Vayakhel: Sacred beauty

And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments…And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Betsalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him 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 designer’s craft and to give directions. He and Oholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work — of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver — as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs. (Shemot 35:21, 30-35)

The spirit traverses the generations,
divined, unbidden behind closed eyes –
a vessel of beauty wrought of a vision:
fashioned in silver, embellished in gold,
brushed on parchment with vibrant hues,
chiseled in wood, and shaped in clay,
intoned in dulcet harmonies.

The spirit traverses the generations:
embroidered, a shining thread that runs
through richly-colored folds of cloth;
glowing bright as leafy vines
stitched lovingly round sacred words.

Parashat Vayakhel repeats the instructions for the building and furnishing of the Tabernacle already issued. It describes how the people answered the call with great generosity to contribute their most precious possessions and their skills. The Etz Hayim commentary notes the mention in the Torah of skilled women who spun and dyed the fabrics, and their contribution throughout the ages to “hiddur mitzva – the beautifying of the mitzva” which is the practice of fashioning objects for ritual use so that they are not just utilitarian, but also beautiful.
The verse in Parashat Beshalach, “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2) is explained in the Midrash Mechilta which asks whether a human being can add glory to his Creator, and answers that this refers to beautifying ritual objects. This idea is expanded upon in the Talmud (Bava Kama 9b), and was understood by succeeding generations as a duty, when possible, to make beautiful items used in Jewish life and worship, both physical and textual.
In a commentary on Parashat Teruma from 2011, Dr David Roskies observes how explicit the details were, of both measurements and materials, for the structure and appurtenances in the Tabernacle. And all for a portable and temporary structure which was to be replaced after the desert wandering, by one intended to last indefinitely. Dr Roskies adds that according to the JPS Torah Commentary on Shemot by Nahum M Sarna, Solomon’s Temple was twice as long and as wide and three times as high as the Tabernacle in the wilderness. And this, says Dr Roskies, was the beginning of the adaptive process, “…because the divine blueprint handed down at Sinai became for Diaspora Jewry the transformational grammar of Jewish sacred space, at once utterly distinctive and infinitely adaptable. Just think of the shuls we daven in today! Some are built like a temple, of brick and mortar, marble and stained glass, while others are makeshift: a rented basement, a chapel, a room…”
Dr Roskies then describes the work of the revolutionary, playwright, poet and intellectual, Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport, better known as S. An-sky* who also became famous for the landmark ethnographic expeditions that he led. Starting in 1907, he systematically collected examples from Jewish communities, and published an article, on Jewish folk art. Whereas contemporaries in the Russian Empire, such as Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, were intrigued by the Hebrew folklore of the Talmud and Midrash, An-sky had a populist’s impulse to collect oral texts from living sources. He obtained funding and organized an ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Settlement. He and his team (including his 17 year old nephew Solomon Iudovin who was an amateur photographer, Joel Engel who was an ethnomusicologist equipped with the latest technology for field recordings, and others) traveled through Volhynia and Podolia in the summers of 1912–1914 and gathered 2,000 photographs, 1,800 folktales, 1,500 folk songs, 1,000 melodies, 100 historical documents, and 500 manuscripts. They also purchased 700 sacred objects for 6,000 rubles, and recorded 500 wax cylinders of folk music.
He elected to travel this region in order to try to preserve the rich tradition of the shtetl*. Dr Roskies notes, “[S. Ansky] saw his ethnographic expedition to Ukraine as a rescue operation, an act of cultural triage. East European Jewry was on the move — from the shtetl to the big city, from the Old World to the New — and was marching to the drum of emancipation, revolution, and national liberation. What would become of the shtetl and its civilization?”
Dr Roskies continues, “An-sky and his team were overwhelmed by the wealth of what remained: priceless folk treasures scattered everywhere! Most were housed where he least expected to find them. Based on prior fieldwork among the Russian peasantry, An-sky planned to conduct most of his research out-of-doors, in the home and the workplace. Instead, most of the art and artifacts were to be found in the synagogues, shtiblekh, and study houses large and small, in town after town after town. What distinguished the Jews from their neighbors were these sacred spaces, no matter that they had fallen into ruin. In out-of-the-way places, far off the beaten track, they came across massive stone synagogues, built like fortresses, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. More startling still were the ornate wooden synagogues from the 17th–18th centuries with elaborate latticework and multiple tiers. Both inside and out, these wooden synagogues exemplified for An-sky the genius of the folk capable of creating artistic and architectural masterpieces out of the simplest materials — not from acacia wood with overlays of gold. An-sky returned to Saint Petersburg bearing 2,000 photographs, 500 wax cylinders of Jewish folk music [some of the vast collection of cylinder recordings made on these expeditions has been transferred to CD] and 700 sacred objects: parohets, menorahs, yads, keter Torahs, breastplates, sefer Torahs, kiddush cups, spice boxes, amulets. The finest specimens he displayed in the Jewish Ethnographic Museum, which opened on the ground floor of the Jewish Almshouse on Vasilievsky Island.”

After the Bolshevik Revolution, An-sky fled from Russia to Vilna, the museum was closed and its contents dispersed. In December 2010 Dr Roskies and his wife visited an exhibition on the “Ordinary Synagogue” at the State Historical Museum of Religion (formerly the Museum of Atheism) in Saint Petersburg which had been extended by popular demand. They found that the curator, Dr. Alla Sokolova and her son, an architect, had recreated a “sacred space” that housed some of An-sky’s collection. It seemed like a continuation of the generous spirit and artistic skill from the time of the Torah throughout the ages, fueled by religious inspiration and generating beautiful ceremonial artwork.

*S. An-Sky (Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport) (1863 – 1920), known by his pseudonym S. Ansky (or An-sky), was a Russian Jewish author, playwright, researcher of Jewish folklore, polemicist, and cultural and political activist.
Rapoport was born in Chashniki and grew up in Vitebsk, in a family poorer than that of many contemporary writers. His mother, apparently separated from her husband, ran a tavern. Rapoport’s formal education stopped after “cheder“, but he and a close friend read Russian literature and criticism on their own. In his late teens, Rapoport left home. He worked as a tutor in Liozno until Jewish community leaders discovered that he was disseminating radical ideas; he was consequently dismissed in 1882. When he was 21, his first novel was translated from Yiddish into Russian and published.
Under the influence of the socially-conscious, people-orientated Russian narodnik movement, Ansky became interested in ethnography, as well as socialism, and became a political activist. This fueled his ethnographical expeditions for which he composed a detailed ethnographic questionnaire of more than 2000 questions.
An-Sky’s ethnographic report of the deliberate destruction of Jewish communities by the Russian army in the First World War, The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I, has become a major source in the historiography of the war’s impact on civilian populations. He is also said to have authored his most famous work, The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, in 1914, inspired by his ethnological expeditions.

**The shtetls (Yiddish) were small towns with large Jewish populations existing in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Shtetls were mainly found in the areas which constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Galicia and Romania.
The concept of shtetl culture describes the traditional way of life of Eastern European Jews. Shtetls are portrayed as pious communities following Orthodox Judaism, socially stable and unchanging despite outside influence or attacks. The Holocaust resulted in the disappearance of shtetls, through both extermination under Nazi occupation and exodus to the United States and Palestine — as well as to the main cities of Russia, open to Jewish habitation since the fall of the Russian Empire.
The oldest Eastern European shtetls seem to date back to about the year 1200 and saw long periods of relative tolerance and prosperity as well as times of extreme poverty, hardships, including pogroms in the 19th century Russian Empire.


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