Parashat Ki Tissa 5776

Rabbi Rene Pfertzel, 26 February 2016


This week, I do not want to talk about our concerns regarding our world. I do not want to talk about social justice, the migrants’ crisis, the challenges faced by our society in a world run by neo-liberal politicians. We are all too aware of them, and of our responsibility as Progressive Jews to mend the world. I am not dismissing, nor denying, that there is a lot to worry about, but we deserve from time to time another insight into our tradition, something maybe not lighter, but brighter; different.

The fourth weekday blessing of the Amidah reads:
Ata chonen le’adam da’at, u’melamed l’enosh binah. Chonenu meit’kha de’ah, binah, u’v’askel. Barukh ata Adonai, chonen ha-da’at.
“You grant human beings grace knowledge, and You teach mankind understanding. Grant us with grace knowledge, understanding, and comprehension: Blessed are You, Who grant knowledge.”

One may ask: Why do we need knowledge, understanding, and comprehension? Are they not the result of our ongoing endeavour to study?

The first plain, traditional, rabbinic answer would be “study in order to practice”. The mitzvah of Talmud Torah, according to Mishnah Peah 1:1 keneged kulam, “it leads to all the other mitzvot”, is the first of all. By the way, this text is also in our liturgy (Shabbat morning service number 5, page 131). However, beyond this pragmatic view, we study in order to have an informed practice, there is another dimension that we can find in our Torah portion.

It is said about Bezalel, the master craftsman of the Mishkan:
R’eh, karati beshem Betsal’el ben Uri, ven Chr l’mateh Yehudah. Va’amaleh oto ruach Elohim, b’khochmah u’vit’vunah, uv’da’at u’v’khol melkahah, la’khashov machashavot, la’asot bazahav… (Exodus 31:2-4a)
“Look, I have called by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, from the tribe of Judah. I filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, and with knowledge, and with every craftsmanship, so that he thinks thoughts, and do with gold…”

Bezalel was said to be a very skilled craftsman in engraving precious metals, and stones, and in woodcarving. His names means “in the shadow (i.e. protection) of God”, and he is known as the archetypes of artists. Little wonder that the Jerusalem Academy of Arts is named after him, the “Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design”.

God gives Moses very clear instructions about how the Mishkan should look, but the actual work is made by a man of the Art. Bezalel’s aim is not only to translate the divine command into real terms, but also to bring beauty into this world.

Art serves a function – in this case, to offer a dwelling place to the Divine – and a higher goal – to make this world a better place by offering to the sight beautiful objects that will embellish our lives. Art is done lishmah (for its own sake) even if artists have to make a living out of their practice (nobody lives on air and love alone!).

Like Bezalel, an artist is under God’s protection, as s/he brings beauty to the world. When I visit an art exhibition, a museum, listen to music, or watch great pictures, I get strength to carry on. Art reminds me that beyond the sometimes ugly side of the world, there is a realm where beauty prevails, where human beings offer the best of their abilities to their fellow human beings, to lift them up, as the first verb of our parasha suggests. Ki tissa means, literally, “when you have lifted up”, as in psalm 121:
Essa eynay el he’harim, maa’ym yavo ezri
“I lift up my eyes towards the mountains; where shall I look for help? My help comes from the Eternal One, Maker of Heaven and Earth”.

Artists are God’s co-partners in Creation. By their act of creating art, they carry on God’s own creation, and make the world a better place. Creating is an act of prayer; watching a piece of art is an act of prayer. So, this weekend, if you want some time off for yourselves, some uplifting time, another way of prayer, go to an art gallery, a museum, a concert etc… and participate in God’s ongoing creation.

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