A Shadow's Hand
Peter Pan, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Tabernacle, oh my!
Although the intensity of the phase during high school and college has passed, I still consider myself a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel. Amid all their numerous hits, my favorite song has always been “Bleeker Street,” which should probably not come as a surprise given its strong religious allusions. The one lyric in particular that always spoke to me has been, “I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand on Bleeker Street.”
There is something both sad and whimsical about that line. The sadness being the loneliness that Simon was articulating. Yet, the whimsy still stands above it for me. That is because shadows capture that feeling in so many parts of our culture. Whether it’s the glee of a young child noticing their shadow for the first time or the powerful role that shadows play in the Peter Pan story, we are often taken by our shadows.
In our parshah this week too, we meet a sort of shadow. Betzalel, the chief architect of the Tabernacle, has a name that means in the shadow of God. His various attributes are listed throughout the recent portions. He has wisdom, knowledge, and artisanal skill. But what does it really mean that he did his work “in the shadow of God” and how might that impact us today?
To understand that, we need to recall an important reference to a shadow in Judaism. This one comes from Psalm 121:5, where God is described as “your shadow-צלך” On this verse, the Midrash Socher Tov writes:
“ just as one’s actions are reflected by their shadow, so God also acts in a manner that reflects what one had done. God says that when you cry, I too join in your cries.”
This is one of the better articulations of process theology, that I have heard. God changes as we change. It is with this idea in mind that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in his seminal work, Kedushat Levi, illustrates what made Betzalel’s name so impactful:1
“Betzalel, whose very name meant that he had been in God’s shadow, would certainly have to have in mind the appropriate thoughts when fashioning each one of the many vessels used in the Tabernacle. The word בצלאל can just as easily be translated as א-ל הוא הצל שלו, “God is his shadow.”
Every vessel with all of its intricacies was infused with an intention that was built on an awareness of divine impact. That is what made Betzalel so special and can make us special as well.
We speak in Judaism about practicing with intentionality in all aspects of life, a fairly amorphous phrase that can mean a whole host of things. We pray with intention. We act with intention. We speak with intention. What I believe the Berditchever is adding here is that a special element of intentionality can be the idea that we are literally having an effect on God by doing what we do and saying what we say.
How do we know this? Because God is our shadow. When we move with our shadow, our shadow responds in turn. In the same way, when we cry, laugh, act, emote in any way, God is doing the same right there next to us.
How differently might you act believing that what you do has a direct impact on The Divine? This can be a deeply comforting feeling in many moments in life. After all, it always helps to know you’re not alone. When the sun comes out next and your shadow makes its appearance, stick your hand out and see if you can find God’s outstretched arm waiting for you.