The Biblical B’tzalel was the son of Uri, the grandson of Hur, and the great-nephew of Moses (Ex. R. 48:3-4). He was a highly talented architect and craftsman. To him was entrusted the construction of the Tabernacle. The sages relate that when God decided to appoint B’tzalel, He asked Moses’ opinion. The response was, “If he is acceptable to You, O Lord, surely he must be to me!” Next the people were asked, and they also approved the choice.
Building the Tabernacle was a daunting task. The rabbis tell us that B’tzalel immediately grasped what God wanted, in contrast to Moses, who had to have some details explained to him twice (Num. R. 15:10). He understood God’s will so well because he was a master of the alef-bet and knew how to combine the letters with which God created the world (Ber. 55a).
He tactfully disagreed when Moses told him to build the Ark before constructing the Tabernacle itself. He asked whether it was not usual to build the house first, and then work on the furnishings; he thought Moses had not interpreted God’s command correctly.
In fact there is a symbolic significance in each point of view. To build a house first and then equip it is not illogical. But there is also a logic about having a precious possession and creating a fitting home for it. An analogy: do we first build a synagogue and hope to attract people, or do we first build a community and then design a synagogue?
This seems to be the essence of the Moses-B’tzalel debate. B’tzalel had a fair argument, but Moses had more sense of reality. The Ark symbolised the Divine Presence in the midst of the community. Moses wished to be certain that the people had the awareness of God in their souls. Otherwise the beautiful Tabernacle could become an empty shell.