah, binah, and da-at.

 

Betzalel has been gifted the Ruach Elohim, coupled with wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to now serve as the Israelite’s expert in the construction of the Mishkan. Rashi is the one who asks what the three traits–wisdom, knowledge, and understanding–really mean. What makes Betzalel an expert? What is Jewish expertise?

 

The answer is threefold. Just as the Israelites gift God with precious materials to build the Mishkan, God gifts Betzalel three attributes that make him able to be the expert craftsman who oversees the Tabernacle’s construction.

(1) Chokhmah: Wisdom is Betzalel’s ability to listen to other people, and to learn from them.

(2) Binah: Understanding is Betzalel’s gift for discernment, to understand a problem conceptually, and to be able to work out a solution.


And (3) da-at is the ineffible quality that emerges in the creative process. Rashi calls it Ruach HaKodesh, literally the holy spirit. I would call it talent or artistry. It’s that inspired part an artist who looks at a slab of marble, and who sees Michaelangelo’s David within.

 

These are the three gifts of Jewish expertise: Chokhmah, binah, & da-at; the ability to learn from others, the ability to learn from oneself, and the ability to heed that still small voice from within to chase after a vision and make it a reality.

 

In this week’s Torah portion, Betzalel models for us what Jewish expertise is, which is important today, for unlike Moses putting his trust in Betzalel, we are suffering the death of expertise.

 

Most recently, it is Tom Nichols who focuses on American society’s disenchantment with expertise. Nichols is a professor of national security at the US Naval War College and at Harvard. He is also a five-time winner on Jeopardy. So, he knows a thing or two.

 

In his book titled The Death of Expertise, Nichols writes: “These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything.”3

 

We see this in the conviction of individual’s own correctness, which shows up in the college classroom, in conversations among family and friends, and certainly in debates about the public policy. For some, they ask not what is the best choice for all, what is the right, just, or kind thing to do, but how can my team win, regardless of the costs and consequences?

 

As Nichols writes,

“The death of expertise is not just a rejection of existing knowledge. It is fundamentally a rejection of science and dispassionate rationality, which are foundations of modern civilization…. Americans no longer distinguish the phrase ‘you’re wrong’ from the phrase ‘you’re stupid.’ To disagree is to disrespect. To correct is to insult. And to refuse to acknowledge all views as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed-minded.”4

Rejecting expertise means that, more and more, we turn from common sense and long established norms toward a tribalism that is troubling and uncomfortable.

 

Here is where Nichol’s insights intersect with this week’s Torah portion. Jewish expertise values a person’s ability to listen to others, an ability to listen to themselves, and a willingness to drive forward creatively. Nichol’s death of expertise suggests we are choosing to ignore those God given gifts in exchange for something else that feels dangerous.

 

It feels like the forces of pessimism, despair, and even nihilism are pushing us to discount what experts are saying around us. Consider the issues that fill our headlines, social media feeds, and conversations among friends. The reporting from Israel and from Gaza, reminding us that the hostages are not yet free, that soldiers are dying, and then that Gazan are suffering famine and dying in mobs trying to get food.

 

How are we to take any of these issues and talk about solutions out of the morass? I would not blame anyone who has turned off the news. I have done that myself from time to time. Still, we cannot move forward, or advocate for something better, if we deride inconvenient truths as fake news, or tune out insights or perspectives that do not fit into our preconceived narratives.

 

In a world of disinformation and misinformation, it is hard for a thoughtful person to take anything as true anymore. Barb McQuade is a legal scholar and former US Attorney. She has a new book out that focuses on the effects of disinformation. As she describes it, many in American society today have chosen tribes over truth.5 It is more important that our team wins, than for us to do the right, just, kind, equitable, or truthful thing. So, some ignore what common sense tells us, some give in to conspiracy thinking, and we traverse a scary, downward spiral. With the death of expertise, I do not know that any of us can say with clarity where we head.

 

Consider how we–as American Jews–might continue to engage with the war in Gaza, with our Israeli family and friends, with other American Jews on the question of Israel and our identity. Since October 7, the issue that has been front and center for us as American Jews is addressing the tension of our tribal commitments with our universal values. How do we remain connected to Jews here, in Israel, and all around, when we hold a diversity of perspectives, and when we may feel like those perspectives may not combine fully with our desire to be one People.

 

To be thinking individuals about Israel and Gaza, the longer this war goes on, it is getting harder to tell what is true. We say it takes nuance; the situation is complex. True. And in that complexity we get more tied up trying to understand what is real versus spin in the news that we are fed.

 

The onslaught of news reporting, the many hot takes in opinion pages and on social media, and the outpouring of protest that has become more and more comon make it difficult for us to see what is what. Who can say what news sources to trust when it comes to the reports on Israel’s war with Hamas, or when it comes to understanding the war’s ripple effects as we feel it reverberate in our own community and relationships.

 

So given the twists and turns that truth seems to be taking today, and people’s instincts to join in with tribe over truth, or to feel the tension within our own tribe, we come back to Betzalel, and what he has to teach us about expertise. Betzalel was given chokhmah, binah, and da-at–the ability to listen and learn from others, the ability to discern truth for himself, and knowledge that he also had God’s still small voice speaking to him from within.

 

We all get to be like Betzalel. We all need to be like Betzalel. No one should tell us what to think. Rather, we look to engage with experts to help us form educated opinions. I have a theory that leaning in to what experts tell us will also help us tune out the constant noise around us, and tune in to what is true and what really matters. Betzalel is tasked with creating God’s dwelling place among the Israelites, with all the materials that the Israelites themselves gifted.

 

We Israel, contribute to the material from which the experts draw. And, we benefit from what the experts tell us in return. The trick is making sure we are not caught in a echo chamber that only confirms our biases. So, let me encourage each of us to commit to being like Betzalel and the Israelites.

 

May we each continue to listen and learn from one another. May we listen and learn from our own lived experiences. And may we tune in to that still small voice that lies within. Let us be smart about things, and perhaps that will help us discern a righteous path forward.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

--

  1. Exodus 31:3

  2. Based on Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 3:12.

  3. Nichols, 2.

  4. Nichols, 5, 25.

  5. As heard on the podcast Stay Tuned with Preet, February 29, 2024.

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