Wisdom of the heart: 3 cognitive abilities

The main topic in the latest Torah readings of Exodus is the construction of the Sanctuary and all its attractive vessels. The previous chapters of Terumah and Tetzaveh relate the instructions for the structure, while the most recent, Vayakhel and Pekudei, concern the execution of the commands.
Creating a sacred environment is all about choosing the right type of people, those willing to work hard and to give, as well as knowing how to maximize each person’s skillset. Specific instructions alone would not have sufficed to permit any person to participate in constructing the Sanctuary — talented artisans were needed.
Moses informed the entire congregation of Israel that God named Betzalel to do the job, and “filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom (chochmah), understanding (binah) and knowledge (daat), and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship.” (Exodus 35:31)
Mind power
In this verse, the Torah first mentions three cognitive abilities called chochmah, binah and daat, distinct powers of the mind, which are expounded throughout traditional Jewish literature. Each of these intellectual faculties has precise functions and limits.
Chochmah, usually defined as wisdom, involves our ability to reach inside the mind and “pull” an idea from the storehouse of information into consciousness, like drops of water surfacing from an underground wellspring. This power manifests as a flash of insight. The essential idea is initially perceived but has yet to take form. To get that mental spark to stick, long enough to examine it within the mind, necessitates concentration and curiosity.
The second power, binah, translated as “understanding,” involves the process of analysis. This ability develops the seed of insight (chochmah), to discern and pick up distinctions, as the rules and logic become more revealed, until the breadth of the concept can be comprehended clearly with words.
Though distinct, these two powers usually work quickly together as a pair. It is possible, however, for someone to tap into creative insight, while struggling to develop or explain what is seen. Let’s give a practical example in a visual context: Looking at a painting hanging on the museum wall or admiring a building, one may be struck by its magnificence (chochmah) yet unable to explain that impression to someone else (binah).
“Wow, look at that! I can tell it’s created by a master,” she says.
“What exactly makes it so great?” the other person asks.
“I’m not sure, but I can see this is something special.”
That recognition is chochmah without developing into binah. By gazing longer, or gaining more knowledge of art history and architecture, one comes to understand the reason for the initial perception — how the positioning of figures, or proportions or combination of colors, all combine to create the desired effect on the viewer.
Daat, the third faculty, is the central power of the mind, translated as “knowledge” or integration. Two people, for example, may possess the same capacity to perceive (chochmah) and analyze (binah), yet one person is pulled toward the subject, able to focus for hours, while the other is less interested. This personal connection to the subject learnt relates to the sense of daat.
The main function that daat serves is to bridge intelligence to emotions, which then becomes a motivation to act — to enact what we understand and feel. This is a crucial step to bring our inner world into outer reality. In this way, it is perhaps the most important in all-inclusive power of the soul.
The heart metaphor
The heart is often used as a symbol for character traits. We speak of someone who is caring or courageous, for example, as having a “big heart,” or the cruel as having “a heart of stone.” On the surface, mind and heart, intelligence and emotions, appear to be two opposite forces — though they certainly complement one another. The mind is relatively cool and collected, the heart hot and excited. The keen mind strives to be objective and detached, to observe reality as it is. The dynamic heart, in contrast demands experience — what this does to me.
The heart is also concerned with the other person. The Hebrew term chesed conveys a simple love, the natural desire to do good to another, while compassion or empathy enables one to feel the other’s situation. The goal in character refinement is to build a smooth bridge between the mind and the heart. We all know cases where people’s intelligence, emotions and actions are disconnected. But wisdom, when it’s complete, must influence character.
From the other angle, a rectified heart receives guidance from the mind — a heart that seeks to do acts of kindness yet can also discern good from evil. Combining intellectual and emotional traits in one term conveys a healthy exchange between these two inner islands.
The wise of heart
Returning to our biblical scene, in the passages describing those chosen to build the sanctuary, Moses continues to explain how God gave Betzalel and his assistant, Oholiav, “a wise heart.” (Exodus 35:35) This quality of wise-heartedness distinguished those able to build from those who could not: “Everyone with a wise heart among you shall come and do all the work.”
When reading these lines, the immediate question is: What is meant by a “wise heart”? Is it some additional acumen, an instinct or intuition? After all, wisdom belongs to the mind, distinct from feelings inside the heart. For some, the phrase “a wise heart” may invite associations with a more recent term that’s gained popularity in psychology — “emotional intelligence” — the ability to identify and be aware of emotions inside oneself, and in others, and to deal with them in a healthy way, manifesting in successful interpersonal relationships.
But this context, dealing with construction, suggests something more in line with divinely-inspired artistry, wherein cognition and creativity merge. The commentaries explain that Betzalel was able to intuit what God wanted in the craftsmanship of the Sanctuary, independent of Moses’ command.
This ability is even reflected in his name, as described in the Talmudic narrative, where Moses responds to Betzalel’s suggestion by saying “Were you betzel El, in the shadow of God, that you know this?” Nachmonides further notes that his ability to craft all these vessels was a kind of miracle, since during the centuries of slavery in Egypt, the Jews had no access to precious metals such as gold, silver and copper.
Concerning those who donated toward the sanctuary, the Torah uses a different description: “Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity…The men came with the women; every generous-hearted person (nediv lev)… And all the women whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom, spun the goat hair.”
The full spectrum
Thus, in just a few lines the Torah communicates a timeless message about what it takes to build a community and house of prayer: a collective effort, utilizing the full spectrum of the congregation’s abilities — from wisdom to generosity to action. The final chapter of Exodus, therefore, fittingly closes with this collaboration, completing the specific requirements of the sanctuary. All its components were then brought to Moses, who erects it and anoints it, initiating Aaron and his four sons.
The wise and noble choices of created beings — in this case the Israelites devoting their property, their bodies and their souls toward the construction of the Mishkan — evokes the ultimate divine response: “And the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Sanctuary.”
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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