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October 10, 2015 / 27 Tishri, 5776
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Bezalel’s Legacy Commentary on Jewish Craft and Art: Shabbos Parah: Ki Sisa; Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Spice Box for Havdalah (1998) by Malka Kohavi
Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Spice Box for Havdalah (1998) by Malka Kohavi Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Nonetheless, there is much to be learned from our parsha about Jewish Art.  The ideal ethical and spiritual qualities of Jewish Art and Jewish Craft are identical because we hope for equal refinement and intention in our ritual objects and in our art.  We want the best whether the purpose is to worship or study.  Since the Torah knows this, why should it juxtapose the elevated mission of Bezalel with the most grievous sin of the Golden Calf?  There’s the rub.

The warning that Ki Sisa presents is about the nature of objects, ritual objects that we invest with too much meaning, in fact fall in love with and forget the ultimate incorporeal reality of our God.

God Passes By (2006) by Richard McBeeCourtesy Private Collection

God Passes By (2006) by Richard McBee
Courtesy Private Collection

When we doubt the verity of Divine promise and command, we second-guess the existence of our Creator.  And the first thing we make is an alternative ritual object as a way to serve the transcendental God concretely.  Our desire for God to be manifest became an idol in the form of the Golden Calf.  We fashioned it as a way to certainty.  And looking for an assurance of faith, a comfort of that which is substantive, we erred in fact, we sinned.  It becomes Bezalel perverted. It is the sin of the object.

As Rashi tells us (Exodus 31:18), there is no necessary chronology in the Torah, and actually the incident of the Golden Calf preceded the work of the Tabernacle done by Bezalel.  Therefore God’s command to Bezalel can be seen as a response to our deep need for some kind of objective certainty.  God tells us to make ritual objects that will be used to serve Him.  That is permitted.  But when our doubt and fear about the absent God and his servant Moshe provoked the creation of the Golden Calf,God gave us the tools to do teshuvah in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.  Each attribute is a revelation into the mysterious nature of the unseen God.  Even here Jewish Art can provide insight.  Right before this, Moses boldly asks to see God’s Glory and God places him in a cleft of the rock as He passes by.  My 2006 painting God Passes By captures the moment after the miraculous event.  While Moses could not have survived seeing God’s Glory, a glimpse of His “Back” was sufficient to inspire him for the rest of his life.  Our God demands faith and yet provides us with precious concrete hints as how to serve Him and how to know Him.  Jewish Craft and Jewish Art have a hand in both.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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