“Tuck in your shirt; you look like a bum!” This is what my father would always tell me when I was a kid. In truth, I was no bum, nor did I have any intention of being one. But my father just wanted me to look like a “mentsch.”
For centuries, Judaism has placed its primary emphasis on the internal service of Hashem within each and every Jew, through the study of musar, halacha and Jewish thought, and, mainly, through the worship of the heart – prayer.
From our parasha, however, one might extract the precise opposite notion – the importance of aesthetics and the external beauty that Hashem has given us.
When we read about the construction of the Mishkan, we learn about the Torah’s attitude towards art, decoration and beauty. The Torah emphasizes many details concerning the patterns and texture of the priestly garments, which are to be “sacred vestments… for honour and splendour.” We find many details regarding the shape of the menorah, which was to be fashioned with extraordinary precision, including calyxes and flowers. We are likewise told about the spectacular beauty of the aron (ark) and keruvim.
The Torah’s discussion of the Mishkan dispels the mistaken notion that the Torah instructs the individual to restrict himself to the internal, spiritual realm, and that a person’s duty is to involve himself solely in Torah and mitzvot without expressing interest in other, external areas, without developing the deep, natural senses of beauty, imagination and aesthetics.
Only when there is external beauty in the Mishkan can one serve Hashem wholeheartedly. “This is my God – and I shall glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2). Chazal understood this pasuk to mean, “I will be beautiful before Him in [the performance of] mitzvot.” Specifically in the most sacred site, the place of the Shechina’s residence among Am Yisrael, in the Bet Hamikdash, and in the kodesh kodashim (the innermost sanctum, where the aron stood) – specifically there, use must be made of artistic talent in order to construct a Mikdash and its furnishings in all their beauty and splendour.
The question arises, if we invest effort into the external, aesthetic beauty of the Mishkan, won’t we perhaps diminish from the spiritual concepts latent within it, such that instead of coming to seek the Shechina, we will instead see only the external beauty?
Questions such as these tend to arise nowadays, only because we have been driven far from our homeland, from the days when the Bet Hamikdash stood. During the times of the Mikdash, Hashem’s revelation in the world was apparent, and the Shechina could be felt with all one’s internal senses. There was thus no difference between the external and the internal; there was complete harmony between them. It was therefore possible to see the Shechina even by just beholding the external, aesthetic qualities of the Mishkan and its furnishings.
In the year 5668 (1908), when the “Betzalel” school of art opened in Jerusalem, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook sent a letter to the directors of “Betzalel” in which he discussed the importance of “the renewal of Jewish art and beauty – in our times.”
Rav Kook drew an analogy to an attractive girl who, after a prolonged, debilitating illness, says to her mother, “Mother, mother – my doll; give me my doll, my favourite doll that I have not seen for so many years.” The family, the physician and all her friends detect in this request a positive sign of revival. They realize that this is just the beginning, and that soon she will make other requests – for medicine, soup, bread, meat, etc.
In exile, Am Yisrael was not connected to the beauty and aesthetic quality of Judaism that was manifest in the Bet Hamikdash. In exile, there was no real relationship between the internal beauty and the external beauty. But now, finally, Am Yisrael once again seeks to behold the Shechina with external beauty, through art and creativity, and the desire itself suffices as a sign of hope for salvation and comfort.
One might ask why did Rav Kook view the renewal of Jewish art in modern times in such a positive light. Did he really mean that one could find divine beauty in a person’s artwork, if his intention is purely for external purposes?
Rav Kook writes later in that same letter that a line must be drawn to ensure that involvement in art does not steer past the accepted boundaries. This line is given to us by the Torah itself. The Torah gave us a free artistic hand, so long as we keep away from sculpture or drawing for idolatrous purposes: “You shall not make a statue”; “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.” There is thus a very wide range of art and aesthetic beauty that is permitted according to halacha.
Be”H we will be able to take all the internal beauty that we have accumulated over the years of exile, and connect it together with the external beauty that we are building today.