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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Finding Our Purpose

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Whatever happened to Betzalel?

The Talmud tells a story. Rabbi Tarphon was ill and his very important friends, Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Gamliel and others, came to visit. They met his mother at the door crying. She pleaded with the Tzaddikim to “please pray for her son Tarphon - he is such a good son.” She proceeded to tell them how once she was walking with her son Tarphon and her sandal slipped away. Tarphon immediately kneeled before his mother, putting his hand under each of her feet as she walked, so that she would not feel the pain of the stones and the twigs. Rabbi Akiva upon hearing this story declared, “Tarphon has not even reached half of the obligation of a son to a mother!”

Such harsh words! What could be greater? What could you do more for your mother than walk backward before her on your knees with your hands under her bare feet?!

I heard a fascinating explanation for this in the name of Rav J.B. Soloveitchik z"l. If you would have asked Rabbi Tarphon why he was created and what his purpose in life was, he would certainly have told you that he saw himself as one of the Baalei Mesorah - which he was. It was his job to soak in Torah from the previous generation, analyze it, and transmit it to the next generation, which he did. Certainly a worthy purpose. But when the Gedolim heard of the exemplary way in which Tarphon treated his mother, they realized that his purpose was perhaps an even deeper one. He would be the paragon of kibud eim. His job was to set an example, and be a role model to the next generation, of how to treat a mother. This was to be Rabbi Tarphon’s special contribution.

Rabbi Akiva realized that perhaps he had so excelled in his mission that G-d was ready to take him from this world. Rabbi Akiva’s statement “Tarphon has not even reached half of the obligation a son has to a mother!” was really a bracha, namely that Rabbi Tarphon had not yet fulfilled his purpose, and so would go on living!

The People of Israel had just walked away from Mt. Sinai. Our hands were still calloused from two hundred and ten years of working with bricks and mortar. G-d put forth an historical challenge: “Build Me a Mishkan.” It must shine with its beauty and stand out in its glory. Who is going to make it shine? Who will bring forth its glory?

A thirteen-year-old boy came forward. Everyone knew the family. His grandfather was Chur, the son of Caleb, who had been killed trying to stop the golden calf from being built. His grandmother Miriam, Chur’s wife, was Moshe’s sister, a prophetess and the redeemer of the Jewish people. But who was this wunderkind Betzalel?

Betzalel was a gaon. He was not only an expert craftsman and artist, he was a Kabbalist who understood how to design the names representing the attributes of G-d into his work. He inherited a sense of zeal and mission from both his grandparents. At thirteen years old he stepped forward, and was ordained from above as being “in the Shadow of G-d”. He designed and built the holiest and most beautiful structure in history - and then he disappeared. Throughout the rest of Tanach he is never mentioned again!

Betzalel had his unique purpose in the world. “There is no person that does not have a moment” (Pirkei Avos). When one goes to the movies one sees hundreds of people. Some are stars, and some are extras. But in G-d’s world there are no extras. There is a reason that every one of us was born. We each have our fifteen minutes (at least) of fame.

Everybody knows that the reason Esther became Achashveirosh’s queen was to save the Jewish people from Haman. It is clear to all of us, but it wasn’t clear to Esther. She was afraid to approach the king. She felt it wasn’t her place. Mordechei told her, “Maybe that is why you’re the queen.” Maybe! Esther didn’t realize it, and Mordechei posed the question. With the benefit of hindsight we can all see it clearly.

None of us know exactly why we were created. As we are called upon to do things, we cannot be sure if we are now realizing our purpose in life. Esther didn’t know. Perhaps even the great Rabbi Tarphon didn’t know! Maybe our minds are clouded by our ideas of what we should become, and G-d’s idea just gets in the way.

The lesson from Betzalel, Esther and, after them, Rabbi Tarphon, is that the next time you are called upon to do a task, however uncomfortable, for your family, your friends, or your people - rise to the call. Do it like a hero. Mi yodea - who knows? Maybe it was for this very moment that you were born into the world!

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