Our parasha (and the four parshiyot that follow) introduce us for the first time to Jewish art. The tapestries of the Mishkan and the parochet, which were made with remarkable skill, the embroideries, the garments of the kohen gadol, the stones of the choshen (breastplate), and the vessels of the Mishkan – most notably the golden menorah – were also spectacular works of art.
It is interesting to note that outside the context of the Beit Ha’mikdash, we do not find much of a positive outlook on the various forms of visual art – neither in Tanach nor in Chazal. The only form of art we find in Tanach is music: David’s music, the music of the prophets, the instruments mentioned in Sefer Tehillim – the drum, harp, lyre, cymbals, “sheminit” (“octachord”), and so on. What is particularly pronounced and easily discernible in our sources is the ambivalence shown towards visual art, as opposed to the more favourable attitude towards art that is heard or read.
And yet, specifically in the Beit Ha’mikdash, we find the exact opposite. The fashioning of physical images and representations, which is so strictly forbidden in all other contexts, suddenly becomes a mitzva: keruvim are to be made on top of the aron (though they remain concealed in the “kodesh kodashim” – the innermost chamber of the Mikdash, where no one will see them). Regarding the menorah, which is intended to give light, as it were, to allow people to see, God says to Moshe, “See and make it in accordance with their designs that are being shown to you on the mountain.”
It emerges, then, that the Beit Ha’mikdash is the focal point of the struggle against pagan art, and this expresses itself in two ways. Firstly, pagan art attempts to make a physical representation of God by attributing to Him an image and form. The art in the Mikdash, by contrast, merely presents abstract symbols expressing certain ideas, rather than trying, God forbid, to give any sort of image to God Himself. Secondly, pagan art is free and spontaneous, and thus gives expression to the perspective of the person, how he perceives the Almighty in his very limited, human terms. The art in the Beit Ha’mikdash, meanwhile, is specifically guided by God Himself. The individual is not the one who constricts the abstract divine ideas into his own system of ideas. To the contrary, he lifts his eyes upwards and listens to how the Almighty instructs him to express these ideas.
Thus, the individual does not bring God down into his limited perception, but rather the Almighty descends to the individual.
We were therefore commanded with regard to the menorah, “See and make it in accordance with their designs that are being shown to you on the mountain” – precisely as we are instructed