Long ago in first grade, my son Jonah’s teacher told him that when I saw his work at the parent-teacher conference I would be “ashamed” of him. The offending piece of schoolwork was an assignment to write directions to do or make something. Jonah had written only two sentences, but above them were five drawings depicting each stage in making a folded paper airplane. His drawings were 3-D and the perspective was accurate. I stared at his paper. “Did Jonah have a paper airplane on his desk to look at when he did this?” I asked. “No, but that’s not the point. He hardly wrote anything,” the teacher replied, in a futile attempt to draw me back to what was important.
I mailed a photocopy of Jonah’s paper to my father z”l, who was an artist and graphic designer. The phone rang the moment he pulled it out of the envelope. “He’s got it,” he said solemnly. “Got what?” I asked. “He’s an artist; he’s got a gift.” “What do I do?” I asked. “Nothing, absolutely nothing. Let it come out in its own time, in its own way.”
The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out by name Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge of every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood -- to work in every kind of craft. (Exodus 31:1-5)According to my father, Jonah’s proclivity for art would emerge in its own time, when it held meaning for him. According to Parshat Ki Tissa, Betzalel, the craftsman in charge of building the Tabernacle and its furnishings, becomes an artist when God fills him with ruach Elohim (the spirit of God) -- the capacity for wisdom, insight, and knowledge in every manner of work.
I’m not claiming that Jonah is a Betzalel, but two questions come to mind: Does art come from without (as Torah seems to imply vis-à-vis Betzalel) or from within (as my father said it would for Jonah)? And if artistry -- in its many guises -- arises from God, is God beyond us, or deep within us?
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is a rare gem. AVAM explains “visionary art” as “art produced by [an eclectic assortment of] self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself. In short, visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul, and often may not even be thought of as 'art' by its creator.” Please keep that last phrase in mind: “Visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul, and often may not even be thought of as ‘art’ by its creator.”
First, concerning “listening to the inner voices of the soul”: Perhaps this is what Ki Tissa is telling us: Betzalel is endowed with ruach Elohim not thanks to DNA and not because God infuses him with an IV of divine spirit from without, but because his spirit is attuned to the world around him and the universe of which we are all a part. Betzalel perceives that his work has meaning beyond him.
The entire universe is filled with ruach Elohim -- God’s presence saturates all. Picture an ever-flowing waterfall. If I am mindful and aware of the waterfall and hold my cup under the flow, I get water. I don’t mean this in a mystical or esoteric way, but rather in a down-to-earth way: everything can be elevated to a level of holiness if we are mindful and recognize its meaning beyond us.
Second, concerning “visionary art… may not even be thought of as art.” Our lives are our art. We are all artists; we are all Betzalel. Our lives are an integral part of Creation and the on-going life of the universe. Our lives -- and all that they entail at work, at home, in the community, when we are alone -- are our art, or at least they can be if we are mindful of the waterfall and hold our cups under the flow.
Truly gifted artists know that their art arises from a creative and inspired space within -- from God -- and holds meaning, purpose, and resonance beyond them -- as do our lives. The Rabbis reflect this insight in an aggadah that recounts a conversation between Betzalel and Moses:
R. Samuel b. Nachmani said in the name of R. Yochanan: “He was called Betzalel on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be God, said to Moses: ‘Go and tell Betzalel to make Me a tabernacle, an ark and vessels,’ Moses went and reversed the order, saying, ‘Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle.’ Betzalel said to him: ‘Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, “Make me an ark and vessels and a tabernacle.” Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be God, said to you, “Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels?”’ Moses replied: ‘Perhaps you were in the shadow of God and knew!’” (b.Berakhot 55a)Although Hebrew does not have compound words, the Rabbis read Betzalel as b’tzeil El (“in the shadow of God”) to explain an anomaly in the text: Moses reverses the order of what Betzalel is to build (see Exodus 31:7). Betzalel, however, stands “in the shadow of God” and knows the proper order. He is attuned; he holds his cup out under the flow.
My grandmother and father were artists. Two of my children are artists. The gene skipped me, except that I can make a fine paper airplane. For all of us, the way we live our lives is our art. We can live it wisely and meaningfully -- or not. We can be attuned to a higher purpose -- or not. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Every moment is yet another opportunity to hold our cups under the flow, imbibe some mayim chaim (life-giving water), and expand our life portfolios.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman