This summer I had the pleasure of taking on a new role, that of a bridesmaid at my best friend’s wedding. It was a new experience for me, and although the wedding was taking place on the East coast of Canada and I would not be able to physically be part of the planning, through the wonders of Skype and good mobile data plans, I was able to be present for each step of the process leading up to the big day. The bride and groom took a very pragmatic approach to their celebration, drawing up copious plans to make sure their wedding was representative of who they are as a couple with each decision being made after careful deliberation and lots of discussion. It was such a joy to receive their messages detailing their very intricate plans, seeing the enthusiasm with which they pursued their vision. They decided to hold the ceremony in a banquet hall overlooking the ocean, they scouted a gorgeous nature reserve for their wedding photos, and they spent hours handcrafting origami flowers to decorate the venue. All of their hard work and attention to detail meant that their day was every bit as beautiful emotionally as it was visually. Just walking into that banquet hall, every one of their guests was taken aback at the beauty of the room: knowing how special this event was for them making it even more special for us.
Growing up the daughter of a visual artist, it’s possible that my upbringing has primed me to pay attention to the impact a beautiful space can have on a person. I was four years old when my family moved to the home they still currently own, and I remember my father spending weeks painting murals in my bedroom. When it was finished, the walls displayed a perfect English countryside, and allowed me to grow up experiencing daily a taste of the country my mother had left as a child. I imagine many parents get great enjoyment out of decorating their child’s living space as my parents did. And, as anyone who has seen any one of the various interior decorating television shows knows, there is a vast amount of interest in constantly improving our homes. Having a beautiful space to call our own is something most of us treasure, whether we do this through paint colour, decorative objects or hanging works of art.
And yet, the relationship between Jews and visual art has not always been easy. There are those in our community who take a hard-lined stance against the creation of images because it’s thought to be prohibited by the Torah. There is evidence, however, that at no point during our history was there a consensus on how this prohibition was meant to be read. The Beit Alpha Synagogue near Beit She’an and the Tzippori Synagogue in Israel both include phenomenal mosaics adorning their floors. These mosaics include depictions of people. In contrast, the mosaic of the Ein Gedi Synagogue built around the same time avoids images of people and lists names instead. Today, the way our synagogues look can tell us a lot about our community and the values we strive for. Each individual element, from the design on the coverings for our Torah scrolls, to the colour of the floor and the walls, to the types of art we hang in and outside of our sanctuaries is at play. To what degree do we pay attention to these things? Should they even really matter?
Our Torah portion for this week has an answer. Right now, the Israelites are embarking on the biggest group project they’ve taken on yet – the building of the mishkan. Parashat Terumah has often been described as a blue-print portion, one which provides detail after detail of instruction in how this thing must be built. It’s my feeling that while this is perhaps a common method of describing the portion, it can dull us to its incredible power. It isn’t just the nuts and bolts, Terumah tells us of the colours, the textures, the artistry, that is meant to go into this project. Tapestries are to be made with crimson, purple and blue threads, wood and gold are to be used, precious stones, copper and silver are all to be used. But by thinking of this portion mainly as a set of building instructions, we lose the ability to imagine the breathtaking and striking structure the text is describing.
Why would this be important? Well, as my grandmother wisely taught me, love is not just something you feel but something that pushes you into action. It causes you to do things that will show how you feel. When my father spent weeks painting my bedroom it was his way of showing me how much he loved me. When my friend and her now husband spent their time creating the decorations for their wedding together it was an expression of their love for one another. When the Israelites willingly gave their precious metals and their time to create a beautiful space, it proved their love for one another and for God. Each time they would enter the mishkan, they would be reminded of their commitment. In giving what they could to that project, whether it was through donating their belongings, or giving their time and expertise, they each had an active part in building something beautiful.
Student Rabbi Emily Jurman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.