I am going to let you all in on a little secret that many of you may know – I can, in fact, play the guitar. I have one sitting in my office at this very moment, a beautiful Taylor that I very much enjoy playing. I use it regularly to lead worship for our confirmation class and religious schoolers, and I play and sing with our preschool. Occasionally I will use it to lead the 5:30 service. Often I will just sit in my office and play a favorite piece of classic rock music. Every time a congregant learns that I play my guitar they always ask why I don’t play more often. Rabbi Black, Cantor Sacks, and or Steve Brodsky play the guitar with immense talent and my guitar skills would not serve to enhance our worship. Playing guitar is a hobby, not a passion or a skill that I would describe as a talent.
In our Torah portion this week the Israelites commence building the Mishkan in the desert. Everyone has a specific role; some people bring their gold, silver, cloth, yarn, or dolphin skins, and then return to their daily tasks, while others who have specific talents build the Mishkan. Moses tells the people “Let, then, Betzalel and Oholiav and all the skilled persons whom the Eternal has endowed with skill and ability to perform expertly all the tasks connected with the service of the sanctuary carry out all that the Eternal has commanded.” Whether we believe that we are born with certain talents or that we cultivate them over time this teaches us that we each have a role to fulfil in order for our community to function at its best.
This lesson can apply to an actual construction project, to how we lead services, and to how we approach life. I know that I do have talents and strengths in many areas, and while perhaps I could put in the time and lessons to become a great guitar player, I would rather play to my strengths. In an article in Forbes Magazine Paul Brown writes, “You are far better off capitalizing on what you do best, instead of trying to offset your weakness. Making a weakness less of a weakness is simply not as good at being the best you possibly can be at something.”
It turns out that this lesson originated in our Torah portion. The phrase that we translate as “skilled” is actually two words – hacham-lev, or chochmat lev. When the Torah indicates that some has a special skill in our portion, they are chochma lev – literally they have wise hearts. Maimonides, our 14th century scholar, writes in the Guide to the Perplexed that the word “chochma,” wisdom, can have four meanings in the Torah, citing ours as one example:
“THE term ḥokmah (“wisdom”) in Hebrew is used of four different things: (1) It denotes the knowledge of those truths which lead to the knowledge of God, as in “But where shall wisdom be found?” (Job xxviii. 12); The word occurs frequently in this sense. (2) The expression ḥokmah denotes also knowledge of any workmanship, as in “And every wise-hearted among you shall come and make all that the Lord hath commanded” (Exod. xxxv. 10);” And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin” (ibid. ver. 25). (3) It is also used of the acquisition of moral principles. Comp. “And teach his senators wisdom” (Ps. cv. 22); “With the ancient is wisdom” (Job xii. 12); for it is chiefly the disposition for acquiring moral principles that is developed by old age alone. (4) It implies, lastly, the notion of cunning and subtlety; comp. “Come on, let us deal wisely with them” (Exod. i. 10)…… The attribute ḥakam (“wise”) is therefore given to a person that possesses great intellectual faculties, or good moral principles, or skill in art; but also to persons cunning in evil deeds and principles.”
The people who had the faculties to build the Mishkan were wise in their hearts, not simply people who possessed a skill. They knew that they were the most talented at their crafts and therefore they were the ones who were ordained by God to fulfill their role in building the Mishkan. The people who possessed the other three types of wisdom (especially those who are cunning in evil deeds), knew that while they might be good with a hammer, there were people who were true craftsman and could do the job better. And they also knew that they possessed other necessary skills needed to ensure the community continued to function.
We should make the same distinction. We all possess wisdom of this kind, no matter its application. Some of us are writers, poets, builders, musicians; some are computer people, good with numbers and good with a paint brush. Others might be very good at listening and being a good friend, some of us might be excellent story tellers. We all have strengths. What makes our talents true, wisdom of the heart, chochmat-lev, is when we learn when and how to use strengths in our world and know that we are essential to our community.