Either Art or Splendor

Jewish wedding ring. Chased and enameled gold and filigrees, early 14th century, found at Colmar (Alsace, France) in 1863.
Wikimedia Commons.

Exodus chapters 25:1-27:19 will be read in the synagogue this coming Sabbath, February 20, 2021. Unfortunately, I have to say, “read in places where people are permitted to gather in these pandemic times.” Many people will by necessity have to read them at home.

The Hebrew name for this section of the Pentateuch is Terumah. It opens with a list of materials for the sanctuary, the portable one in the desert. Among the items listed are gold, silver, brass; blue, purple, scarlet yarn; fine linen, and goat’s hair. Ram-skins dyed red, oil, spices, and precious stones are also mentioned. Why are all of these various things needed, if, indeed, they are, for a portable tabernacle?

In his book The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) posed the question like this: 

“Was it necessary to the carrying out of the Mosaical system, that there should be either art or splendor in the form or services of the tabernacle or temple? Was it necessary to the perfection of any one of their typical offices, that there should be that hanging of blue, and purple, and scarlet?”

John Ruskin. The Seven Lamps of Architecture

If indeed, the items are necessary, the next question might well be why. Why, when traveling through a desert where precious things are hard to come by, to say the least, would the things God lists be required to build a portable sanctuary? 

When I was young, whenever my father told me to do something, he often told me how to do it. I usually didn’t ask any questions. My working assumption was that he knew what he was talking about. With this understanding, there is a sense in which the answer to Ruskin’s query is simple: The listed items are necessary because they are the ones God told us to use. We can safely assume that he knows precisely the kind of dwelling place he desires. And that’s the end of the story. But it doesn’t have to be. I don’t believe it is disrespectful to wonder if there should be art or splendor in the tabernacle and, if so, to be curious about why. Ruskin offered the following answer.

“There was but one reason, and that an eternal one; that as the covenant that He made with men was accompanied with some external sign of its continuance, and of His remembrance of it, so the acceptance of that covenant might be marked and signified by use, in some external sign of their love and obedience, and surrender of themselves and theirs to His will; and that their gratitude to Him, and continual remembrance of Him, might have at once their expression and their enduring testimony in the presentation to Him, not only of the firstlings of the herd and fold, not only of the fruits of the earth and the tithe of time, but of all treasures of wisdom and beauty; of the thought that invents, and the hand that labors; of wealth of wood, and weight of stone; of the strength of iron, and of the light of gold.”

John Ruskin. The Seven Lamps of Architecture

I find this a magnificent answer. The items in God’s list, the time, effort, and sacrifice we put into obtaining them are an external sign of our love, obedience, and surrender of ourselves and our wills to God.

My wife and I wear wedding bands. They are made of gold. My wife also wears an engagement ring I gave her decorated with diamonds and sapphires. Was the exchange of these tokens of our love necessary? The rings are external signs of our love for one another. They are a continuous physical reminder of the commitments we have jointly made. 

Of course, people can be deeply committed to each other and not show this commitment externally with wedding rings. Our behavior towards one another is, arguably, a much more reliable gauge of whether we keep the promises we have made to each other. But even when we think this way, we still tend to display our love, at least occasionally, by putting together the words, or the signs, that say “I love you” in the language we share or by bringing home flowers, or volunteering to walk the dog in the rain.

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, surrounded by country music. The late Charley Pride, a native-born Mississippian, had a hit song about a woman who took off her wedding band whenever she went out at night. The singer wonders why—all too afraid that he knows the answer. The song was composed by Don Robertson and Jerry Crutchfield and recorded by Pride in 1967. Here’s Pride’s performance of “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger.”

As the rings exchanged between lovers, the precious things used in building the portable tabernacle manifested the children of Israel’s love of God in a clear physical manner. Seeing them in this light helps me understand why God says at the beginning of Terumah that the offering [or donation] set apart for God is to be taken “of every man whose heart maketh him willing.” That’s how love works, whether it’s between two humans or humans and the Divine.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

One thought

  1. Very interesting article, thanks, the portable tabernacle sounds amazing, what a beautiful idea that you can have a special place of worship that you carry with you. I think there’s also a sense of awe around precious objects that has stimulated people since prehistory to use these objects in religious rituals

    Liked by 1 person

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