When Moses returned from the mountaintop that second time, I was shocked and dismayed to see the coarse tablets he was carrying. Uneven, jagged, lacking in symmetry. Bumpy all over. Clearly he had fashioned them himself. Whatever words of wisdom had been chiseled on them, the tablets themselves lacked the elegance a skilled stone cutter could have given them. Moses might have been a brilliant leader, but he was a neophyte when it came to craftsmanship.
Was this really a sufficient form to carry the Holy One’s words? If this was what our leader thought was beautiful, I began to worry that those of us who had hearts that were drawn to beauty would be forced to limit our imaginations and the potential of our creative spirits.
I listened to Moses as he invited everyone nadiv lev (whose heart directed them) to donate to the building of a Mishkan, a moveable sanctuary home for the Holy One. We were encouraged to bring all kinds of precious metals and stones - gold, silver, lapis lazuli- and beautiful wools and colorful cloth, red rams’ skin and the skins of tachash - whatever that was - and acacia wood. I began to hope anew that God wanted us to create a space of beauty. My artist’s heart began to beat faster as I started to imagine the fine art that could be created with such magnificent supplies.
Then God spoke to Moses saying, “Instruct Bezalel, the artisan, and Oholiab as his helper, to build Me a Mishkan that I may dwell among you.”
Moses continued to recount God’s words, but I was already running to find Oholiab. Spotting him hurrying toward me, we ran to one another at full speed, crashing together in joy and glee. I grabbed his shoulders and spun him around, dancing a joyous dance. “Finally,” I exclaimed, “We will use our skills to create something beautiful for our God! All those hours we spent in our master’s workshop have been in preparation of this moment!” We ran back to the center of the multitudes to accept our divine appointment.
When we arrived, my great-grandmother, Miriam, raised her hands to calm us. She had a cautious look in her eyes. Oholiab and I slowed apprehensively until we stood before Miriam and her brothers. She whispered to me, “Breathe.”
Then Moses murmured, Aaron spoke, and the God’s instructions were revealed. Yes, God wanted us to build the Mishkan, but Oholiab and I would not be designing the structure. We would simply be carrying out God’s minutely-detailed plans.
My disappointment weighed me down. I wondered if the Holy One didn’t trust my artistry. Did God not know that I longed to make a beautiful palace for our people’s worship? Did God not trust that I would be able to create something magnificent? But no, God sought only skilled workers to complete God’s blueprints. There would be no room for creativity.
I felt as if I were falling into despair, as if I were spiraling downward. As my disappointment and pain bubbled up, spiteful words almost spewed forth from my mouth: “Is this why we were taken out of Egypt? To create what someone else designed? If that is all we are destined for, we should have stayed with our masters!”
Thankfully I held my tongue. Because when I looked up, I saw the exhausted face of the man who had rescued us from Egypt, the concern that clouded the eyes of my great-grandmother, herself a prophet, and the intense tension weighing down on the shoulders of the man who soon became our high priest. Our new freedom had not been exactly what any of us had expected. Suddenly I was ashamed. What had felt righteous only moments earlier now felt self-indulgent. If these three could bear the challenges they had been given and continue serving our people, then I would as well. I swallowed my objections and accepted the responsibility that I had been given.
I threw myself into the complex work of realizing God’s plans. Oholiab and I paid attention to every detail, every nuance of the instructions we had been given, carefully crafting everything to God’s exact specifications. The work went smoothly, if predictably, until the day that we set out to craft the material that would form the covering of the Mishkan. Oholiab and I stood among our supplies, checking that we had everything we would need for the day’s work.
Oholiab called out each item from the list we had been given, and I confirmed the presence of the specific supplies. But, then he said, “skins of the tachash.” And I was unable to respond. He called it out again, thinking I had not heard him. This time I walked back to him and asked, “What is a tachash?” “I don’t know,” Oholiab admitted, “It is not an animal that I have ever heard of or seen before.”
We realized that we could not move forward until we had an answer, and our work slowed to a stop as we threw ourselves into solving this mystery. From God’s instructions, it was clear that the tachash skins that we were meant to use were supposed to be 30 cubits long. What animals had hides that were that large? We were completely mystified. We gathered our team, hoping that one of them knew the answer. We explained the confusion and asked them what they thought. Everyone had suggestions.
The tanner’s apprentice, Ro’i, remembered that Moses had mentioned the tachash in the same breath as the ram’s skins. This made him think that the tachash must be an animal with thicker and better quality skin than a ram - like a goat! (1)
When we sought out the master tanner, Batel, to confirm her apprentice’s suggestion, she disagreed. Instead, she proposed that maybe Aaron had misheard Moses who might actually have used the Arabic word "darsh," meaning "black." She concluded that tachash was simply meant to refer to a special way of processing skins that caused them to blacken. (2)
When we spoke to Anael, who had once been the slave of a shipping trader, he agreed that Aaron had misheard Moses, but he thought Moses had intended to use the Arabic word “tuhas,” which referred to a large marine animal, also called a "dolphin." (3)
Liat, the clothier, who had supplied the Egyptian court with the finest garments made of luxurious fabrics, remembered hearing about a style of sandals made from tachash material. When we asked her for more details about these sandals, she explained that she had only heard of them in passing and had never worked with the material itself. (4)
As the days wore on, the Mishkan began to take shape. One by one, the ritual items the priests would use to make sacrifices to God were finished and brought into the holy space. As I watched our progress, I became increasingly desperate to decipher the mystery of the tachash. Oholiab and I continued to speak with craftspeople, hoping that someone might have the expertise to help us complete our work.
We spoke with Nechemiah, who had worked for years with master dyers and had an eye for color. He suggested that tachash might be a specific color, but he could not tell us how to achieve the hue.
Yehudit, a young woman who spun thread and whose father had been a scribe, thought Moses meant “Sas-gavna.” Seeing our confusion, she explained that the word “Sas” came from the Hebrew meaning “joy,” while “gavna” meant “colors.” She suggested that maybe God had requested a curtain of bright, joyful colors that would bring everyone joy. (5)
After months of investigation, we began to wonder if we would ever find the answer to the mystery of the tachash. However, our band of artisans had become a tight knit group, and rather than allowing our friends to give into despair we began entertaining one another by creating increasingly fanciful and creative answers to the question that had plagued us for so long.
Naama spun a story about the great mythological tachash, a multi-colored beast with a single horn. A “uni-corn,” she called it. When someone teased her, asking why we had never seen such a fantastic beast, she laughingly explained that the tachash had only come into being for the purpose of lending its skin to the construction of the Mishkan, and after that it ceased to exist. (6)
Rachmiel, whose dreams of traveling far and wide filled him with all sorts of visions, talked about an animal with a single horn on its snout, a large grey body like an elephant but lower to the ground, and a fierce attitude. He called it a “rhinosaurus,” meaning a creature with a horned nose.
Laughing and imagining with one another made our work pass quickly. We had so much fun dreaming together that eventually the mystery of tachash was transformed from a burden into a launching pad for our creativity.
As we neared the chanukat hamishkan (the dedication day for the Mishkan), Oholiab and I, stood together, watching as the artisans in our team gathered around us. We were such a mixed multitude, with eyes, hair, and skin colors of every hue imaginable. Some of us were tall enough to reach the top of our tent, while others were so short that they did not have to duck at all as they entered. Some were single and moved with freedom from tent to tent, spending their time away from the Mishkan with friends and family. Some of our team members had bound their lives to other people and were raising families that they had crafted in a variety of ways. Our group included both those who had been born into the Israelite people and gerei toshav (the non-Israelites who dwelt among us). We were a mosaic, gathered by Moses, Miriam and Aaron. We had been crafted into God’s people.
On that day, as I looked with appreciation and wonder over the diversity of the artists who I had been working with, I made a decision about the tachash. In the face of this unanswerable mystery, we artisans would draw inspiration from the beauty of our humanity. We would create a cloth that would shelter the Mishkan from the elements, and it would be made of all the colors we found among our people. We would wrap this holiest of spaces in the rainbow of God’s creations.
As I stitched the colorful material together, I realized how much I had changed from the moment that Moses had called my name and announced my appointment. Whether future generations would think of the Mishkan as the artistic innovation of Bezalel no longer mattered. I knew that by embracing the beauty of the God’s mystery and by using the challenge as a stepping stone for my creativity, I had added to the designs of the Artisan on High. I realized that God was an artist as well, crafting the world out of the darkness and the mystery that had come before. I shook my head, still stitching; I should have trusted God’s commitment to creativity. Who knows, maybe the very indecipherability of the term tachash was an invitation from the Holy One to create thoughtfully. I whispered a word of praise to the Creator and then got back to work.
1- Ralbag, Gersonides, 14th century, France
2- Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the 1st century Geon
3- Jewish Publication Society translation, noting the Hebrew is “uncertain”
4- Book of Ezekiel 16:10
5- Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbat 28a