The Art of Torah

Ki Tissa By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Feb 27, 2013 / 5773

Too often, the arts are underappreciated in the Jewish community. A common misperception exists that equates the visual arts with idolatrous practice. Yet, here at the heart of Torah in Parashat Ki Tissa, we learn of the individual central to the building of the Tabernacle, Bezalel.

God spoke to Moses saying, “See, I have singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge in 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.” (Exod. 31:1–5)

Notably, this artisan is singled out from among the Israelites as a result of his special qualities. How may the reader differentiate among these three attributes of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge?

Rashi, our prolific medieval exegete, sheds light on the nuanced and substantive shades of difference among these terms. First, wisdom is described by Rashi as knowledge that one learns from others. In other words, one must be in the midst of and connected to a community to be imbued with hokhmah, wisdom. One may not be an island unto one’s self. Wisdom comes from shared experience and symbiotic interaction. Second, Rashi explains understanding as a sense born of one’s own heart and soul. Understanding (tevunah) flows from the heart of a human being. Once a lesson is learned and internalized, understanding and insight follow. Third, we are presented with knowledge. The gift of knowledge, Rashi asserts, is the result of God’s inspiration. Knowledge (da’at) reflects the sacred spirit at the heart of God. Horizontal experience then leads to vertical inspiration. That is to say, the wisdom of community leads to a deeper understanding of self and ultimately to knowledge of God’s Presence.

Taken collectively, these three attributes (wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) also make up the spirit of the artist. Once these qualities meld, a tabernacle or, more literally, a dwelling place of God comes to fruition. In his timeless commentary, Rashi teaches us far more than solely about the building of the biblical Tabernacle. He teaches us about the unique soul of the artist and the endless potential to experience the divine through the handiwork of a human creator. May Parashat Ki Tissa truly open the door to embracing the artist and the arts in Jewish life.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.