The wise-heartedness of art


By Rabbi Alana Suskin

This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-40:38.

What is the value of art? This week’s Torah portion implies that Israel is not only a nation of priests, but also a nation of artisans.

Vayakhel- Pekudei seems to be a reiteration of the portions of Terumah and Tetzaveh, lovingly repeating the details of the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness.

Twentieth-century scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz explained that the extensive space given in the earlier portions on the Israelites’ making the Mishkan, as opposed to brief space the Torah devotes to God’s creation of the world, teaches that it is a person’s efforts in the world that matters to God.

This week’s portion expands on this idea. The medieval scholar Nachmanides noted that the structure of this portion, its repetitions and recapitulations of the construction of the Mishkan, reflects the love and esteem that God had for the beauty, labor and fine work put into it.

The Biur (18th century commentator Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn) said that artistic skills are among those which the Israelites would need when they came into the land of Israel and became independent. Artistic skills are important for their introduction of pleasure into human life and the ornamentation that art brings to society. But, not only that, artistic endeavor is included among the “first fruits” that one brings in offering to God. Art is the “first fruit” of our thoughts and abilities, not merely a source of pleasure.

Indeed, through such a labor of love we can achieve redemption. The Jerusalem Talmud compares the verses here with those in the incident of the golden calf, saying, “Can we read these and not shudder? ‘For good’ — ‘every willing heart brought’ [that is, for the Mishkan]. ‘For evil’ — ‘all the people broke off their ornaments’ [for making the golden calf].”

The midrash expands on this, specifically marking the generosity of the Israelites for the support of the artisans’ work as a form of atonement for earlier giving their gold for idolatry. It explains that this latter generosity translated ugliness into beauty — not only of the things that the artists created, but that the generosity in giving to support the artists’ work actually acted to beautify the people themselves and transform them internally.

We are often, as a society, given to think of the arts as something extra, perhaps even vain in nature. But our Torah portion goes out of its way to valorize the work of the artists. It describes them in highly laudatory terms “chacham-lev” — wise-hearted.

Perhaps the Torah wishes to remind us that such skilled work has the capacity not only to decorate, but actually to elevate us and to turn our souls toward the work for which they are destined — the work of the Mishkan: praise of God and God’s works; doing what is right, just and good; making the world a fit place for God to dwell in.

This is the idea behind the National Endowment for the Arts: that art challenges and provokes and raises us beyond ourselves. That art is an important part of the building of a just society. But our portion also reminds us that such work is not only the work of those whose hands shape, and whose hearts envision. It is also the work of the society itself, which should give generously to support such work, and should support it generously “nadiv-lev,” so much so that “the people were restrained from bringing” (Exodus 36:6).

It is through such work that we build the Mishkan, through our love for ornamenting our obligations to one another and to God, that the people themselves, as a society, are elevated.

Rabbi Alana Suskin is director of strategic communications for Americans for Peace Now.

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