Terumah: The Building Contractor’s Tale
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee; The tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is thereupon, and all the furniture of the tabernacle. (Exodus 31:1-7)
“Call me Manny. I work at Moe’s Depot Building Supplies. Been there, oh, must be about nine years, by now. It’s not a bad job, considering how hard it is to find steady work, these days: I help contractors, builders, and handymen who are building small construction projects for home or light industrial use. I meet all kinds of people—it’s amazing how we’ve become a Nation of Builders. Nothing surprises me—the housewives, young girls—sorry, I mean women—office working men, all kinds of folks—all doing the work themselves, who used to hire guys like me to fix up their houses. Yesterday, I spent an hour with this young couple who are flipping a house all by themselves, all during the weekend. How’d I learn what I know? Well, my own Dad was a frustrated construction engineer who had to leave college and support his family when his own Dad died young—he taught me a lot. And I love working with all kinds of people.
“Still, I am amazed, sitting there at my desk yesterday, to look up and see two guys who looked like they belonged on some oil-drilling rig in—where? Kuwait? Dubai?—in front of my desk, wearing full desert-sheik clothes head to toe, sandals on their feet, beards down to their waists, holding rolled-up parchments under their arms, and squinting in the fluorescent lights. I am a little surprised, but hey, you get all kinds of folks in here. I take a last sip of breakfast coffee from my special mug and said,
“Good morning! Someone helping you gentlemen?’
“The taller of the two—he’s a hawk-nosed fella, with a dark-tanned face full of wrinkles, the kind you get from squinting into a hot desert sun—answers me, with one of those—what? Israeli-type? Arab? accents (Was he a terrorist, sent by one of those enemy mobs to inspect our Western building methodologies? You can’t be too careful. How would he get past Homeland Security, looking like Omar Sharif’s brother?) Says to me,
“‘We’re here to buy building materials for our Holy Sanctuary in the wild and untamed Wilderness. We want to open a Contractor’s Account.’
“No problem, there. I’ve opened all sorts of accounts, for all sorts of people. My buddy here in the South Florida store, Florens Auberjonois—he’s Haitian, and he’s always kidding me when I try to speak to him in Quebecois; my people were originally from French Canada—once worked with a trade rep for the Sultan of Brunei, and they were able to jabber away in French, ‘cause the Brunei fella had studied engineering at the Ecole Mechanique in Marseilles—so I start filling out the forms on the computer, and all is going well, until I ask the Tall One—he seems to be the Spokesman—for Proof of Currency, figuring he would give me a MasterCard, VISA, or American Express; that’s what most of them do, and I am about ready to to explain to him that we’re sorry, but we no longer accept Diner’s Club—
“To my surprise, he pulls out a small leather bag, and pours out a little pile of gold coins on my desk—I lift one up, and it has the picture of an Egyptian Pharaoh on it—well, that is surprising, you can bet, but not something we can accept as legal currency, here in the Good Old U.S. of A. I mean, it’s the 21st Century.
“’I’m sorry,’ I say to Tall Guy, ‘but I can’t take this. Would you like to take home this E-Z Contractor’s Credit Application, and fill it out when you have time? You can bring it in, tomorrow. No sweat. And we can do all the paperwork today. You guys look pretty trustworthy to me.”
Which they don’t, but it looks like a Pretty Big Order, and the Store Manager was all over us yesterday morning to Move the Goods. I’ve been with MDBS almost a decade, like I said, and my Stella—my fiancée, that is—she’s looking to close on a condo in Orlando. “Close to the Mouse and the Duck,” she jokes to me, and I get it. These two Desert Sheikhs could be my passport to Fantasyland, for sure.
“Anyway, Tall Guy looks all confused, and does a quick, jabbery, native-tongue conference with Short Fella, and they both smile, and nod, and say to me, though I suspect they’re just thinking out loud,
‘We will consult with Tuvya the Translator-Scribe, and he will make it all Correct and Proper. We will bring it back to you, Mr. Manny, tomorrow.’
“So they can’t fill out the form, but I do get their names: Tall Guy is Bezalel ben Uri, and Short Fellow is Oholiav ben Achisa—sa—something—a little more complicated than Mutt and Jeff, but what can you do? These are hard enough for me to remember and pronounce, but they appreciate my making the effort—plus, I meet so many different sorts of people, here in South Florida, that another foreign-sounding name is all in a day’s work for me.
“And so, we go on. I pull out another standard form, ‘List of Necessary Building Materials.’
“‘What goods will you Gentlemen require?’ I ask.
“They brighten up—at last, this seems to be something they can comprehend.
“’We will need the following,’ says Oholiav, and, with much ceremony, he unrolls a large scroll—did I smell papyrus? It had a sort of plantlike smell, like those bamboo shoots in the Chow Mein when Stella brings home take-out Chinese Food—
“’Acacia wood—we don’t suppose you carry that?’ asks Bezalel.
“’Actually, we do—it’s become very popular for flooring,’ I tell them, ‘We get it from Australia, of all places.’
“‘Is that near Moab?’ asks Oholiav, ‘Rabbi Moshe says we may get there by next month—perhaps we should wait, and cut it down ourselves.’
“‘I don’t think so,’ answers Bezalel, ‘Moshe told me that the Sanctuary was a rush job, and asks me specifically, “How long will this take?”
“Two weeks,” I tell him.’
“They both nod. Contractors. We understand each other.
“‘What else are we talking about, Gentlemen?’” I ask. They consult their parchments, and read from them alternatively.
“’Gold, silver, and copper—‘ says Bezalel.
“’Special order,’ I say, writing it down. (My close personal associate Vito is in the wholesale precious metals business. No prob.)
“’Flax, dugong and ram skins, purple- and red-dyed wool—‘ says Oholiav.
“’Probably three weeks—and I’ll pull out the special forms you’ll need to get approval from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) folks,’ I say, ‘How would your Rabbi Moses Boss-man feel about Synthetic Alternatives? We can probably find you some made from a petroleum derivative. That way, you’re only harming the Environment, not a species.’
“’And these Cherubim for the Mercy Seat—‘ says Bezalel.
“’What are those?’ I ask.
“So he tells me.
“Like I said, you meet all kinds of people in this business….”