Ruach Elokim: The Soul of Artisanship and Creativity
The parsha tells us that for the craftsman to construct the Mishkan, God needed to “Imbue him with a Godly spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge of every craft.” This implies that artisanship is more than just the application of a creative skill. At it’s deepest roots, it requires a Divine gift, a spiritual shefa. And this begs the question, why? Why is the presence of artistic ability not sufficient, why must it be coupled with a ruach Elokim, suffused with a Godly spirit?
The Inner World of Artisanship
There is a deep reality within the creative arts.
On the most obvious level, art is a type of expression. The artist is capable of capturing an experience or emotion and giving it tangible expression in music, painting or other art forms. Artists are able to take more ephemeral, abstract experiences and give them a more accessible expression. The more precisely, powerfully or poignantly an artist can express something, the more people will appreciate and connect with the art, and the more praise they will lavish on it.
When art successfully captures and expresses it’s subject, it is able to make that feeling or experience more real and resonant with those who encounter the piece of art. A mother’s love for her children, the soul’s longing for God, the yearning for teshuva and for geula, and so much more, each can find a deeper, more vibrant place in people’s hearts via a work of art. In this sense, art has a special quality that can enable one to internalize feelings and experiences in a way nothing else can.
The Means of Art
Artistic expression is a kli, a tool, and not an end to itself.
Just like Hashem created the physical body as a vehicle via which the soul can express itself, the same is true with artistic talents. These abilities are a means through which a higher, more ephemeral light—ohr—can be expressed in the context of our physical, sensory world. This is it’s goal, and it’s deeper, underlying essence. When we value art purely for the talent and skill involved, without relating to what is actually being expressed and it’s potential impact on others, then we are missing the inner point, the soul, of the great potential of what art truly can be. Art is called upon to spark and strengthen the spiritual essence in man; the soaring ethical character inherent in every individual’s potential, the richness of human beauty, and to give them a special and prominent place within the individual, society and culture.
Art that creates a space, in culture and in individuals, for expression of and connection to the baser, immoral, corrupt dimensions of life, is art that abuses its privilege and purpose. God created art and artistic talents to increase light and goodness, not darkness.
Art needs to originate from the neshama—the soul—from a profound, vibrant relationship between the artist and the inner essence of the creative expression. The presence of kedusha, and of the most refined and beautiful human qualities, and the striving to vividly express their essence allows artistic talent to become a byway for the shefa elyon, for the higher more abstract spiritual flow, to be tangibly expressed in the world. Art in its truest form is birth-like; it’s like the drawing down of a soul, clothing it in a body, and giving that soul the means to shine and express it’s uniquely beautiful light.
Great artists, chochmei lev, have keen insight and understanding into the subtleties of life. They sense and connect to the deepest stirrings of the heart and carefully express them; with music, on canvas, with dance and words that give people a path to connecting to their truest selves—the self they may be unable to access on their own—to their souls, and to Hashem. This is the ruach Elokim that inspires the artist, and infuses his skills and talents with “wisdom, understanding, and knowledge of every craft.”
Artisanship and Mishkan
The Mishkan was far more than a beautiful building with beautifully fashioned kaylim. The Mishkan was the this-worldly “body” for the heavenly Mishkan. Every kli, every vessel in the Mishkan, in it’s design and form, was like a finely crafted instrument that was uniquely capable of expressing a particular spiritual light, a particular flow of ohr. In the Mishkan, the highest lights were clothed in physical “instruments,” kaylim, that perfectly expressed their light, and enabled them to make their spiritual mark and impression within the physical world.
Just like any true artist needs the refined inner sensitivity to discern and express experiences and emotions through their art, the same was true with Betzalel and the other artisans of the Mishkan. They needed to be attuned to the inner spiritual experience and flow that was meant to be expressed in the vessels they were charged to fashion. This is the deeper, beneath-the-surface meaning of the Godly ruach that infused them, and enabled them, through their art, to bridge heaven and earth. In their inspired artisanal fashioning of the Mishkan they gave tangible, physical expression to the transcendent reality of the higher Mishkan, the mishkan ha’elyon.
Jerusalem. The Heavenly and the Earthly
There is a higher, heavenly root Mikdash that manifests itself in this world as the Mishkan. Like beautiful music can stir, and put one in touch with something far deeper than the chords and the words, the same is true in the Mishkan. It’s a portal for something far deeper than wood and gold.
In galut, in the course of our long exile, the higher light receded and became more and more hidden, and with it, the wellsprings of Jewish artistic creativity all but dried up. Today, in the unfolding era of geula-redemption, that special flow of creativity has opened anew; the light is flowing, the wellsprings of creativity are again alive and vibrant, and the inner urge to creatively express the flowing dimensions of life are surging. This is why our generation is witness to such an explosion of creativity.
The prophets said that once again we would sing a new song to Hashem, that we would praise Him with joy and music. The Beit HaMikdash is the center of our holy creativity. It is where there is a pure meeting of heaven and earth; between the loftiest spiritual orot and their this-worldly creative expression in every type of artistic and craftsmanship. From the holy place will flow remarkable creativity of the highest form. The Levites will teach all the musicians of Israel how to elevate their music to unimagined heights of beauty and inspiration. From the breathtaking beauty of the Mikdash, artists and artisans will learn to lift their sights to heights they never dreamed of. Each will express their richest sanctity—their souls most profound yearnings and longings for God—concealed in the unique corners of his or her life. The hearts deepest yearnings for purity, for love of every Jew, for reaching as high as we can; all will flow from the ultimate wellspring of kedusha, from that place of the Mikdash.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf