Rabbi Michael Friedland
The New York Times reported the sale of the artist Jean Michel Basquiat’s Untitled for $110 million dollars. Now to be fair, I know that art aficionados might very well be able to explain why this is an important and valuable piece of contemporary art. But for it to sell for $110 million dollars means someone has way too much money for their own good.
But in this world we venerate ‘things’. When we can put a monetary value on something, the level of veneration grows exponentially.
Judaism has always had an uneasy alliance with art. The Torah’s command “Thou shalt not make any graven images” was considered by some to be a general prohibition not a specific rule against concretizing images of God. And yet the Temple and Tabernacle had artistic components to them. Rabbi David Wolpe points out that “art is the means by which we are visibly reminded of the intangible; great art points beyond itself. But great art is, in its iconic power, uncomfortably close to idolatry. The difference between an idol and a sculpture resides in the mind of the observer and boundaries of the mind are notoriously porous.”
We Jews uplift that which is intangible. Art that leads us beyond the physical and material can enhance devotion. But even more, it is holiness in time and space that we are encouraged to honor.
You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or
place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s.
These verses conclude the Torah portion Behar. But they also act as a coda to the final verses of the Book of Leviticus. A coda is a concluding section of a text that serves as a summation of certain preceding themes.
Jacob Milgrom shows how these 2 verses, which include two positive mitzvot and three negative mitzvot line up closely with the three of the first 5 of the Ten Commandments and with the opening verses and closing verses of Leviticus 19, the Holiness code.
The first two of the Ten Commandments are: "You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall make no graven images” which parallel You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. The term here for idol – elilim – sounds very much like elokim aherim found in the 10 Commandments. The second verse: You shall keep My Sabbaths is of course the fourth commandment.
This continuous refrain warning against idolatry in the context of promoting Shabbat and the holiness of the sanctuary is of profound significance because it is a message the Torah very much wants to instill. Rabbi Wolpe writes, “Ultimacy takes precedence and ultimacy is intangible. Value that which you cannot see, and hold aloof from a world that is too much with you, a world of getting and spending, “I am the Lord your God”. Idolatry is forbidden because ultimacy cannot be made into a commodity . An idol is forbidden because you can see it, and that which you can see you will want to own or to control.”
This is why idolatry is contrasted to Shabbat and the Divine Sanctuary in several locations in the Torah. Placing these mitzvot in opposition to one another expresses this central teaching of Torah.
Shimshon Raphael Hirsh , the great 19th century German leader of Orthodoxy, wrote, “Not by means of statue and pillar, not by means of likeness and memorial stones have we to keep ourselves conscious of God and His rule; the Sabbaths of God, the Sabbath of Creation and the Sabbath of the Land, the Sabbatical year and Jubilee, which regulate the whole of our private and public lives with the thought “God,” … these are our sign and covenant… from these do we draw the inspiration which makes us find ourselves at one with God.” It is from the intangible, the ineffable that we link ourselves to God and raise ourselves up to a higher order of being.
Abraham Joshua Heschel who used puns effectively referred to the world as an allusion – not illusion. “What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”(Man is Not Alone, p.22)
Experiences that we share in this world can allude to something beyond that we may not be able to express in concrete language or symbols.
As Rabbi Wolpe said, art or sculpture may allude to something beyond or they may be worshipped as an object to own and control. But Shabbat is sacred time, there is nothing of Shabbat which we can control or own. On Shabbat we simply exist. One must prepare for Shabbat, must learn to refrain and to breathe, to limit oneself and one’s reach in order to find that sanctity. Otherwise the hours of that day will slip away like sand in an hourglass. But if we make Shabbat properly, it alludes to something greater, and holier, beyond; this is the meaning of the rabbinic teaching that Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, a day when we receive, not take; a day spent in harmony with the world not attempting to be in control of it.
Likewise is the space within the sanctuary – mikdashi. The desert sanctuary had places within for cultic rituals but what made it sacred was that God had determined this space be set aside from all others. Most of Parashat Behar concerns land issues. The reference to a portion of that land as a Mikdash, a holy space, reminds us that while the whole earth is the Lord’s, parts of this world are infused with greater concentrations of the Transcendent. What creates that concentration of transcendence is the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of engaging the Divine.
As we close the book of Leviticus a book which has focused so much on the sensual – sacrifices, incense, skin disorders, physical abnormalities, dietary rules – the author brings us back to the essential lesson of Judaism which is that the most real is that which is ineffable and that which we can see and feel and sense is significant when it alludes to the transcendent source of all being.
Or in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “The first and last lesson of religion: the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are unseen are eternal.”
May we all be blessed with the gift of recognizing that which is truly eternal.