Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayakel (Numbers 1:1-4:20)The Need for Millennials and Gen Z Jewish Leaders

This year’s Winter Olympics were about many things besides athletic competition. Many people weren’t enthusiastic because they didn’t want to legitimize a host country committing human rights atrocities. For those who did tune in, questions of national allegiances, drug use and yes, COVID, dominated the headlines. And, of course, there was the question of youth, and whether teenagers should truly be thrust into the spotlight.This last issue makes its way into this week’s Parsha, where the Torah, at least according to the Talmud, seems to address this topic. It highlights the astounding feat accomplished with the building of the Mishkan, the portable synagogue Jews used for hundreds of years. A nation of slaves, subject to occasional hysteria while struggling to form a national identity, pulls off a remarkable construction project. Within six months – between the Sukkot and Passover holidays – they fashion an intricate temple for G-d. There was little room for error, as even the most minute details would need to pass the watchful eye of the Creator of the Universe.Whom would you choose to oversee this project? One of the elders or perhaps one of the taskmasters from Egypt who had endured beatings so that their brethren wouldn’t have to.They chose a Bar Mitzvah boy. Yes, Betzalel was just thirteen years old, according to a calculation set forth in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 69b). Let’s assume he was a child-prodigy, a once-in-a-generation talent. But the role of Tabernacle Project Manager required much more than artistic ability or engineering know how. Betzalel would have to manage a team of artisans and construction workers who had, likely, never worked side-by-side. Although some might have worked together as slaves to construct Egyptian’s palaces, but the building of the Mishkan required quickly harnessing diverse talents across a spectrum of millions of people.
Why choose a thirteen-year-old?Rabbi Berel Wein who has been in the Rabbinate for more than 55 years and has witnessed the growth of Jewish communities in America and abroad addresses this question in his book Second Thoughts and suggests that Betzalel’s age was at least one reason why G-d approached Moses before appointing a project manager. Moses was unsure why he needed to be consulted; a recommendation from G-d carries a lot of weight. But G-d didn’t stop there. He has Moses consult the ‘synagogue’ membership as a whole – the entire Israelite people – who responded as Moses did. “Why are you asking us? If he was selected (1) by G-d and (2) by you, Moses, we’re definitely on board.” It’s not clear whether Moses or the Jewish people truly had veto power, but it does seem that the choice would not be obvious to the public. Betzalel isn’t the only child prodigy who builds a Temple. The young Solomon—12 years old—became King when his father (David) died and built the Temple in Jerusalem. It seems that youth (along with brilliance) is one of the qualifications for Temple building. Why is this so? Rabbi Wein explains: The building of holy institutions requires a sense of enthusiasm that only youth can provide. When one is young, all things are possible. When one is old, there is not much left that is really possible. Risking capital, opening new ventures, taking outlandish chances is for the young. Conserving capital, retrenching, playing a defensive game is usually the strategy of the old. Building holiness, translating noble and charitable gifts and concepts into physical realities requires daring, energy, unwarranted optimism, and unswerving commitment. These are all the properties of youth. Hence, Bezalel and Solomon became the symbols of all Jewish holy construction for all time. The Jewish people are always described by the prophets as being naar, a youth. The Jewish people, the oldest of all peoples, has always remained naar, the youngest of all nations. By constantly building ourselves in Torah, we recapture our youthful qualities and are able to embark upon awesome spiritual and physical building projects that other, older societies would not undertake. We are all Bezalel; we are all Solomon. As such, no matter what our chronological age, we are still young and vital, chosen by the G-d of Israel to continue the building of the Mishkan in the midst of our society. Let’s take this a step further. While we don’t know the age of Oholiav, the number two contractor, we do know the age of the person Betzalel worked with most closely – Moses. King Solomon was also surrounded by his father’s experienced advisors. Perhaps the winning solution requires old and young working side by side.In The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, author Bruce Cotterill actually makes this point regarding building anything of value. There is undoubted value in having people in your team who don’t understand where the boundaries are. People who will bring a different approach and try things that others will not. People who come up with crazy ideas and who are brave enough to give those ideas a go. However, there is also value in a business with a few old heads who know how things work, where ideas are actioned in a cohesive and structured manner, and where wisdom and experience drive outcomes that are well targeted and have a high chance of succeeding. The best businesses are those with a bit of both. But the two seemingly opposite groups need to have great communication, understand each other and tolerate the differences in order to ensure that the business gets the best results. The best Jewish communities are those built with young and old collaborating. When the old guard won’t listen to the enthusiasm and needs of the youth, they are destined to become a forgotten relic of the past. But when young people introduce seemingly new ideas, their mature mentors might point out how introducing new practices and eliminating old ones is not a novel concept, it’s been attempted many times over the centuries, but their adherents have been lost to the annals of history. Robust communities are built and sustained by having old and young coming to shul and also participating in events. No matter what your age is, we need you, want you, and want to listen to you. And hopefully, whatever your age may be, you will be willing to listen to us. Good Shabbos   Read More