I learn a decent amount of midrash, and a teach a fair amount of it as well. I love the creativity and ingenuity, and the ownership claimed to be able to read into and out of the text. Sometimes the midrash seems far-fetched, and sometimes it provides interpretations which are interesting and productive, and other times it is clearly the only viable way to read the Torah. There’s a tradition that says: anyone who believes none of the midrash is a heretic, and anyone who believes all of the midrash is a fool. Well, I’d rather be a heretic than a fool, but I suppose the best place to sit would be as neither!
In Parashat Ki Tisa we are introduced to the master craftsman of the mishkan, Betzalel – his name literally means, “in the shadow of God.” What an awesome and mysterious name! What is interesting is that when we meet him, we learn his lineage back to his grandfather, and his tribal affiliation:
Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying. See, I have called by name; Betzalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah (Ex. 31:1-2)
What does that even mean, “I have called by name”?! Wouldn’t Uri have called him that name? Unless, this isn’t even his name, but is what God calls him, and we are being told his father and grandfather and tribe so that we can deduce his actual identity! Midrash Tanhuma says that Betzalel was one of seven people who in Tanakh who have multiple names, having six himself. So let’s do the research and find out who this guy is! We’ll start with his father and grandfather.
Hur is mentioned as being stationed alongside Aharon, holding up Moshe’s arms, when the Children of Yisrael fought against Amalek. Likewise, he joined Aharon in substituting for Moshe as judge when Moshe first climbed Mount Sinai. So he must have been someone important… Despite that, he doesn’t show up in any of the genealogies in Genesis, Exodus, or Numbers! Rashi points us in the right direction when we encounter Hur before Moshe ascends Sinai, he says that Hur is the son of Miriam and Kalev! This is based on midrashic tradition based upon the genealogies which appear in Chronicles.
It says there:
Kalev son of Hetzron bore children with Azuvah his wife, and with Ye’riot; her sons where Yesher, Shovav, and Ardon. But Azuvah died; and Kalev took himself Efrat, and she bore him Hur. Hur bore Uri, and Uri bore Betzalel. (I Chron. 2:18-20)
The midrashic tradition is that Efrat is another name for Miriam, and it is a widely held tradition. Kalev’s claim to fame is being one of the two spies who reject the fabricated reports of the other ten spies. He is the representative of the Tribe of Yehudah, which fits in line with Betzalel’s lineage. But when we receive the list of the spies, it says that his name is Kalev ben Yefuneh. So who is Hetzron? Going way back to the end of Genesis, we get the genealogies of the tribal namesakes. There we read:
The sons of Yehudah: Er, and Onan, and Peretz and Zarah; but Er and Onan died in the land of Kena’an, and the sons of Peretz were Hetzron and Hamul.
We have Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur ben Kalev ben Hetzron ben Peretz ben Yehudah! But the Kalev who is said to have married Miriam is Kalev son of Yefuneh… Well, the Talmud takes care of that by creatively re-reading the text such that Kalev ben Hetzron and Kalev ben Yefuneh are actually the same person. Now back to Betzalel…
On the verse first mentioned Betzalel, Ibn Ezra has a very mysterious comment, as if it is lurking in the shadows (how appropriate!):
See with an honorable eye, the one called is Betzalel. The reason I’ve called in his name is because there is nobody like him to make the mishkan. A simple read implies that Kalev ben Yefuneh is not Kalev ben Hetzron, they are different people. Intelligent people will understand.
Intelligent people will understand?! What does that mean? It turns out, Ibn Ezra wrote two commentaries: one we call the “long commentary” and one we call the “short commentary”. I expect you won’t be too surprised to find out that some of the “short commentary” is very long, and some of the “long commentary” is quite short. In his “short commentary” on Ex. 24:14, when we hear of Hur, Ibn Ezra goes on this very lengthy discourse, I’ll spare you the full extent of it, but the bottom line is this: If you play out the chronology presuming that Kalev is Kalev ben Yefuneh, then that means that when Betzalel was assigned to make the mishkan, he would have been around 10-13 years old! He says, “this is very far-fetched. And I will give you proofs that this is not the road, and this is not the city,” in other words – there are times to rely on midrash, and there are times to not go down that road because it will bring you to the wrong destination. Ibn Ezra provides a very long proof, going through the full genealogies of all of the relevant families. He says:
if Kalev, the son of the chief, was the son of Hetzron, and Hetzron was of those who descended to Egypt, and such is written…and our ancestors lived in Egypt for 210 years, and when you connect up the 40 years of Kalev the chief, when he went with the spies in the second year of their leaving Egypt, behold Hetzron must have fathered him when he was 170 years! And in the days of Avraham it was astounding that “could a 100 year old father?”. And if this astonishing matter were so, that Hetzron fathered, in the days of Moshe, when he was 170 years old, it would have been written in the Torah. And behold the best evidence is related in Chronicles.
So what is it that Ibn Ezra meant by “intelligent people will understand”? And why does he focus so intently on who this Kalev is, rather than who Betzalel is? He’s telling you, there are figures in the Torah, like Betzalel, who go by different names; however, there are figures in the Torah like Kalev ben Hetzron and Kalev ben Yefuneh, who do not. That midrash is a useful tool, but it can also get us twisted up in interpretive knots. Ibn Ezra is essentially stating: Anyone who believes none of the midrash is a heretic, and anyone who believes all of the midrash is a fool – and you don’t want to be either of those.