An assortment of kiddush cups sit on the wall unit in Raina’s and my living room. There is a beautiful hand-hammered silver cup from Israel. It was an engagement gift from my sister and brother-in-law. On the shelf below it sits a white glazed ceramic kiddush cup. It too is from Israel but, in this case, it was an engagement present from our friend and rabbi, Robyn. Next to it sits a shiny metal kiddush cup that was a gift from Cantor Ted and Sonia Aronson. Next to it is a simple silver cup which Raina received upon becoming a Bat Mitzvah. There is also a glass kiddush cup that is part of a havdalah set and a carved glass cup that is a replica of the one given to me by the congregation when I was ordained in 1993 and used beneath our chuppah. (The original was broken just weeks before our wedding.) Each kiddush cup is unique. Each is a work of art. And when we make the blessings for Shabbat each week we use a different cup than we had the week before.
A simple cup would certainly suffice as we welcome Shabbat. By using a cup with aesthetic appeal, however, we not only fulfill the mitzvah of greeting Shabbat with wine, but we also elevate this ritual through hiddur mitzvah – literally “the beautification of a mitzvah.” The thinking behind hiddur mitzvah goes something like this: reciting kiddush to welcome Shabbat fulfills the mitzvah of sanctifying our day of rest, but by doing so with a beautiful kiddush cup we elevate the ritual to an entirely new level of sanctity. That is one of the lessons found in this week’s Torah portion.
The past few weeks of Torah have prepared our ancestors for the creation of the mishkan – the portable temple that accompanied them throughout their desert wanderings. The design of the mishkan has been detailed. The specific materials necessary for its construction have been listed and collected. The planning stages are complete and it is now time for the Israelites to begin to build the structure. But, this week’s Torah portion teaches, this is not simply a structure. While a simple mishkan would have sufficed, the Torah makes explicit the fact that it should also be beautiful. It should not only be functional but should also be a work of art. The text tells us-
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
2 “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah,
רְאֵ֖ה קָרָ֣אתִי בְשֵׁ֑ם בְּצַלְאֵ֛ל בֶּן־אוּרִ֥י בֶן־ח֖וּר לְמַטֵּ֥ה יְהוּדָֽה:
3 and I have imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship
וָֽאֲמַלֵּ֥א אֹת֖וֹ ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֑ים בְּחָכְמָ֛ה וּבִתְבוּנָ֥ה וּבְדַ֖עַת וּבְכָל־מְלָאכָֽה:
4 to do master weaving, to work with gold, with silver, and with copper,
לַחְשֹׁ֖ב מַֽחֲשָׁבֹ֑ת לַֽעֲשׂ֛וֹת בַּזָּהָ֥ב וּבַכֶּ֖סֶף וּבַנְּחֽשֶׁת:
5 with the craft of stones for setting and with the craft of wood, to do every [manner of] work.
Exodus Chapter 31
The work of creating the mishkan could not be entrusted to just anyone. Instead, Bezalel, an artisan imbued with the spirit of God, was to oversee the work. And, a result of his efforts, his artistry was quite literally woven into the fabric of the Tent of Meeting. In this way, the Torah guarantees that the mishkan would not only be constructed according to the blueprints our ancestors had received, but would exemplify hiddur mitzvah. It became a constant reminder that the creative spirit is a gift from God. It is a gift that is meant to be shared and celebrated. As a result, the mishkan not only gave our ancestors a central focus, but it also gave them a soul.
This portion reminds us that the arts, whether in ancient Israel or 2017 America, are not a luxury. They are a Divine gift and an expression of humanity’s ability to express our soul. Through the creation of beauty we bring holiness into the world.