The Audacity of the Artist - Part 1

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





            In last week's study, we developed the sense of audacity and courage at the foundation of the artistic inspiration.  The Jewish people could have excused themselves from the directive to build God a sanctuary.  No one among them had any of the necessary skills required.  Instead, they overlooked their limitations and presented themselves before Moshe.  This disregard of constraints, of imagination beyond their natural capabilities, forms the basis of the creative drive.  In this week's study, we shall focus on another quality common to the artistic mindset – the senses of intuition and imagination.


            When the Torah concludes describing the construction of the Mishkan, it does so with the standard phrase "And Betzalel … made all that God had commanded Moshe" (38:22).  The Midrash notes a startling incongruity:


"And Betzalel … made all that God had commanded Moshe":  It does not state "And that Moshe had commanded him," but "all that God had commanded Moshe."  [This implies] even in matters where his master [Moshe] had not given him explicit directions, Betzalel's opinion was attuned to what Moshe was commanded on Sinai.  Moshe told Betzalel to make the furnishings first and afterwards the Mishkan, but Betzalel protested.  "Surely, the way of the world is to first build the house, and only afterwards, place the utensils and furnishings inside." Moshe replied, "This is indeed what I heard from the Holy One, Blessed be He."  (Rashi ibid.)


Between the commandments and their implementation lies the artist's intuition.  At times, Betzalel revised the commands that Moshe received to reflect their Divine purpose.  Other times, the information given was insufficient.  Without understanding and intuition, the Mishkan would never have been built.  So suggests Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), in a stunning interpretation of the formulaic phrase "all that God had commanded Moshe":


"And Moshe saw the work, and behold, they had done it as God had commanded Moshe … and Moshe blessed them."  (39:43) Moshe found it amazing that "they had done it as God had commanded Moshe," for he had not had the time to teach them all the detailed instructions that God had taught him.  Yet, Betzalel, through his genius, achieved perfect accuracy in his labors … in intuiting the precise forms of God's will. (Ha'emek Davar ibid.)


In Netziv's vision, the building of the Mishkan was more then a grandiose construction project where the Jewish people followed detailed blueprints to the letter.  Gaps existed between the Divine design and its earthly implementation.  Moshe, from the vantage point of the mountaintop, could not perceive them.  It took the intuition of Betzalel and the people to bridge these gaps.  Through sensitivity and creativity, Betzalel and the Jewish people successfully managed to fathom God's will with each creative act, replicating God's own creation of the world.




            Rabbi Berlin identifies a further quality common to the artistic mindset.  The Torah defines the craftsmen as "chokhmei lev - the wise-hearted, into whose heart God has given wisdom" (36:4).  Rabbi Berlin discusses this unusual expression:


We must ask, What is the purpose of wisdom being given to the hearts – doesn't it state that everything comes from Heaven except the fear of Heaven?  … The wisdom given to the heart is the confidence that one will succeed in the task assigned ... we can understand this with the following example.  Imagine a person decides to open an arts school for children, where each child can choose what he wishes to study.  He gives each one the choice of what he want to study.  Some will choose one field (i.e. – sculpture), others another (i.e. – painting).  Their course of study may involve several years, but they will succeed, because they made the initial choice.  Similarly, the Jews approached the building of the Mishkan not knowing the necessary skill set, but filled with confidence that they would succeed.


Unlike our previous commentators, Netziv does not ignore the reality that even the most inspired of artistry still involves effort, practice, and study.  Unlike the miraculous immediacy of mastery of Ramban, Netziv acknowledges that all excellence requires perseverance.  What maintains the artist, though, is the childlike excitement and confidence in his choices.




            We conclude the discussion of the artistic motivation with a fascinating thought question.  What would the Mishkan look like today?  In an age where towering glass skyscrapers and post-modern architecture dominate our landscapes, and stonecutters and metalworkers no longer fill the business listings, would God have commanded us any differently?  With all respect to the effort expended by the Temple Institute in recreating the ancient utensils, at least one Chassidic thinker suggests differently:


"Exactly as I show you – the structure of the Mishkan and the structure of its utensils – so you should make it" (25:9).  Rashi comments on this, "So you should do for generations."  Tosafot question, "Wasn't the altar created by Shlomo different than the one made by Moshe?  How could they differ [if, as Rashi suggests, the Torah commands that the instructions should be followed exactly for all generations]!"… According to our interpretation, though, the Torah's intention is clear.  Moshe Rabbeinu and the Jewish people conceived of the Mishkan and its utensils, with all of its measurements and weights, according to their prophetic ability and by their own light.  ‘And so you shall make it'- each generation shall endeavor to create the Mishkan through their own prophetic light, by their time and place.  This is as the Rabbis state, "No two prophets prophesy in identical styles."  (Kedushat Ha-Levi on 25:9)


In Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's position, the creative act, (and in a larger sense, spiritual life), involves more than the slavish following of uniform directives.  The Torah did not require that each generation duplicate the accomplishments of the previous one.  The constancy the Torah strives for demands that each generation create its Sanctuary through its unique spiritual imprint.  We fulfill the Divine commandments through the prism of our own individual spirituality.