24 Adar 5782 | Friday, February 25, 2022
The Torah is inordinately concerned with the details of the Mishkan (tabernacle): the materials from which it was built, its specific component parts, the exquisite skill of the artisans who adorned it, its elaborate inauguration, even the order in which it was disassembled during the midbar (wilderness) years. As the blueprint for the dwelling of the Divine on earth, the Mishkan has, of course, more significance than a mere temporary structure. But the sheer amount of space the Torah gives to the subject of the Mishkan elicits in us the question: Why? What is this all about?
As just one example: why are the colors sky-blue, purple, and crimson (תכלת וארגמן ותולעת שני) repeated some nineteen times in the Mishkan parshiyot, a familiar refrain to any reader, almost a mantra?
The Torah’s insistence that we pay close attention to such details runs counter to Judaism’s aniconic bent, our anxiety about the seductive nature of idolatry and our attendant privileging of the abstract. Often attributed to the second of the aseret ha-dibrot (Ten Commandments), לא-תעשה לך פסל וכל-תמונה, the Jewish discomfort with figurative art is struggled with in halakhic literature. It is also, as scholars of Jewish art are wont to point out, not entirely accurate (sadly, the idea that Jewish culture lacks artistic expression is entwined with the antisemitism and Orientalism pervasive to nineteenth-century art history). But a distrust of gashmiyut– the realm of the sensory, material, and embodied–– runs undeniably deep throughout Jewish culture, granting preeminence to text and the intellectual. When my relatives made aliyah in the 1920s, the British colonial government insisted that they be photographed for their papers. My grandmother recalls that her grandparents balked–– participate in the making of a graven image?
And yet, the centrality of the Mishkan’s ephemeral details in Sefer Shemot reminds us of the value our tradition accords to experiences like the feel of dolphin skin beneath one’s fingers; the rare and regal visual delight of techelet which is the royal blue of the Mishkan and the tzitzit; the knotted beauty of acacia wood. In considering the Torah’s description of the Mishkan, we cannot avoid the importance of its physical details, including the sensory awe evoked by its golden kruvim (cherubs) or almond-blossomed menorah cups. The Mishkan is very real. It is deliberately designed as a meeting place of humans and the Most Holy.
Consider the description of Betzalel and Oholiav’s artistic skill, another refrain that punctuates the Mishkan sequence. The first place this description is found is in the previous parashah (Shemot 31:2-6), but it is prominently repeated in our parashah:
This passage interweaves the material and the spiritual, the physical and the intellectual. Betzalel’s work is described in terms of craftsmanship of natural materials. At the same time, his skill is described as interior and abstract. Betzalel is “filled with the spirit of G-d” (ruach Elokim) and endowed with chochmah, tevunah, and da’at, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Both his mind and his heart are engaged. This duality of the real and the abstract is intentionally combined in the important phrase melechet machshevet, thoughtful work, which, in another context, gives us the framework for what constitutes labor that is forbidden on Shabbat. Betzalel’s artistry is expressed in this passage another time as an amalgam of thought and act: לחשב במחשבת לעשות–– literally, to think with thoughts of making. In both machshavot la’asot and melechet machshevet, cognition and creation are intricately linked. Finally, both Betzalel and his assistant, Oholiav, are given the power of education, to teach others this divinely inspired melechet machshevet. We are given a glimpse of this transpiring among Jewish women specifically:
Ramban suggests (in his comment on Shemot 31:2) that this type of skill had been lost to Bnei Yisrael during their enslavement in Egypt, and that Betzalel’s ability was miraculous:
A similar argument was made by medieval Jewish philosophers, among them Rambam, about philosophy having been lost to Jews during their enslavement. Whether with regard to art or philosophy, this sense of loss and rediscovery insists on the authenticity of creative modes of expression that lie outside of traditional forms of Jewish cultural production.
Our parashah begins with Vayakhel, the gathering of all of Bnei Yisrael. As Ramban notes (on Shemot 35:1):
It is no accident that this gathering of klal Yisrael includes both men and women; women are noticeably present in the creation of the Mishkan. They participate in the artistry, provide an abundance of material donations, and seem to be included among the students of Betzalel. I would like to suggest that this inclusiveness–– –of male and female, sense and reason, art and intellect–is a central theme of the Mishkan sequences. Though art (and women) have not always been included in the world of the beit midrash, Parashat Vayakhel reminds us how central all aspects of human experience, including the embodied ones, are to our tradition.