Parshat Vayakhel: When their heart is in the right place

Rabbi Alana Suskin
Rabbi Alana Suskin (Shulamit Photo+Video)

By Rabbi Alana Suskin

Vayakhel describes gathering materials for and making the mishkan, the tabernacle. As God, through Moses, gives instructions, something unusual is unveiled through the language: the word “lev” (heart) appears 14 times. That it appears as a multiple of seven — a number of completeness — signals that there’s something important going on.

There are three “lev” compound-words: nadiv-lev — generous-hearted; chacham-lev — wise-hearted; “nisa-lev” — whose heart is aroused in them (“lev” appears by itself once).

These heart words describe different people and activities. The nadiv-lev/generous of heart are the ones contributing resources willingly to the project. Nisa-lev describes how excited people are to do the work or give gifts.

The third lev is different. Chacham-lev refers to the men, women (unusual in itself) and leaders of this project, Bezalel and Oholiav. One might think that the words refer only to skill, but the tradition actually extends it much further. Bezalel is specifically named to lead this enterprise not only because he is a gifted craftsman, but also because he is spiritually on a very high level (BT Berachot 55a). His “wise-heart” means not only skill, but ethical grounding, fear of heaven and intellectual knowledge.

Someone who is chacham-lev has more than just skill or knowledge or even deep understanding; to be chacham-lev is to be truly wise because one is deeply ethical as well. Pirkei Avot 3:9 states: “Anyone whose fear of sin precedes their wisdom, their wisdom endures. And anyone whose wisdom precedes their fear of sin, their wisdom does not endure. He would [also] say: Anyone whose actions are more plentiful than their wisdom, their wisdom endures. And anyone whose wisdom is more plentiful than their actions, their wisdom does not endure.”

To be chacham-lev requires not only dedication to knowledge and skill, but also that the knowledge and skill are grounded in decency and moral behavior. And this has two components: that one understands intellectually what moral behavior is and that one’s actions reflect that understanding.

There are a great many people whom we think of as smart. But if their actions and thoughts aren’t grounded in decency, if they don’t use their intellectual ability to generate consistent positive action and avoid unethical behavior, even their positive achievements will not last.

In contrast, the chacham-lev is to be admired. Their skills are dedicated toward a larger vision, and they know that their actions must be shaped by moral vision. Thus when they think and when they act, the fusion of skill, intellect and morality provides true leadership, and “their wisdom endures.”

Rabbi Alana Suskin is managing editor of

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