Ki Tissa 2022: How does art change our world?

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel

February 19, 2022

[Note I ad-libbed a comment about Final Jeopardy question (2/17/2022) in the category “Long-Running TV Show Characters” was: This character who has been on the air for more than 50 years is only 6 1/2 years old]

What book, movie, painting, sculpture has touched your life more than any other?

For all of us, there are moments when art has touched our lives. Whether it is in reading the words of a gifted novelist, seeing the form of a great sculptor, a painting that causes us to stop and think or the Torah itself, challenging us to live better lives, great art moves us.

Art lives and breathes within us. Our souls crave expression and light up when we see kindred spirits in the art of others. Art can anger us or inspire us (or both). It can be simple or grand, but when it is great, it touches something deep within us.

Parshat Ki Tissa has two vastly different experiences of art within it. One is the work of Bezalel:

Chapter 31

1 The Lord spoke to Moses: 2 See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. 3 I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; 4 to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, 5 to cut stones for setting and to carve wood — to work in every kind of craft. 6 Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: 7 the Tent of Meeting, the Ark for the Pact and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent; 8 the table and its utensils, the pure lampstand and all its fittings, and the altar of incense; 9 the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; 10 the service vestments, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests; 11 as well as the anointing oil and the aromatic incense for the sanctuary. Just as I have commanded you, they shall do.

Bezalel and Oholiav inspired the people Israel. They helped them find their hidden talents. They helped former slaves build the Mishkan, the travelling Temple. Together they built something magnificent, a way for the people Israel to be inspired and connect to God, a dwelling place for the Holy One. This art, this creation brought people together for generations, through the wilderness, into Israel and all the way until the time of Solomon when the Temple was built.

These two artists transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. They showed us what we were capable of. They used the spirit of God for good, lifting each other up, showing us that together we could do more than we could alone.

Yet just a few verses away we find another creation--the Golden Calf. This art may have been inspiring to some--yet its creation was a sign of great alienation. It was of a people not ready for freedom, a people unsure of their destiny, even with sign after sign after sign and miracle after miracle after miracle from God. Forty days without Moses was more than the people could handle. Their impatience led to destruction and to a work of disastrous art. This artwork brought people together for a moment but quickly tore them asunder, as God’s plague wiped out its creators and major followers.

The same is true for art today. There is art that brings people together and art that separates them. For art to reach people’s souls, sometimes it disturbs sensibilities. Artwork that inspires us today sometimes scandalized the generation of its creators. Without naming specific artists or works, we can all think of many such examples.

Today we see organized movements to remove art and books from schools. In our own county, radicals had two innocuous books pulled off the shelves of our children’s schools. Ambitious Girl tells the story of an African-American girl dreaming of an inspired future. Milo Imagines the World speaks of a young boy riding the train to visit his mom in jail. As he rides the train, he sketches the world around him. In the climax, he realizes how wrong our assumptions can be, and creates new sketches and new possibilities. Rebecca and I cannot imagine what would be inappropriate about these books. The only thing they seem to have in common is young African-American protagonists. The first book is written by the niece of our vice-president, while the second has a fleeting image of two women marrying. As I said to one of our county commissioners this week, as a Jew, I get very nervous about banning books, for fear of burning them and then on to people.

For me, one of the most inspiring works of art is the Talmud. Knitted together across centuries, bringing scholars and teachers, populists and radicals together, it has been a source for Jewish law and practice for generations. Within it are words that inspire and some that seem revolting to the modern reader. Medical and philosophical ideas sometimes seem long before their time and elsewhere they seem hopelessly antiquated. Yet these words have inspired generations. Jews of all stripes, hats, outfits, genders and philosophies have used the Talmud to change their lives for the better. 

In 1906, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design was founded. From the beginning our Zionist forbears knew that in order for Israel to be successful, for the Jewish State to exist, art and culture had to be a central part of it. A Jewish nation-state needs Jewish art! Naming the academy after the artist of our parsha, the founders connected our Biblical heritage, our religious heritage to our land. They sought to unite Jews through inspiration.

In every generation there are teachers and artists who inspire us. Their words and their work speak to their communities--or sometimes to communities that have yet to be born!

May we cultivate these artists, these cinematographers, these writers. In order to create the next generation of scientists and mathematicians, we need artists, too. Creativity is a skill that leaps disciplines. Training a student of Talmud helps her become a greater mathematician. Helping a young Picasso creates the next cancer researcher. Our schools (Jewish and public) need funding for music and arts as much as they need funding for the science labs. These are not either/or questions; this is not a zero sum game. With both STEM and art, our world will be a better place. Let us learn from Bezalel and remember that!

My sermon begins at the 2:24:01 mark.