This Shabbat's Torah portion is about my friend Avra Cohn.Avra is sitting over there. Hi, Avra!
You may not recall anything in the Torah about Avra. But the Pkudei portion is about Avra nonetheless specifically, about what Avra does.
What Avra does is make things beautiful. Avra is co-chair with me of the temples membership/community committee. She organized and designed tonights evening. She is the person who made the room where we are about to eat our Shabbat dinner glittery and elegant and lovely. She does that with every dinner and party she touches, and youll see what I mean when you see the extraordinary Shabbat gift bags you are about to get. She has a gift; she has an eye. She uses them to make things beautiful.
And this Shabbats Torah portion is about making things beautiful. In Pkudei, we read about the building of the Tabernacle. It is some tabernacle. It and the priestly accoutrements are described in lush detail, from the gold threads worked into the blue, purple and crimson yarns of the ephod to the breastpiece set with stones - carnelian, emerald, turquoise, sapphire and amethyst. A diadem of pure gold, decorated turbans of fine linen, a robe with blue, purple and crimson yarns twisted into the shapes of pomegranates these are no commonplace items. They are beautiful extraordinarily and purposefully beautifully.
But to what purpose? Why the emphasis on physical appearance, even opulence? Are we to take away a sense of a god who demands emeralds and sapphires? That our synagogues should drip with precious metals and jewels? Those are disturbing and unsatisfying conclusions. Surely there have to be others.
But never mind the cost; whats happening is that the Tabernacle is being made beautiful. Lets look at that for a moment instead of the emeralds, and ask why? What is the purpose of making the Tabernacle beautiful? Or making anything beautiful? Why do we set a special table for Shabbat? Why do we use white tablecloths? Why do we put out fresh flowers?
They make us feel well, if not beautiful, then a sweet sense of pleasure. When we see something beautiful, whether a Shabbat table or a painting, it has an effect on us. Which brings up another question to ask: Why?
Why does seeing something beautiful evoke a powerful response in us? Why do we care?
Let me offer an answer that comes from Arthur Green of Brandeis College and Hebrew College. Rabbi Green, one of the worlds foremost authorities on Jewish spiritualism, spoke in Chicago a few years ago, and my Torah study group went to hear him. During the coffee-and-cake afterwards, he hung around long enough and was goodnatured enough to sit with our group and answer some questions. I figured, What the hey, and asked mine:
I asked him, Why do you believe in God?
Well, you might as well cut to the chase.
And what he said was this: Because there is no evolutionary advantage in my being moved to tears by a piece of music.
He was talking about beauty beauty in something we hear, but he could just as easily have talked about beauty in something we see. So much of existence can be explained in Darwinian terms. Our bodies and perhaps our minds work in certain ways because these ways confer evolutionary advantage. There is a point to things.
But what about beauty? What is the point of beauty?
If joy upon encountering beautiful music or art serves no evolutionary purpose, why do we feel it? Why do we have whatever internal receptors make us create and crave beauty if they serve no purpose?
Could it be that there is no rational reason that we are talking about a different realm entirely the realm of the ineffable, the spiritual, the holy? There are, to be sure, Darwinian possibilities: Maybe people are knitted together more tightly when they experience similar emotions when encountering a work of art, and it is that bond that confers evolutionary advantage. Maybe the endorphins released when we encounter art and experience pleasure help us live longer and procreate more. Maybe thats why so many first dates are to a museum.
Maybe. Or maybe just partly.
Isnt it possible that being moved by beauty is to some degree a spiritual response with no evolutionary purpose at all? Call it god, call it holiness, call is transcendence - the lump in your throat at a perfectly held note, the warmth that spreads through you when you look at an impressionist painting drenched in that magical Mediterranean light, the inward sigh of pleasure you feel when you look over a table glowing with candelight and flowers maybe we are hearing an echo of that still, small voice. Maybe we are, in a sense, seeing it.
Our tradition recognizes that transcendence. We set a special table for Shabbbat partly to hallow the day, but also to hallow ourselves.
So after this service let us go into a room made beautiful by my friend Avra. Let us feel that sweet delight, and let us consider the possibility that our savoring of it may be a thing of wonder itself; that the act of making something beautiful, whether a Tabernacle our a Shabbat table, lovely to behold may, may in a rational sense mean nothing and so, in a deeper sense, may mean everything.