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Parashat Terumah

February 18, 2015

God is Elevated by the Gift of Our Talents
Rabbi Len Levin

“Speak unto the Israelites, that they take for Me an elevation-offering (terumah); from each person, as his heart moves him, shall you take My terumah.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev commented: Every person is obligated to serve his or her Creator through deed and thought, for the person’s intention and holy thought, s/he raises the Shekhina up from the dust, and through the deed s/he raises herself up and does good on her own behalf” (Kedushat Levi on Ex. 25:2).

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak presumably knew Hebrew well enough to know that the word terumah meant simply an offering. Why was a word from the root rum (“raise high”) used to designate this? Perhaps because when a person brought an offering to the priest, he would perform the gesture of raising the basket of produce or small animal as a token of formal presentation. Perhaps the item donated was considered to be raised in status by being donated to a sacred purpose, as we speak colloquially of “raising funds” for a worthy cause.

But Rabbi Levi Yitzchak wanted to teach a deeper lesson — namely, that when we give what is precious of our own to God, then both we and God are elevated by that act of giving.

And what can we give of our own more precious than our talents?

It is fitting that this week’s portion, containing the instructions for building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its sacred implements — the candelabra, the laver, the garments of the High Priest, all of which required artistry and creative craftsmanship — starts with the injunction that people should give ish asher yidvenu libbo — “each person as his/her heart moves him.” The Israelites’ portable sanctuary was not only made from materials provided by the people; it was made also through the volunteer creative labor of the people. Bezalel (for whom the modern Jerusalem Academy of Art and Design is fittingly named) was no doubt the artist-in-chief (see Ex. 31:2). But he needed a team of assistant artisans to complete the task. As in the building of the medieval cathedrals with their gargoyles, so here too each artisan had a chance to lay his or her own personal signature on a corner of the completed work.

All that is left today from this creative enterprise is the prose version of the master plan, with its geometrical dimensions described verbally in painstaking detail. We must avail ourselves of modern pictorial reconstructions (see Wikipedia article “Terumah”) and rely on our imagination to fill in the rest. Or we can look to our synagogues, where the tradition of sacred art starting with the Tabernacle finds its fitting continuation.

Does Judaism discourage the plastic arts? This idea is widespread, and claims support from the Second Commandment (“make no graven images”). But scholar Kalman Bland disputes this claim in his book The Artless Jew (Princeton, 2000; see review of Bland’s book in The Jewish Press). He says that the ability and right of Jews to create art was not called into question until the nineteenth century, when under the influence of certain philosophical theories of the essence of Judaism, Jews started to pride themselves on holding to abstract ideals that did not admit of plastic representation. Historian Jonathan Sarna tells the amusing story of the Touro Monument Controversy in New Orleans, where the Jewish community was led, on the advice of certain spiritual leaders, to turn down a gift that would have erected a statue to a local Jewish hero, because they feared that this “graven image” went against their religious faith.

Nevertheless, there is a measure of truth in the allegation that traditional Jewish society sometimes made it hard for people gifted with artistic creativity to develop those talents. The Jewish artist Yechezkel Kirszenbaum wrote a bittersweet memoir of his boyhood years in Staszów, growing up in a traditional East European Jewish milieu where he would be beaten by his father for spending his time drawing instead of studying Talmud. Eventually he left Poland to avoid the draft, made it to Paris, connected with the modern art scene there, and developed his own style and body of work, memorializing his shtetl in a manner reminiscent of Chagall. A retrospective of his work, The Revival of J. D. Kirszenbaum, can be viewed online. One can well say of him — and of other modern Jewish artists like him — that once given the freedom to develop his talents, his use of them was an elevation both of himself and of God who blessed him with those talents.


Rabbi Lenny Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.