Introduction to Parashat
Yeshivat Har Etzion
THE AUDACITY OF THE ARTIST Part 1
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
A. CRAFTSMEN NEEDED NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY
For a reader who expects each weekly reading to provide him or her with spiritual inspiration and enthusiasm, our parasha only deepens the letdown that began after the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai. After the commandment-filled parasha of Mishpatim, the Torah fills two full parshiyot, Teruma and Tetzaveh, to relate meticulously every detail of the Mishkan's construction. If the debacle of the Golden Calf provides the excitement seeking reader with a sense of dramatic relief, the parshiyot of Vayakhel and Pekudei provide both a sense of ennui with a feeling of dιjΰ vu. This sentiment misleads, though. Within the details, though, lurks a fundamental conundrum. In the Midrash's words:
R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of R. Levi: When God told Moshe "Make me a Mishkan" should he (Moshe) not have (just) erected four pegs and stretched the tent over them? (Bamidbar Rabba 12:8)
In other words, the idea of making a sanctuary for God is so blatantly ludicrous that any action defies rationality. Even beyond the absurdity of creating a dwelling place for the Infinite, however, the Midrash raises a secondary question. The most authentic response would be the most minimal of actions "erect four pegs and stretch a peg over them." God's directions to Moshe discuss fine woven tapestry, intricate metalwork, and master carpentry. The Jewish people were not a nation of artisans and craftsmen. In Egypt, they worked with straw and mud. When and where did they attain the necessary knowledge to undertake this project? In this week's parasha, Ramban proposes one understanding of how Moshe discovered the artists:
"And they came, everyone whose heart exalted them": This is said about the wise men that performed the labor. We do not find the phrase "nessa'o libo - whose heart exalted him" regarding those who brought donations. For them, the Torah applied the phrase "nadav lev - whose heart moved him." The expression "whose heart exalted him" is used for they undertook to do the work despite that fact that there was no one among them who had learned the necessary skills from a teacher, or had even received any formal training. Rather, a person who felt in his nature that he was capable of executing these skills would come before Moshe and say, "I will do all that my master describes " (commentary to 35:21)
This wonder, that people were willing to undertake the responsibility to fulfill God's commands despite no experience, no preparation, is central to Ramban's understanding of the Divine nature of Betzalel's wisdom:
"See, I have called by name Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Chur " God said to Moshe, "See, I have called by name " [The reason for the Divine call is] that the Jewish people, in Egypt, had been crushed under the work of clay and brick. Not only did they not acquire the knowledge of how to work with gold and the cutting of precious stones, they had never even seen them. It was amazing that they were able to find among them a wise man who knew how to work with silver, gold, and stone cutting, and in woodcarving, embroidery, and weaver. Even among experts, you will not find one person who is proficient in all of these crafts. Even those who know and practice these skills, lose the ability to create delicate and intricate work once they are continuously involved in working with clay and mud.
Moreover, Betzalel was a great sage in wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. He understood the secret of the Mishkan and all its furnishings, why they were commanded and all their allusions. Therefore, God said to Moshe that when he saw this wonder, he should know that "I have filled him with the Divine Spirit." (commentary to 31:2)
In the Ramban's reading, the supernatural nature of Betzalel's wisdom was not just his knowledge of the Mishkan's mystical dimensions. The real mystery was how the drudgery of slavery could produce a man of not only skill, but of creative intuition. From the mindless mud pits emerged a groundbreaking genius.
B. THE UNLIMITED IMAGINATION
Regarding the two phrases (mentioned by the Ramban above) - those "whose heart exalted them" (nessa'o libo), and those "whose heart moved him" (nadav lev), Or Ha-Chaim interprets them differently:
Know that there are two levels of volunteerism and generosity. The first level of generosity - those "whose heart moved him" (nadav lev) describes those people who act out of the goodness of their heart to [what they believe to be] the limits of their ability and their financial capability. These people are praised, (especially when compared to those who refuse to offer what they can). However, there is a second, higher level - "whose heart exalted him" (nessa'o libo). These people go beyond their natural capabilities and limitations out of the goodness of their hearts. Their hearts raise themselves (their self-evaluation) beyond the fixed value of expensive items for this reason, it states "a person" by the donation of their actions, and [just] the pronoun "they" by the monetary donations, for the first was the more valuable (commentary to 35:21)
Or Ha-Chaim suggests a fascinating psychological interpretation to the question of the artistic inspiration. Ramban described an empirical reality: none of the Jewish people had any formal training in the arts necessary for the building of the Mishkan. Or Ha-Chaim describes how this affected the people. There were those who felt that the task was beyond them. They measured, and found themselves wanting. What they could give, they did willingly. What they felt was beyond them, they abstained. However, the true artists did not view themselves trapped by those boundaries and limitations. Armed with a sense of audacity, even chutzpa, they presented themselves before Moshe, and waited for instructions. Correctly, the Torah identifies their knowledge as supernatural. The intuitive feeling that, everything is possible, defines the artist. His creative inspiration, ultimately, parallels the creative instinct of the ultimate Creator.