Drash Tetzaveh by Harry Waizer : Art
By Harry Waizer
Good Shabbos. Exodus offers us the powerful story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt, a transitional journey, from Egypt to the wilderness and ultimately to the land of Israel, from crushing slavery to freedom, and from the tyranny of Pharaoh’s rule to the uplifting rule of god’s laws. It’s a story that’s been central to Jewish identity for more than 3,000 years.
But this week’s Parshah offers a different theme: the theme of priestly service and its accoutrements. Aaron and his sons are introduced as the Kohanim, the priests, and the Israelites are instructed to make Bigdei Kodesh, priestly garments for Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, L’Chavod Ul’Tiferet. Kavod, which means dignity or honor, and Tiferet, adornment, or splendor, or beauty, are also Sefirot, Kabbalistic terms for emanations of god, and Nachmanides noted that through these special garments worn by the Priest, god’s presence amongst the people was demonstrated.
These vestments are described in great detail in Tetzaveh, and they were visually striking. They include an ephod, an outer garment of gold, with blue, purple and crimson yarns worked into designs and with two lapus lazuli stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes, a breastplate, also of gold, with more dramatically colored yarn and set with 12 precious and semi-precious stones, a headdress of fine linens, an embroidered sash, and a turban. They are remarkable for their beauty, and for their extravagance.
The biblical practice of beautiful ornamentation was not limited to the dress of the Kohen Gadol. Much of the inside of the Holy Temple was built of gold and silver and other precious materials, and incorporated the finest craftsmanship. The Mishkan, the holy ark, was a work of art made of the finest materials. Our ancient ancestors were instructed to give much attention to the material beauty of their ritual objects.
With the destruction of the Temple all of these beautiful objects were destroyed or lost, but the practice of expensively ornamented ritual objects remained. It reflected a Rabbinic concept of Hiddur Mitzvah–the enhancement or beautification of a Mitzvah through the adornment of the objects used for the Mitzvah. This concept is derived from Rabbi Yishmael’s comment in Mishna on the verse contained in Shirat Hayam, The Song of the Sea, Zeh Eyli V’Anveyhu, “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2) Rabbi Yishmael asked “Is it possible for a human being to add glory to his Creator? What this really means [he said] is: I shall glorify Him [by using beautiful objects to] perform Mitzvot”. (Midrash Mechilta, Shirata, chapter 3) We see Hiddur Mitzvah in our practice of using precious and beautifully crafted Shabbat candle sticks, Menorahs, Talitot, Mezuzahs and other Jewish ritual objects. Those of you who travel have seen synagogues all over the world that are themselves works of art, magnificent testaments to our people’s expression of their reverence through the creation of material beauty.
Yet doesn’t our tradition tell us to focus on the inner qualities and not outer beauty? Listen to these words from Proverbs, the words recited in Eyshet Chayil, “Grace is deceptive, Beauty is illusory, It is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30) And these words from a Mishna "A person who is learning while walking on the road, and interrupts to exclaim 'How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this field!' the Torah considers him as if he has forfeited his life." (Mishna Avot 3:7) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that even in ancient times, the emphasis on the beauty of the Kohen Gadol’s garments was an anomaly. He offers this quote from the Book of Samuel, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Covenant and Conversation, Tetzaveh, 5780.
As I thought about this, I was struck by a story about the great 20th century Torah scholar, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik. He was visited by a student who was serving in in the tank division of the Israeli Defense Forces. Because this soldier’s job was cleaning and maintaining the tanks, his uniform would often be covered in oil and grime. He asked the Rav whether he needed to change clothing before reciting the afternoon prayer so that he would be properly dressed? The Rav looked at him in amazement and replied, “Why would you need to change? You are wearing Bigdei Kodesh, holy clothes!” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Bamidbar, p.245) By looking at this soldier’s garments through a divine lens, Rav Soloveitchik saw holiness and beauty in a set of grimy fatigues. So why these extravagant Bigdei Kodesh garments for the Kohen Gadol? And why this continued emphasis on beautiful ritual objects?
To me, this speaks to an essential quality of Judaism. It’s not a religion focused solely on intellectual and metaphysical abstraction; it’s a religion of, by, and for human beings, reflecting all of our attributes, our intellectual and spiritual selves certainly, but also our physical and aesthetic selves. One can look at Judaism in a purely intellectual way; one can sit, and study, and philosophize, reflecting at length on an ineffable, unknowable god, on questions of where do we come from, why are we here on this Earth, and where do we go after. But our tradition recognizes and embraces our physical human nature, it encourages us to connect to the divine through our senses as well as through our minds; through seeing or creating beauty, through listening to or joining in holy music and song, through dance, and touch, and experiencing physical intimacy. We take joy in these physical sensations, and we learn from the Chasidic masters who didn’t view joy as a distraction from the service of the divine, but as a god-given gift to be woven into the fabric of our spiritual lives. When experienced at the proper time and way, in the proper frame of mind, these physical sensations can help lift us to a higher spiritual plain. Sometimes, it’s in being our most sensually human that we draw closest to the divine.
But while it can be spiritually uplifting to take pleasure in the physical beauty of our ritual objects, like Rav Soloveitchik who found beauty and holiness in the grimy fatigues of the Israeli soldier, we should also look at such objects through a divine lens for the beauty within. It’s lovely to light beautiful Shabbat candlesticks, but it’s the family gathered around them for the candle lighting, and the blessings we recite over them, that give them splendor. It can enhance the Kiddush experience to say the blessings with a lovely Kiddush cup, but a simple, battered Kiddush cup that has survived wars, displacement, perhaps worse…, that has been passed down through generations, possesses more meaning and holiness than any jewel can bestow. We should embrace the idea of beautifying the Mitzvah, but we should always keep it in perspective.
I’ve been discussing Hiddur Mitzvah as it is traditionally applied, to ritual objects. These typically relate to Mizvot Beyn Adam L’Makom, Mitzvahs between people and god. But I’d like to take it a step further and discuss how we can also apply the concept to Mitzvot Beyn Adam L’Chaveyro, Mitzvahs between one person and another that involve no such objects.
Most of us, for instance, observe the Mitzvah of honoring our fathers and mothers. But when we visit an elderly parent, do we grudgingly squeeze it into our busy lives, leaving as soon as we can decently slip away, or do we make ourselves fully available, to talk, to listen, to let them know that despite their failing bodies and diminished faculties, they are still valued. Do we adorn our Mitzvah to our parents with the priceless gifts of time, and attention, and dignity? If we have children or grandchildren, do we bring them to visit? What precious metal or jewel could adorn that Mitzvah more than the heartfelt hugs of those children? If our hearts are moved to stop on the street to give personal Tzedakah, do we hesitantly slide the money towards the asker, avoiding eye contact and moving away even as we give, or do we take a moment to look them in the eye, wish them well, acknowledge their shared humanity. Do we enhance that Mitzvah of Tzedakah with a precious gem of dignity? If a relative falls on hard times and we help, as we are obligated to do, do we make implicit demands for evidence of their gratitude, or do we do it with grace, grateful that we are able to help. Do we adorn that Mitzvah with the luster of personal humility. When we have a day laborer, perhaps a house cleaner, do we delay paying them, or pay them grudgingly as if doing them a favor, or do we give them their pay promptly, as we’re commanded to do in Deuteronomy, and express gratitude for their efforts on our behalf? Do we adorn the commandment to pay them promptly with the gift of respect. In all of our interactions with others, do we acknowledge by our actions that they, just as much as we, are created B’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of god? We have the ability to add Kavod uTiferet, dignity and beauty, to every Mitzvah, but never more so than when dealing with the Mitzvot between ourselves and our fellow human beings.
So we should beautify our ritual objects when we can. Hiddur Mitzvah is a lovely tradition that can help us elevate our sense of sacredness. But the more beautiful, and the more meaningful, enhancements of our Mitzvot occur when we add to them the personal adornments of loving kindness and generosity of spirit, of humility for ourselves and dignity and respect for each other, when we wrap our actions in the holiest garment of all, the Beged Kodesh of a loving Neshama, of a kind, and giving, and generous soul.