Of all the fifty-four parashiyot in the Torah, Ki Thissa was the one that spoke most eloquently to me as an artist and illustrator, particularly as it relates how Moses transmitted instructions for building the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan) to the artist and craftsman Bezalel ben Uri. I was drawn to this story many years ago as I sought to understand the levels of meaning within the Second Commandment prohibiting the creation of graven images. In essence, it opened my eyes to the concept of hiddur mitzvah or the creation of beautiful objects to enhance the worship experience, rather than be worshipped as objects in themselves.
I have created several interpretive portraits of Bezalel, the first recorded Jewish artist, most recently the iteration shown here for my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). From the AfterImages section of the book on p. 151, here is an excerpt from my commentary on the illustration shown above:
In The Shadow Of God is drawn from the Hebrew translation of the name Bezalel, given to him at birth by his father Uri, son of Hur from the tribe of Judah. (Note the image of the Lion below the text next to Bezalel; it symbolizes the tribe of Judah) His full name reads, ‘Bet-Zal-El Hayaita which means ‘you were in God’s Shadow’ explaining his extraordinary artistic skills and closeness to the Creator so that he could envision the Heavenly Temple and accurately follow the directions for the construction of its earthly counterpart. He was tasked with this mission by Moses who transmitted God’s request upon his return from Mt. Sinai. In the Mishnah,Bezalel is credited as the man who was able to comprehend and configure the letters from which Heaven and Earth were created for this holy task. According to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, “All things were created through the combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.” The open scroll that Bezalel is holding reveals a kabbalistic diagram, found in the Sefer Yetzirah, composed in 6th century Babylon, which connects letters in the Hebrew alefbet with the seven planets and twelve signs of the Zodiac. In the center of the diagram is a triangular form that contains the Tetragrammaton, an acronym for one of God’s Names. To avoid a disrespectful rendering of this name, a portion of one of the letters has been removed. At the corners of the triangle connecting it to the outer rings are the three Mother letters, alef, mem and shin that represent the elements air, fire and water. Although many graphic variations of these concepts can be found in the books of mysticism, I chose this particular diagram for Bezalel, as it seemed to invite creative interaction. Standing behind the craftsman with a model of the Mishkan on its back is a strange beast called the Tachash. The word ‘tachashim’ in parashah T’rumah, though translated as ‘dolphin skins’ finds a different interpretation in the Mishnah, which alludes to the creation and existence of this animal for the express purpose of providing materials for the construction of the Tabernacle. When its purpose was completed, it seems to have vanished.
Since no one knows if it actually existed, could the tachash have been a word to describe a collection of materials taken from several existing species or could it have been an unusual mutation truly created only for its holy purpose? In any case, it will always remain an intriguing idea and so the tachash shown here is purely from my imagination. By the way, these questions occurred to me long after my book was published, which only verifies my philosophy that art is always a work in progress and matures from continuing interpretation. So, if any of my readers would like to posit their own version or questions, send me your links in the comment box; I look forward to continuing this conversation…
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