Perhaps one of the greatest “eureka” moments in my research of the Lechem Hapanim was when I discovered that the configuration of the Lechem Hapanim on the Shulchan, together with the two bowls of frankincense, resemble a “smiley,” the kind you see on bumper stickers (lehavdil) – the two eyes with the curved, smiling mouth. This discovery (based on archeological evidence) opened my eyes to one of the greatest and most profound lessons that the Lechem Hapanim comes to teach us – Eizehu Ashir HaSameach BeChelko (Who is truly wealthy? Someone who [smiles] is happy with their lot).
When I teach this principle in my lectures and workshops, especially to adults, I am inevitably greeted with a standard response. “It cannot be like that! It is impossible that something so central and so spiritually elevated in the Beit HaMikdash can resemble a bumper sticker!” To the adult mind, an image as simplistic and “childish” as a smiley face could not possibly have any ethereal, holy connotations. It does not convince them when I prove that the earliest archeological evidence of a pictographic portrayal of a smile is from the Lechem Hapanim, and not as the internet says, from a Hittite pot found in Turkey.
However, the real proof that it is so is not from archeology but from this week’s parsha. We read (Shemot 31:2) how Hashem instructs Moshe to delegate the work of construction of the Mishkan to Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur from the tribe of Yehuda. The Midrash tells us that when he was appointed for the job, Betzalel had just turned bar mitzvah; he was only thirteen years old!
What was the logic behind appointing an inexperienced child to build the Mishkan? In Egypt, as slaves, Am Yisrael undoubtedly acquired many building skills that could be recruited for use in the building of the Mishkan. There must have been expert stone masons, metal workers, carpenters, etc. The Midrash goes on to tell us that a week before he turned thirteen, Betzalel was proficient in none of these skills, and the night before he became bar mitzvah, Hashem taught them all to him, so that the following day there was not an artisan to match him in all of Am Yisrael. Why take a child for that, why not take an already experienced metal worker and make him even more expert?
Our Sages explain that the reason has to do with the sin of the golden calf. Hashem did not want anyone who was over the age of thirteen at the time of the sin to oversee the building of the Mishkan. Only the adult men sinned with the golden calf; the women and the children did not. This is why all the adult men (except for Yehoshua and Kalev) perished in the desert and did not enter Eretz Yisrael. But that does not fully explain it. Hashem could have chosen any child under thirteen. Why specifically Betzalel? Our Sages point out that the reason his lineage is spelled out so explicitly is to tell us that Betzalel inherited his grandfather Hur’s mesirut nefesh (devotion); Hur refused to participate in the sin of the golden calf, which cost him his life.
However, the choice of a child to oversee the building of the Mishkan had an additional reason. It was because an adult was unsuitable for the task. The Torah (Devarim 18:13) says “You shall be innocent with the L-rd your G-d.” No adult can fully regain the innocence of a child in their service of Hashem. They can approximate it, but not fully duplicate it. It is possible to teach a child a Divine “crash course” in metalwork, stone masonry, etc. overnight, but you cannot give a crash course in childlike innocence, you either have it or you do not. A child naturally has it, an adult can only “emulate” it.
Betzalel’s co-worker was Oholiav, from the tribe of Dan. The Sages say that Hashem purposely paired someone from the “most important” tribe (Yehuda) with someone from the “lowliest” tribe (Dan) to teach us that the Beit HaMikdash is representative of the entire spectrum of Am Yisrael. The Midrashim do not elaborate on Oholiav as they do regarding Betzalel; however, it follows by logical reasoning that if Betzalel needed to be a child as described above, Oholiav must also have met the same criteria.
Childlike innocence is a job requirement for building the Mishkan because many components (Lechem Hapanim is one) embody this relationship with Hashem. Another example is the Kruvim (cherubs) above the Aron HaBrit. According to the Zohar (148a), the faces of the Kruvim were the faces of children, one male and the other female, tenderly smiling at one another
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Why did Aharon “play along” and not sacrifice his life, like Hur, to try to prevent the sin of the golden calf?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: What was the purpose of the “Tzitz,” the golden plate on the Kohen HaGadol’s forehead, bearing the words “Kodesh LaHashem”? The Gemara (Erkin 16a) says that the purpose of this golden plate on the forehead (metzach) was to atone for “azut metzach,” brazenness.