Is there a source that says we’re supposed use our talents?
Thanks for your question, to which I give a qualified yes. The only talents that I can think of that one might be obligated to use are leadership and teaching Torah.
Regarding leadership, the Mishna teaches “in a place where there is no man, strive to be a man” (Avos 2:5). The Bartinuro explains that by “a man” the Mishna means someone to take charge and lead.
Regarding teaching Torah, the gemara in Kiddushin (29b) tells us that all who are obligated to learn Torah are also obligated to teach Torah. The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:2) writes, “There is a mitzvah for every wise man to teach all students even if they are not his children. Deuteronomy 6:7 says, ‘You shall teach them to your sons….’ Our oral tradition explains that ‘sons’ here means students, who are also called sons, as we see in II Kings 2:3, ‘And the sons of the prophets went forth….’”
But what about singing, dancing and shooting baskets? If God has gifted a person with such abilities, I’m not aware that they’re obligated to use them to become a pop star, a hoofer or an NBA free-throw champ. I am aware that one is obligated to use his talents in the service of God. Proverbs 3:9 teaches, “Honor Hashem from your substance….” Rashi explains, “From whatever God has gifted you, even a pleasant voice.”
The archetype for using our God-given talents in the service of God is Betzalel, the craftsman of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). In Exodus 31:2-5 God tells Moshe, “See, I have called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Chur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge in every kind of craft, to design skillful works, to work in gold, silver and brass, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of craft.”
Betzalel is the craftsman par excellence, gifted in design, construction, metalcraft, stonework and carpentry – a plethora of skills where he would be expected to have none. Why would he be expected to have none? Because, as the Ramban (Nachmanides) explains, the Jews were slaves in Egypt, forced to make bricks for Pharaoh’s construction projects; they weren’t being given internships in goldsmithing or diamond cutting. Even under the best circumstances, you don’t find a master mason who’s also an expert wood carver and metallurgist. For Betzalel to be a master of all these crafts, his talent must surely be a gift from God – a fact that is explicit in verse 3.
And what did Betzalel do with all this skill, unique among a generation of newly-released slaves? He built the Mishkan, the place where God would manifest His presence before the Temple was built. Betzalel used his talents to help others to get closer to God. That’s the model for each of us, whatever our talents might be.
If one is a talented dancer, one should dance for God – as King David is praised for doing in II Samuel chapter 6.
If one is a talented singer, one should sing for God – as King Chizkiyahu is criticized for not doing in Sanhedrin 94a.
If one has superior physical ability, he should use that in the service of God, as Shimshon (Samson) did in the book of Judges. But note that when Shimshon lost sight of his mission, his gift was taken from him. God only returned it after Shimshon reevaluated his priorities.
Rabbi Ari Enkin, in a d’var Torah on parshas Lech Lecha, writes that before Avraham, only God had the ability to bless people. Why did God give Avraham the ability to bless others? Because God knew that Avraham would use this gift responsibly. Rabbi Enkin concludes his piece by saying, “if God endows us with certain talents and abilities, it means that He expects us to use them properly. … God made you the way you are because He believes in you!”
Each of us has a gift. It could be musical, it could be theatrical, it could be intellectual, it could be athletic. Whatever it is, there’s a way to use it, a way to misuse it and a way to abuse it. Our goal in life should be to channel our abilities towards lofty goals. Yes, we should enjoy our skills, so sing or dance for fun. We may even monetize our gifts, so accept that NBA contract if it’s offered. What we should never do, however, is forget to also utilize our gifts in the service of the One Who provided them because that’s the reason for which they were ultimately given.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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