Vayakhel: You are A Masterpiece
I’ve met so many people who are turned off by the word “religion.” When I meet with them, I ask them why. For some, it’s the guilt they feel when they don’t live up to the expectations of their religious community. For others, the rules are just too hard or they feel judged by religious people. And for others, it’s all the bad that religious people have done in the name of religion itself. For all these reasons and so many more, there are really good spiritual people that just won’t step into religion.
These folks have a point. When the central idea of religion is an unrelenting subordination to an outside force that tells us that there is only one way of looking at the world and being in the world, then it’s no wonder that if for those of us that don’t conform to its strictures to feel like we don’t have a home. Religion like this can give certainty and clarity, but it can also crush the soul instead of lifting it up. When belief takes precedence over thought and authority takes precedence over imagination, religion is suffocating.
So what is a different path for religion? Religion is not science. It can tell us about the world, but not from a place of simple facts. Religion is not morality. There are other sources that can tell us how to be in the world. Religion can tell us what is true and right, but it does not hold the exclusive copyright on truth and goodness. So what is it?
Religion is art.
Religion is an imaginative process that bridges the chasm between the way the world is (science) and the way the world should be (ethics). Faith is the most human thing there is, for we are the only species on the planet that can dream of social, moral and spiritual transformation. It is a special and unique form of art that does not just capture the world in image and deed but tries to transform the world through image and deed. It is where the infinite meets the finite. Where the immaterial meets the material. Each of us is an artist. Each of us is handed a paintbrush when we are born. Our lives are masterpieces and religion gives us the palette of exquisite colors to make it something beautiful.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, we finally get to see how humans partner with God to create the potential of what religion can be. After dozens of chapters in Genesis and Exodus we arrive to this moment where God stops talking and the people finally act on their own. The Israelites, having been at Mt. Sinai for a whole year, can now finally build the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle that is the center of biblical religion.
The speaking is paused and the making of religion has commenced. Thirty six times the word for making, vaya’as, is used. More than any other section of the Torah. This is no small matter. The rabbis teach that the Tabernacle is as important as the whole world because it is where God turns over the religion to us for the first time. (Tanhuma Pekudei 3, Numbers Rabbah 12:16) The Tabernacle is where the dreams of humanity meet the dreams of divinity and the world is transformed.
The leader of the artisanal movement is a man named Bezalel. God has singled out this artist by name.(Ex. 35:30) The Talmud scholar Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, makes a daring comment on this passage saying that Bezalel, who was not present on Mt. Sinai when Moses first heard God’s command, nevertheless fashioned the Mishkan through his own “peculiar genius.” Without ever hearing God’s demand he intuited what was needed to bring God into the camp. (Haemek Hadavar at Ex. 39:43) Bezalel is the first practitioner to understand that religion is an art form.
Before God was a Savior or Lawmaker, God too was an artist. For six days God created life. God “spoke and the world came into being.” God made the invisible visible. But when God created humanity, God gave us a small piece of godliness. God endowed us with the Divine Image [Heb. b’tzelem]. (Gen. 1:26) God is the first artist. Which means you are a work of art.
The Torah names Bezalel after God’s art. His name means both in the shadow of God and in the image of God because he took the immaterial and made it material. Bezalel took God’s dreams and added them to his own as God’s partner.
Like Bezalel, we are all artists. We all use the invisible to guide the visible. When you are filled with guilt or shame or regret, it is because you have a dream of righteousness that is different than the reality as it is presented to you. You cannot feel guilt without the imagination of a better self. You cannot regret your behavior without imagining a different course of life. You cannot feel the pains of injustice if you cannot dream of a world redeemed. Without the artistic drive, you cannot live.
The question is not if you are an artist, but how will you craft your life. God created us to be creators. God fashioned you to be an artist with your life as the canvas. The central question that religion answers is not how you fulfill God’s demands, but how will partner to mix God’s dreams with your own? How will you take the values of the past, the dreams of your father and mother, of your people and add your own colors? How will you take God’s visions of a redemption and add your brush strokes to the ever-evolving palette of life? You were imagined to imagine, dreamed to dream. You are both a work of art and an artist at work. Come let us paint a life together.
Well said, Rabbi. An intriguing way to look at religion. More contemporary. And I love the photos. The site looks great too.