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Our gifts are divine

Vayakhel reminds us that while everyone is invited to donate and contribute to the building of the tabernacle, the construction itself must be left to “Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons whom God has endowed with skill and ability to perform expertly all the tasks” (Exodus 36.1) and carry them out.

With five weeks left until Brexit, as a British citizen I look back to my country with a rising amount of trepidation. And when reading talk of “experts”, I still have the UK Conservative Minister Michael Gove’s infamous 2016 phrase, “Britain has had enough of experts” ringing in my ears. Whilst this was Brexit-specific it may be seen as part of a more general malaise and decline in “epistemic trustworthiness”, how much we listen to an expert when we need to solve a problem that we ourselves do not really understand.

As a child, when I listened to a sermon in shul, there would generally come a point – perhaps early on – when my eyes would glaze over, and I would lose the thread of whatever the rabbi was trying to say. But I would generally trust in the wisdom of my rabbi. Later I would learn that I was not the only one – and at my bar mitzvah I was given the advice that as long as the opening of my speech was strong, and the conclusion, I should not worry too much about what was in the middle, as people would not remember it too much anyway.

These days in the pulpit or the lecture hall, I see only too well the wisdom of these words. At rabbinical seminary one homiletics teacher told our class, “I always speak for eight minutes. What I say in those eight minutes is less important than the ritual of the rabbi giving a sermon for eight minutes each Shabbat morning.” At the time we thought he was joking. In a similar vein, my mother would always praise the Deputy Headmaster of my grammar school, because, as she would tell me after each time she had met him, he was expert in the art of saying nothing.

My baby son underwent surgery recently, and I was only too happy to entrust him in the skilled and caring hands of the surgeon, who saved his life. And when it comes to our Torah portion and the construction of the tabernacle, we know from modern times just how critical it be for buildings to be erected by skilled architects and engineers. Yet in the case of a rabbi, a teacher or a politician, the life and death importance of their work may only be seen over a longer scale. Each of us must remember that our skills and expertise are divine gifts, as Vayakhel reminds us, and nurture them accordingly.

Acknowledging that our gifts are not ours alone would go a long way to prevent their misuse, and to put them to work for the good of our societies. To restore trust in experts will take time and effort and concentration, even when we prefer to switch off. But if we are to construct a way forward for our complex and challenging world, we will need each person of good will and competency to play their part.

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