If you were keeping up with the news this past week, you most likely saw that West Virginia’s Governor, Jim Justice, recently signed into legislation a contractual agreement with the over 20,000 teachers in the state who were in the midst of a 9-day strike. The contract included a 5% pay raise for teachers, and, hopefully, will begin to turn the tide for how teachers are viewed in the state (which, incidentally, had one of the lowest pay-scales for teachers in the country). Throughout the duration of the strike, teachers rallied outside the capitol building in Charleston with signs that read “do your job” and “we’d rather be teaching.” And, though the teachers were far from classrooms and forgoing their own pay, they nonetheless partnered with organizations to help pack lunches for the thousands of students in their districts who relied on school lunch programs for what was, often, their only meal of the day. In this, these teachers showed that even in the midst of marching and striking, the students’ needs came first.
As the strike unfolded day after day, I followed its progress closely. This was a battle about money, to be sure, but it was also a battle for acknowledgement. It was a collective effort to get the state of West Virginia, and this country, to open their eyes to what it means to be a teacher. These men and women in our nation’s classrooms aren’t just teaching ABCs and 123s. They are mentoring a new generation to eventually take on the problems of the current generation, and the generation before that and the generation before that. They are fighting inequity on all fronts and believe in the promise of public education; they that if you put enough invested, motivated adults in the lives of our children, those children will be able to see measurable improvement in the outlook of their futures.
What these teachers demonstrated over the course of these nine days, what teachers across the country demonstrate each and every day they enter their classrooms, each and every day they worry whether they’ve done enough, is heart. That’s a term we throw around a lot. That teacher had a lot of heart. Or, Jimmy might not be a very good t-ball player, but he sure has heart. But what does that actually mean, to show heart. Or have heart. Sure, planning a strike in advance and ensuring that procedures are in place so that your students in need aren’t going hungry is an example of showing heart, but what is heart exactly?
If you want the Jewish answer, the biblical answer, you can turn to this morning’s parsha Vayakhel-Pikudei. It is here that we can gain great insight by learning about one of the Torah’s greatest teachers. Ah, you’re thinking, Moshe Rabbeinu, literally, “Moses our teacher.” But you’d be wrong. Now remember, our parsha this morning was about the craftsmanship and construction of the Tabernacle. As we read from the Torah:
And Moses said to the Israelites: See, Adonai has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of designer’s craft— and to give directions.
Okay, so this is interesting. It was Bezalel, not Moses, who was in charge of building the Tabernacle. Bezalel, whose name means “in the Shadow of God,” is not only an artisan or a craftsman who can build the tabernacle, but also a leader. Besides the fact that he is described as being filled with the divine spirit of skill, he is also a man of great ability and knowledge. The word in Hebrew here, Chochmah, is better translated as “wisdom,” meaning that Bezalel was not only a skilled man but also a wise one. And more importantly, ul-horot natan b’libo, God provided Bezalel with the skill of teachings, of providing direction, b’libo, into his heart.
And there it is, our first clue. Whereas knowledge is the domain of the brain, being able to impart knowledge to another, that is the domain of the heart. Teaching, the Torah tells us, comes from our lev, our heart.
Now remember, Bezalel was charged with the task of building the Tabernacle, but he was not to do it alone. Rather, Bezalel is said to have taught the Israelites to help build the Tabernacle with him. In other words, his skills as a craftsman, and they were impressive, were useless without his ability to teach. The task was too large for one man alone, and too important for it not to be executed with precision by laborers in need of instruction. Thus, it was Bezalel that transformed the masses of kvetching unskilled and uneducated Israelites into men and women that created a work of art with only their hands. It was Bezalel, endowed with the gift of guidance, who taught men and women that they had the ability to create, the ability to work together, and the ability to succeed.
The importance of this was not lost on our commentators. Ibn Ezra, an 11th century commentator, stated that “The Torah found it vital to stress that Bezalel…[was] endowed with the ability and the will to teach and communicate his skills and knowledge to those willing to learn.” Chaim ibn Attar, an 18th century Israeli rabbi, stated that “being able to share one’s wisdom with others is a special gift. Yet, to do so one needs not only talent, but a generous spirit. Not everyone can teach,” he said, “Some wise men are on so high a plane that they cannot descend to the people to speak their language.”
Remember, it was Bezalel who was chosen to perform this task, not Moses. Moses, THE prophet, was apparently not cut out for the task of teaching the Israelites how to craft the beauty of the Tabernacle. Bezalel was chosen because he held gifts needed for this undertaking, skills that even Moses did not possess. The Talmud highlights this issue by telling a midrashic story of an encounter between Moses and Bezalel:
God said to Moses, “Tell Bezalel to make the Tabernacle, the Ark, and the vessels.” Yet when Moses relayed the message to Bezalel, Moses changed the order: first ark, then the vessels, and finally the Tabernacle. Bezalel turned to Moses and said “Moses, our teacher, normally one first builds the house, and then places the furniture inside. Yet you said to make the vessels and then the Tabernacle. These vessels that I will make-where shall I put them [if the Tabernacle is not ready]? Didn’t God tell you, ‘tabernacle, ark, and vessels?’” Moses replied in amazement, “You must have been in God’s shadow [in Hebrew Bezalel (his name)] and overheard!” (Berachot 55a)
But of course, we know that Bezalel was not hiding in God’s shadow when God gave Moses those instructions. Rather he, as a teacher, one imbued with intelligence, craft, and skill, had the ability to understand the situation and correct Moses.
We mustn’t let the fact that this great teacher, Bezalel, was a craftsman, be lost on us. Indeed, just as he would go on to carve precious woods, metals, and gems into a Tabernacle, into God’s dwelling place, so too do our teachers mold and build our students into the civic and intellectual leaders this country so desperately needs. In fact, we have seen our teachers and their students rally these past few weeks in numbers not often seen before. In the wake of yet another school shooting, teenagers across Florida and this great nation flooded the offices of the capital. Why? Because they showed heart. And where do you think they learned that?
I’ll tell you where. Somewhere between their civics lessons, and their journalism clubs, and their in-class debates, they caught a glimpse of a Bezalel, a teacher with more than just knowledge in their heads. They, like the thousands of Israelites who labored on the Tabernacle, found themselves in the presence of someone who could translate that knowledge into enduring skills. Because what Judaism teaches us, what Bezalel teaches us, and what the teachers in West Virginia teach us, is that having heart means that you have transformative power. Power to transform objects, power to transform events, power to transform people.