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Art in the Service of God

Neysa Grassi, my sister-in-law, is a renowned, contemporary artist whose paintings hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Admittedly, I do not fully appreciate her work. I don’t recognize the nuance and subtly behind her style and technique, nor the mix of colors responsible for her uniquely individual creations. To put it bluntly, I am a boor. But fortunately for her there are people who do recognize her creative, artistic talents.  If you are not planning to be in Philly any time soon, you can Google her work or read about her art in the November 2011 issue of the prestigious magazine, “Art In America.”

How did such talented people contribute to Judaism’s early development? This week’s Torah reading, פרשת ויקהל-פקודי, as well as previous פרשיות of תרומה   and תצוה, is effusive in describing the design and construction of the משכן, “Mishkan” (portable Tabernacle), its furnishings and the clothes of the כהנים.  Why the need for such specificity and elaboration by God in the design of these objects? Moses should just bring together the best craftsmen and artisans to design the building, furniture and garb. If that process proves unruly, artists could submit their proposals on the various projects and the leadership of the nation would choose the winners. 

Clearly, this project was different in its purpose. The challenge for man in the service of God is to subordinate h/her will to His will. The design and construction of the Mishkan, as well as each individual object inside the Mishkan, could only reflect the will of God. Any personal creativity by the artist would, in this case, detract from the purpose of the building and its accessories. 

We all know that art is a very powerful medium to convey feelings and ideas. We are familiar with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” As we discussed in a previous dvar Torah for פרשת תרומה, every aspect of this structure and its furnishings was designed to educate and inspire a person in the pursuit of the knowledge of God. Only God, whose wisdom is infinite, could know the precise materials, shapes and images necessary to bring that goal about for all generations.

Here, the greatness of these craftsmen and artistic women was that they followed the specs exactly as given to them by Moses which he had received directly from God. The Torah records that these artisans followed them to the iota without the slightest deviation. The Torah praises them for having done so. “In accordance with all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so did the Children of Israel do all the work.” (Shemot 39:42)

Their special talents were employed and directed at creating inspiring beauty exclusively in the service of God. Therefore, no personal or unique human identification could be associated with the objects produced. No artist could say, “That design was mine, that ornament was my idea.” No onlooker could say, “That was created by da Vinci, there’s a Monet or a Grassi.”  When Moses was unable to understand the blueprint or picture the final product, the Torah tells us God had to show him its finished form. Even Moses couldn’t invoke his authority and say, “This is how it should look, or this is how I want it to be.”

The challenge confronted in this week’s פרשה is one we each face in one way or another. The two greatest artisans of the time, Bezalel and Oholiab were chosen to oversee these projects precisely to model for us this high level of perfection. The סנהדרין הגדול , the Supreme Court of Judaism, had its chamber built as part of structure the Holy Temple. Why? The judges had to be present in order to oversee the priests and insure that their personal zealousness in performing this special sacrificial duty did not alter the explicit directions given by God. 

This attitude is required for every עבודת ה’, “service to God.” Can we subordinate our desires and personal preferences to fulfill God’s command whether it is to honor our parents, in the foods we eat, or the amount of charity we give? Artists were chosen to model this idea. Their calling and special talent resides in part, in their ability to capture and express the personal, but to direct this energy, creativity and skill in the service of God is no small accomplishment.

Let us join with all those throughout the world praying for peace in Ukraine.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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