Friday, March 07, 2008

Parshat Pekudei 5768: The Art of the Mishkan

For most years, Vayakhel and Pekudei are a double portion. As this is a leap year, they are separate. In last week’s portion Vayakhel we have Moses first giving the instructions for creating the Mishkan he learned on Sinai, employing the people to help in the construction with Betzalel as lead craftsman and architect. The people enthusiastically help out in its construction, so much so Betzalel has to ask for the donations to stop. In this week’s portion, Pekudei, all the pieces are completed, and Moses puts the components together for the first time. The cloud of glory covers the Mishkan to end the book of Exodus.

In this usual double portion I decided to do something similar to the text and make this a two-parter. I ended last week with a question: Should I do art on Shabbat? Using traditional texts, it becomes rather clear that there is a lot of halakic evidence that suggests art should not be done on Shabbat. I ended last week’s portion with a hint on one way of looking at this question differently however. We read this week:

Thus was all the work of the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting finished; and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did they.[Exodus 39:32]

In many ways this is similar to another passage in Torah:

1. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. 3. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it He had rested from all his work which God created and made. [Genesis 2:1-3]

What is significantly different in these two passages is the word for work. In Genesis 2 the word is malacha (מלאכה), in Exodus 39 it is avodah (עבדה). As I mentioned last week, we started the construction of the Mishkan with the prohibition of work on Shabbat, and the rabbis took the definition of creative work, malacha, as the tasks necessary to complete the Mishkan, just like it was necessary to complete the works of creation in Genesis 2. But our text in Exodus 39 does not end construction with malacha but avodah.

Malacha based on God’s use of the word in Genesis 2, means creative work. It also can mean occupation. Thus as a general rule if we do something that creates, or something that is our career, then we are doing prohibited works on Shabbat. On the other hand avodah fundamentally means service. Avodah usually means a particular type of service, divine service or prayer. In the Perkei Avot, the weight of this is made clear:

Simeon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world is based upon three things: the Torah, Divine Service, and the practice of kindliness. [Avot 1:2]

The early Rabbis made avodah, in their minds prayer, one of the pillars of the world. Yet a difference in words alone does not give me a complete answer.

Last Shabbat in a D’var Torah I gave on this same subject I asked the question about art and Shabbat. As it was a Reform congregation I got a lot of interesting answers, though many were along some of the avenues I discussed last week. Yet it was a few artists who said something that I had thought of, but its full impact hadn’t hit me. Sunday afternoon, when I attended my painting class, and experienced this comment I knew I was on to something.

What I was doing was painting a picture of a rose, ivy and a spider plant. All of my focus and concentration was on these three plants, and seeing every detail and every shade and color in them. Working on those leaves I realized what the artists in the discussion had said was completely true. When one works on art with focus and intention, you are observing the world differently than you normally do. Witnessing creation in this heightened sense is very different than in any other.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try a rather startling experiment known in art instruction as blind contour drawing. Take a piece of paper and a pencil, and any object you want to draw, for example a cup of coffee. Put the pencil to the paper and draw the edges of the object without ever looking at the paper, never taking your pencil off the paper. Only concentrate your eye on the differing edges in the object, such as where your object meets the air, or where different parts connect. Just like mine, Your drawing may not look like much when you are done, but if you did the exercise right you have been finding and seeing things in the object you never would have otherwise seen had you merely looked at the object.

What I think happened in the construction of the Mishkan, the artisans, known as the wise of heart took the intention of building very seriously. It started as a job but as they built and created, it was no longer a creation, but a reflection of reality just like the blind contour drawing. Such a reflection was so deep, it was no longer work, but had changed into a prayer. They were not making something new but describing what was there all along. A painter might think of the paint flowing from the object onto the canvas or paper. This is no longer work; it is avodah, a prayer to the creator.

I believe I should paint on Shabbat. As an artist it is my unique and heartfelt prayer to God coming not from my lips but from my brush and hand. Painting is okay, but not completely. I’m going to add a few rules as well to make this as much of a special Shabbat experience as I can. Shabbat is about a very special time, a way a sanctifying time instead of space or object. I think one of the passages most of interest in this respect is one of the strongest statements about not doing anything with a painting:

Our Rabbis taught: The writing under a painting or an image may not be read on the Sabbath. And as for the image itself, one must not look at it even on weekdays, because it is said, Turn ye not unto idols. How is that taught? — Said R. Hanin: [Its interpretation is,] Turn not unto that conceived in your own minds.[Shabbat 149a]

While the whole seems rather harsh I think it points to an important truth, and one which resonates today in many ways. R. Hanin had it right: we should not turn to representations of reality and call them reality. That is the true idolatry. It is easy to look at the coffee cup and draw what you think is there, like I did here. As most good art educators will tell you, most of our drawing abilities never increase beyond third grade because we do exactly that. We put symbols in place of what is really there. In most art, unless we are consciously doing so, we should not turn reality into a symbol, and then add a caption to that symbol to tell people what to believe. In the ancient world that was exactly what they did. Someone might make a picture of something, and in its caption call the picture a god, and thus worthy of worship. Today from the local news to reality TV to even taking dramas all too seriously, it’s easy to fall victim of turning one person’s creative vision into reality in the same way.

Each artist, painter, photographer, or video cameraman, looks at the word differently and shows their own perspective. I could make a quick sketch of the same coffee cup but leave out details or see some more clearly than others for example. To use their vision as our own is to limit our own vision, and start not with the infinite, but the finite view of that artist. I can see the whole word in photographs, and yet not have experienced any of it. I can paint a beautiful model for a reference photograph, but it is nothing like painting a real woman. The photograph took the artistic ability of the model and the photographer and gives me only one flat view of a much greater, dynamic scene. God made the bigger scene; we made the photo in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. God made Maui, some photographer shot a few miniscule pieces of it.

To witness creation we need to witness creation itself, not a representation of it. From that concept comes the new restriction in my Shabbat observance, one that dove tails nicely into my own prohibitions of not watching television, or listening to music on Shabbat, all of which give limited representations of creation. I no longer use reference photos on Shabbat, I work from life only. I witness what is really in front of me, for all its detail and grandeur. Looking in this way brings me more towards a true avodah, where creativity changes into a prayer allowed on Shabbat.

It is a historical irony not lost on me that one of the people who gave a wonderful response at my D’var last week is the daughter of a rabbi I’ve learned from for a while. . Her idea was to focus on the idea of career for the prohibition of malachah, and not creative work. To her, creative work expressing one’s Judaism, like making a talit, was a good thing to do on Shabbat. In one of her father’s books and his prolific e-mails, he inspired me to write my own Shabbat halacha over eleven years ago. That Shabbat halacha changes now, and to close this week’s portion I thought I’d give you the new and revised version, of how I look to Shabbat for a time of joy, of holiness and of rest.

Shlomo’s Shabbos
Live Juicy one day a week. Start it with candles. Read Torah and Talmud and contemplate them. Wear wild Hawaiian shirts. No Internet, iPods, or TV or anything else electronic. Walk when you can, walk for the fun of it. Don’t buy anything but food or medicine. Love. If no one else is around love yourself. Don’t forget to hug! Spend time relating to other people. Have outrageous conversations. Eat a REALLY good meal. Dessert and sweets were created for Shabbos!!! Be sensual. Use all your senses to consciously taste, smell, see, touch, and hear. Sense how wonderful everything is. Paint and draw the beauty in Creation as you see it. Read spiritual books and novels of imagination. Take naps. Pray and Play. It doesn’t matter what or how -just play. Sing for the joy of singing, sing for the joy of God. With instruments, even if you can’t. Don’t do anything that has to do with work-unless someone's life is in danger. Bless God, yourself, everyone, and everything else.

May your Shabbat be one of rest, holiness and delight.

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