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Creativity is a purely human endeavor. It is a quality we all possess to some degree or another and one that we use in various ways. Some of us are creative in finding solutions to interpersonal problems. Some of us use our creativity to find business opportunities where others don’t. Some people are creative thinkers and innovators and still others of us express our creativity in the realm of the performing or fine arts.

However, creativity is a human attribute and as such has limitations. At times, this human quality must even be submissive and brought under control. Such a situation is reflected in this week’s Torah reading, פרשת תרומה (parashat terumah). The ability to subdue this human ability runs through three other weekly Torah portions soon to be read. These readings prescribe in detail the design and construction of the Mishkan (the portable Temple used in the desert), the objects and utensils used in the Mishkan and the clothes worn by the priests serving in the Mishkan.

One question that comes to mind is why all the micromanagement in this area by God? Call in the best, brightest, most creative architects, designers, and artisans. Dial up the society’s, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eames, Chagall, and Armani. Surely they could create an appropriate temple for God’s honor, with the required furnishings and decor. What could be more inspiring than to enter a majestic cathedral or more impressive than to be administered to by an array of priests decked out in smart and attractive apparel?

When it comes to religiosity, the Torah has deep concerns about the application of human creativity. Religious emotion is so powerful that human expression in this realm is most dangerous. In the zeal to serve God, people create and invent rules and restrictions. Religious sects adopt religious stringencies that are not warranted. This attitude goes all the way back to the first woman, Eve. In her response to the initial challenge by the serpent, Eve invented a restriction that God never mentioned. All God told Adam and Eve was not to eat a particular fruit. He never said they could not use it in other ways. Eve invented, she created on her own, the prohibition of touching the fruit. What she did was to make a taboo object out of the fruit, an idea never intended by God. All God did was to place on man a simple prohibition, not to eat one food. In this way man would harness a potentially unruly part of his nature, fantasy. Eve thought she was doing the right thing by extending the prohibition to include touching the fruit. In her misguided effort to protect God’s command she created her own legislation. The result proved disastrous.

The desire to serve and to glorify God not only attracts the religious nature of man but also his artistic nature. In this scenario the quality of creativity, to be employed in the service of God, becomes an outlet for the glorification of the self. It is my design of God’s house, its utensils, and the clothing adorning the priests; or we say, “Wow! Look at that building designed by Gaudí.” The Godly quickly becomes a means for self-expression or human glorification.

How does the Torah safeguard the word and service of God? In religious performance, we are only guided by the top scholars of the generation. They are expert in the methodology of arriving at legal decisions. Only they can say what are and are not appropriate restrictions or the proper reinforcing performances to fulfill God’s command. Many “chumras,” stringencies in Judaism have no rational legal basis and find their source purely in the religious emotions of man.

So too are the expressive feelings of artistic creativity. They also find their source in the wellspring of human emotions. When it comes to God, it must be Him that we are serving. Hence, every expression of honor and glory must only reflect the source, God. Interestingly, God did call on Bezalel and Oholiab, the two most renowned artisans of their generation to oversee all of the construction of the building, furniture, and clothing. The Torah says that “wise hearted women” assisted them. Why them? Anyone could follow the blueprints once God gave them over to Moshe?

The answer is precisely to teach a fundamental lesson. The greatest craftsmen, the most creative artisans and designers had to submit their feelings to the will of God. They were called upon to model this high level of human perfection. If they must subordinate their creative skills and abilities in service to God, so must we. Only then would the Mishkan and all that pertains to it truly fulfill the words, “Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” Every aspect of this structure and everything related to it had to reflect only one idea, God of the universe.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Robert Kaplan