Ki Tisa: Aesthetics of a young traveler

While the Tabernacle provided an intense focus of the divine presence, with but a little effort, one can perceive that same presence all around us

In his book “Worship of the Heart,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that of the three “gestures” at man’s disposal – intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic – the aesthetic gesture is the most powerful.

On the one hand, it can bring Man to the heights of spiritual ecstasy, for “Only through coming in contact with the beautiful and exalted may one apprehend God instead of comprehend Him…” On the other hand, it can drag Man to the depths of moral depravity, for “What caused man’s fall is his giving preference to the sensuous, delightful, and pleasing over the true, at both the intellectual and ethical levels.”

In this week’s parsha, the ongoing discussion of the Tabernacle is punctuated by the infamous sin of the Golden Calf. Noting the juxtaposition of the narratives, the following Midrash renders the ambiguity of the aesthetic in startling terms:

An allegory: A young man came to a city and found the people collecting money for charity. When they asked him to give he went on giving until they had to tell him, “Enough!” Slightly further on in his travels, he came to a place where they were collecting for a theater. When asked to give he went on giving until they had to tell him, “Enough!” Israel, likewise, gave gold toward the Golden Calf until they had to be told, “Enough!” Similarly, they contributed gold so generously toward the construction of the Tabernacle that they had to be told “Enough!” As it is said: “For the stuff they had was enough for all the work to make it, and too much” (Shemot 36:7). Thereupon, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Let the gold of the Tabernacle atone for the gold they brought toward the making of the Golden Calf.” (Shemot Rabba 51:8)

The Midrash, in comparing the passionate generosity of the young traveler with that of the travelling young nation, explains that the later, well-directed, generosity atoned for the former, misguided, generosity.  The parallel, however, seems to break down in the dissonance between the acts of the young man as compared to those of the young nation. That is, whereas Israel gave inappropriately to the Golden Calf and then appropriately to the Tabernacle, the young man in the analogy gave first to “charity” and later to a “theater”!

The rabbis were clearly aware of the incongruity established by the transposition of analogies; for, indeed, they teach that a wise person always addresses issues in their respective order (Avot 5:7). If so, the midrash is conveying the notion that the virtuous deed of charity can be as sinful as idol worship, and conversely, that the building of a theater can be as holy as the building of the Tabernacle. How can this be? To understand, the analogies of “charity” and “theater,” which are most deliberate, must be explicated.

Charity is the quintessential act of righteousness. The Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) equates charity (tzedaka) with all the commandments in the Torah. The Maharal of Prague teaches that charity is symbolic of all righteous acts as expressed in its very name – tzedaka (righteousness). The Zohar (Behukotai 113b) goes so far as to intimate that the act of charity brings creation to its perfection. Yet, for all this, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that, “Whenever acts of charity… become an aesthetic performance, stripped of teleological aspiration – self-centered, self-indulgent and self-pleasing, then sin is born.”

If the giving of charity is centered on the self, it is a base aesthetic act no different, explains the Midrash, from the giving toward the Golden Calf.  Both are idol worship, for both are rooted in the gratification of the self.

The theater, in contrast, is the epitome of the aesthetic experience, a place where one goes to satisfy the senses. The Talmud (Jer. Avoda Zara 1:7) minces no words in expressing its unmitigated contempt for such avenues of entertainment, calling them sessions of scoffers and houses of idol worship. Yet, implies the Midrash, the fact that the theater is a place of aesthetic experience does not make it profane, as it is compared positively to the Tabernacle. And indeed, the Tabernacle is the place of ultimate aesthetic experience, for one does not go to the Tabernacle to comprehend God but to apprehend God. The Midrash thus teaches that giving to a theater can be as exalted as giving to the Tabernacle – if one is seeking divine encounter and not self-indulgence.

The Midrash concludes by explaining that the virtuous giving toward the Tabernacle atoned for the iniquitous giving to the Golden Calf. The aesthetic gesture is redeemable. The movement toward God is made by the same gesture, the same gold, as that which distances from God. Atonement is granted when we turn our aesthetic drive from pleasure-seeking to seeking God.

This atonement of the aesthetic, of Tabernacle over Calf, is at the very core of Man’s purpose in creation. Man was created with an aesthetic sense in order to apply it, as with his intellectual and ethical sense, toward a relationship with the divine. Precisely for this reason, man was placed in a garden that God made “delightful to the sight” (Gen. 2:9). Man, however, sinned and ate from the forbidden tree because it was “desirous to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). His sin, explains Rabbi Soloveitchik, was in giving primacy to his aesthetic pleasure over his intellectual and ethical sense. Expelled from the Garden, man’s path back to paradise lies in giving precedence to his intellectual and ethical sense to fulfill God’s will, while sublimating his aesthetic sense to apprehend God’s presence.

The Zohar (Terumah 168a) explains that Man continued in his imperfection until Israel accepted the Torah on Mt. Sinai. At this point, having used all their senses altruistically, naaseh venishmah, to establish a relationship with God, Israel was transformed to the idyllic, prelapsarian state of Man in the Garden before the sin. But alas, this was short lived and they soon found themselves, like primordial man before them, giving primacy to subjective aesthetic drives over intellectual and ethical sense – the Tree merely being replaced by the Calf.

In atonement for the abuse of the aesthetic comes the Tabernacle, the divine theater of the aesthetic, where one apprehends God’s presence. To arrive there one must be ever aware of the fact that the Tabernacle was built on allegiance to God’s every word. Betzalel, artisan of the Tabernacle, expressed his aesthetic ability by doing “all that the Lord commanded” (Ex. 38:22). The aesthetic is redeemed by subordinating it to the intellectual and ethical – thus Man atones for sin, thus Man returns to Eden. Indeed, the Tabernacle, as it is compared to both Mt. Sinai (Nachmanides) and the Garden of Eden (see Joshua Berman, “The Temple”), is the symbol of paradise regained.

The need to redeem the aesthetic is, of course, not limited to the travelling young nation but applies to every “young traveler” seeking to contribute to the causes of creation. Today, without Tabernacle or Temple, Man must seek to apprehend God in the beautiful and sublime in creation. This mandate, I submit, derives from the analogy of the Tabernacle as microcosm of the world; its acts of construction corresponding to the very acts of creation. And indeed, just as “God’s glory filled the Tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34), so too, exclaims Isaiah, “His glory fills the whole universe” (6:3). So while the Tabernacle provided an intense focus of the divine presence, with but a little effort, one can perceive that same presence all around us.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at