Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Shadow of God

3/8/2016 by Susan Weinberg

We have discussed many kinds of wisdom thus far, but perhaps the kind most relevant to us as artists is that exhibited by Bezalel, the creator of the Tabernacle.  As this is the parsha for this week, Exodus 31, we took a closer look at the kind of wisdom possessed by Bezalel, known for his wide range of artistic talents.   Rabbi Davis distributed the text (Bezalel text 1 and 2, print and place side by side) surrounded by the commentaries of Rashi, Nahmanides and Ibn Ezra.  With the guidance of the Sages we began to examine the wisdom required by Bezalel in this daunting task for which he was drafted.  Let's listen in.

Rashi speaking from 11th century France considers the source of wisdom and asserts that it is what one learns from others. We then bring understanding to it by considering what we've learned.  Knowledge comes from God alone - divine inspiration.

Ibn Ezra chimes in from the 13th century and considers the fact that Bezalel understood a wide range of subjects, "mathematics, biology, physics and metaphysics far beyond anyone else of his generation".  He introduces a little bit of the brain science of his time noting that Hokhmah, or calculation (per Arab philosophers) resides in the back part of the brain, Tevunah, introspection, in the middle and Da'at, imagination, in the front of the brain.  He goes on to note that while someone may possess great wisdom that doesn't mean they can apply it in creation as did Bezalel.

Nahmanides (Rambam) also pipes up from the 13th century to add his kvelling about Bezalel noting that he was skilled in all crafts, but also possessed the "wisdom to understand the mystery of the Tabernacle and its furnishings and everything that they symbolized".  He notes that the Sages attributed to Bezalel the knowledge of the combination of letters by which the heavens and earth were created. The Tabernacle was a microcosm of the universe and the knowledge to construct it represented an understanding of its mysteries.  Nahmanides attributes Bezalel's skill to a gift from God, a miracle, as the Israelites were ground down by their work with bricks and mortar and knew nothing about working with gold, silver and precious stones.

Rabbi Davis raised an interesting question.  What Egypt places  a constraint on our work?  How do we move from narrowness to breadth?  Many of us noted the need to engage in process with less focus on an end point to free ourselves.  Egypt pays the bills and many artists work at less creative jobs, still trying to find time and energy to create.  The suggestion was made that we need to look at what our learnings are from creative work that we can carry over to our less inspiring, but remunerative tasks, and vice-versa.  It was also suggested that we need to view our engagement with creating within a broader arc of time. Perhaps we need to fail now to succeed later.

After the Sages said their piece we were invited to contribute our thoughts on the qualities that would have been required by Bezalel to be successful in this endeavor.  So here are our job requirements: Patience, skilled in all crafts, artistic vision, motivational skills, a good team leader with the ability to collaborate, flexibility when things go wrong, imagination and the ability to grapple with the requirements of the commission, a good listener who is detail oriented and not a quitter.

Rabbi Davis also directed our attention to an excerpt from the book The Particulars of Rapture by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. This handout (Zornberg) presents the commentary of Haamek Davar who posits that we are drawn to our God given talents although we may require years to master our gifts.

Zornberg explores the meaning of the name Bezalel which translates to One Who is in the Shadow of God, a fitting name as we are created in God's image. Each of us is a little bit of Bezalel and the question is how we take these qualities into the creation of our art and our world.

The second part of our session was split between artists Rochelle Woldorsky and Judy Snitzer.  Rochelle introduced us to work that relies heavily on text.  She composed an excellent slideshow that included work by Jenny Holzer, Lawrence Weiner, Fischel & Wiess, Ben Shahn, Banksy, Joseph Beuys, San Francisco street art and work from the Voices and Visions project. You can find the slideshow here. This work includes many truisms and statements that are quite thought-provoking.  In keeping with the theme of wisdom within truisms, Rochelle and Sylvia Horwitz offered us a treat of fortune cookies that they had created for our benefit. Mine noted this advice from the natural world "Imagine what we would achieve if we had the spider's determination".

This proved to be an appropriate introduction to Judy's exploration (titled Donkey) of another creature of the natural world, the donkey. She noted that donkeys are often a symbol of wisdom in Jewish text. Her exploration took us back to the first Jewish king, Saul, who begins his transformation into a king with a search for donkeys.  There are also many stories of the arrival of the Messiah on a donkey.  The word itself comes from a root of the word for material, suggesting perhaps that we need to work with the material we're given.

Thus concludes yet another wide ranging session exploring the wisdom that our world offers.

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