How do we gain in skill? For that matter, what is a skill?
Many assume that it is an ability that comes from tireless practice. Others connect it to formal training or schooling. Still, more ascribe it to innate talent. Few attribute it to God. Whatever one might believe (or not believe) about God, it may be worth delving into what makes a skill innate – part of who we are, easier to acquire and hone, or something that gives us joy and purpose.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10, Deuteronomy 25: 17-19), delves into the possibility that skill, wisdom, heart, and higher purpose are all interwoven. In Exodus 28:3, we read:
Next, you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.
A closer look at the wording reveals beauty from a more literal translation: “You will say to all who are wise of heart, which I filled with the spirit of wisdom, ‘You will make Aaron’s garments to distinguish him [or sanctify him or set him apart] to serve Me as priest.”
Commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra affirms that the Hebrew word “I filled them” refers specifically to hearts – rather than the entirety of the people themselves. Midrash Aggadah then chimes in to make clear that this wisdom of the heart is not specific to gender. It seems evident that this kind of Divinely endowed attribute is possible for all. Finally, Midrash Lekach Tov suggests that only God can hold a full vessel – suggesting that the individual who is full of such a spirit of wisdom might otherwise be overwhelmed or weighed down by their gifts.
When brought together, these reflections on skill paint a vivid picture. People with skill have a heart filled with a spirit of wisdom – one that is at once a wonder and might become ponderous without support. Much as we might cultivate skill, we also draw from a font of wisdom that we did not place in ourselves.
Moreover, what symbolically distinguishes Aaron in his vestments as a priest is the interaction between Divine and human gifts. He is bearer of fruits of human skill, Divine wisdom, or both.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.