Caught my eye the other day – a beautiful engraving of a hawk with each feather etched, and perfect eyes. It was part of a project called the Beehive MesoAmerica project – a network of artists trying to make the world better. The hope was that art can raise people’s consciousness about the problems of people and creatures in threatened places. So dozens of them donated their time to make a gorgeous nature mural. Can art change the world?
There once was a King who built a great palace. It had magnificent stone towers, and halls and rooms.
He married a queen, whom he loved very much. He decided after they were married that he would make the walls of the palace’s great hall beautiful, as befits his beautiful new bride. But how could he make it good enough? He decided to hold a contest, and invited all the artists of the land to submit their works. The king picked the two artists he liked the most, and showed them the bare walls of the great hall. “This is your challenge,” he told them each. “I give you one year to decorate your wall. You may live here. You may have any materials you wish. You will paint this wall,” he said to the first young artist Leib pointing to the right, “and You will paint this one” he said to the second artist, Rivka, pointing to his left. “I will return in one year to judge your work. Whichever of you has done the best job I will reward with honor, riches, and fame.” The two artists accepted the challenge.
Leib went right to work. He gathered his ideas: Leib loved the natural world, and wanted rainbows, and forests filled with beautiful creatures, and flowing streams, and sparkling stars. He measured, and sketched. He hired a crew of assistants to build a scaffold. By the end of the first month, the sketches and scaffold were built, and he began to fill the wall with his designs
Rivka came each day also to her wall. Each day she sat and stared at her wall all day with a strange look on her face.
Each month, Leib’s genius was revealed. The inspired design, bold figures, perspectives, colors and textures assured the artist that this was indeed his masterpiece – something unique, a new creation. His work filled him with inspiration and excitement.
And still each day, Rivka came and stared at her wall. The end of the year approached. Lieb was very busy putting on finishing touches, taking down the scaffold very carefully. On the last day, in a celebration, he signed his work, and invited his assistants to sign their names. He looked at the finished work and knew it was exceptional. As he was leaving, he noticed Rivka still staring, and her wall just as empty as ever!
The next morning, the king summoned Leib and Rivka to the palace. He entered the great hall for the first time in a year. As he looked at Leib’s wall, tears came to his eyes he was so moved. Never had he seen such a magnificent and moving work of art, full of grace and insight, designed with care – fitting for his bride indeed.
And then he turned and looked at the opposite wall and his mouth fell open in disbelief: there was the same composition on the other wall, line for line, design for design in every detail but one, there he saw a king looking just like him staring back at him. Suspecting what Rivka had done, he moved his hand over the wall – and it was cold and smooth. Yes, Rivka had put in mirrors, floor to ceiling and from one end to the next, so that Leib’s art was reflected on her wall.
As Leib looked at Rivka’s wall, he became very upset at his stolen work!. “Who won?” they asked the king. “Well, clearly it’s a tie,” said the king “Everything that appears on one wall is on the second. Each of you will be rewarded accordingly” Leib began to protest “No, don’t you see what she has done” “Silence” ordered the king, Return tomorrow and claim your rewards.
So they both returned. Leib was shaken , but Rivkah was relieved and happy. They entered the great hall to see a huge pile of gold, more than either had dreamed of. The King spoke to Leib: “You have created an inspired masterpiece, moving and beautiful. I am proud to be a patron of this magnificent work. Your gifts are truly from God. This gold is yours, and it will support your work for the rest of your life. Take it and make others as happy as you’ve made me.!”
Thank you so much your majesty! Cried Lieb, surprised, Thank You!
“Wait a minute, “ Said Rivka, “I thought it was a tie, and I was to be rewarded too! Where’s my reward?” “Oh yes, said the king, I did indeed promise each of you would receive your just reward, and I intent to keep it. There is your reward. And the king pointed to the mound of gold reflected in the mirror. “Now take your reward, leave my kingdom and never return. Rivka looked up in shock and slowly left the room.
When we Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, we fell in love with God at the Sea and at Sinai, and wanted to take God with us. So we built a portable palace, a Mishkan. Our best materials, and our most inspired , gifted artists made it from leather and gold and precious stones – to divine specs. And in the center was a fire that would never go out, a Ner Tamid, eternal flame.
The Mishkan can be a powerful metaphor. According to Rav Abraham Kook it can be a symbol either of the universe or of the human soul! Both are amazing to delve into. for example, the various precious materials of the mishkah, they formed, as did the various precious elements of our bodies, out of stardust cooked in a supernova that was in our part of the galaxy before our sun was born. The various colors of the gems also remind me of the colors of the stars at night. But even more powerfully, the mishkan can be the human soul. Rav Kook writes:
What is so important about the construction of the Tabernacle that the Torah describes in such loving detail its measurements and furnishings? Was it not just an interim precursor to the Temple What eternal message does this temporary structure have to impart?…The Tabernacle enabled the Jewish people to express their devotion and love of God. But the Tabernacle was more than just a hallowed place to serve God. By examining its structure and parts, we may reveal the paths by which the human soul draws close to its maker.
So is there a design to the soul? If so, do the frailties and pits within our soul fall within that design: the aching yearnings? even the insensitive parts – the parts we don’t like – what could they be for? And what about that Ner Tamid, the “always light” – what part of our soul is it? And why a tent, not a castle? Some possibilities: it’s gotta be a tent because our lives are temporary and portable too, journeys through the wilderness. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them beautiful for the journey. And that ner tamid: while everything else in the Mishkan is material, this is energy. Perhaps that flame is the fire of creativity and love. Leib means heart in Hebrew, and Rivka means “snare”, that’s why I chose those names. The story teach us each to live our unique and beautiful lives – no copies of anyone else. And to build it by filling it with inspiration and love, a holy Mishkan, and then God will always be with us. A song about this: Olam Chesed Yibaneh, by R’ Menachem Creditor
Finally, one more song. This one by David Wilcox. I was listening to it by coincidence last week, when it occurred to me it’s about the measured dimensions of the soul: a Mishkan! And it brilliantly hits the nail on head in so many ways. Here are the lyrics below to What the Lonely is For
The depth of your dreams, the height of your wishes, the length of your vision to see
The hope of your heart is much bigger than this, for it’s made out of what might be.
Now picture your hope, your heart’s desire, as a castle that you must keep
In all of its splendor, it’s drafty with lonely, this heart is too hard to heat
CHORUS: When I get lonely, that’s only a sign
Some room is empty, but that room is there by design
When I feel hollow, that’s just the proof That there’s more for me to follow, That’s what the lonely is for
Is it a curse or a blessing, this palace of promise,
When the empty chill makes you weep
With only the thin fire of romance to warm you,
These halls are too tall and deep
Now you can seal up the pain, build walls in the hallways,
Close off a small room to live in,
But those walls will remain, keep you there always,
And you’ll never know why you were given, why you were given the lonely