When people ask me who my favorite cartoonist is, I answer “God.” Just look around at all the characters he created.
– Don Perlin, Marvel comic book artist<1>
When a person’s name includes a reference to Hashem (such as the names ending in “el” or “yah”), sometimes it is meant to tell us something about the person. But other times, it is meant to tell us something about Hashem.
For example, take the name of the Mishkan’s architect and artist, Betzalel. There are at least two translations of the name, each of which can illuminate an aspect of Hashem.
We have all heard the approach that Betzalel means “in the shadow of God.” According to the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks, this tells us something directly about art, and indirectly about Hashem:
Bezalel’s gift lay in his ability to communicate, through his work, that art is the shadow cast by G-d. Religious art is never “art for art’s sake.” Unlike secular art, it points to something beyond itself. The Tabernacle itself was a kind of microcosm of the universe, with one overriding particularity: that in it you felt the presence of something beyond – what the Torah calls “the glory of G-d” which “filled the Tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35).
The Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty (Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”). Jews believed in the opposite: hadrat kodesh (Psalms29:2), the beauty of holiness. Art in Judaism always has a spiritual purpose: to make us aware of the universe as a work of art, testifying to the supreme Artist, G-d himself.<2>
In other words, Betzalel’s name doesn’t refer to the artist, but to the art that Hashem would indirectly create by giving Betzalel the talent to create. That art is God’s shadow. The implication is that the universe that Hashem directly created is certainly a kind of art, and that Hashem is the ultimate artist.
A different understanding of Betzalel’s name can lead to the same conclusion. The Malbim has a fascinating interpretation of the pasuk inParashat Bereisheet (1:26) in which Hashem says, “Let Us make man in Our image (b’tzalmenu) and Our likeness (kid’mutenu).” According to the Malbim:
The word tzelem (image), in my opinion, is a conjugation of the wordtzel (shadow). . . . A shadow is the father of all artists. A form that is made intentionally is called an “image,” and it is the “shadow” of that which it pictures.<3>
In other words, tzel (shadow) and tzelem (image) are related to each other. The implication is that Betzalel’s name means “in the image of God.” Why would an artist be described as “the image of God”?
We can answer this question by looking at a different interpretation of the same pasuk in Bereisheet. Rav Nachman of Breslov understandskid’mutenu (“in Our likeness”) to mean “endowed with an imagination” (koach ham’dameh).<4> This radical approach is saying that the essential human trait is our imagination, creativity, or fantasy, and that we have it because Hashem made us to be like Him.<5> We can be creative because Hashem is creative.
Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair elaborates on this point:
[T]he fact that God created us in His image means that by understanding ourselves, we can understand something about God. Thus man’s ability to create – the ability to take the material world and make it speak the language of emotion, of inspiration – must be the most distant reflection of some characteristic of God. The fact that art exists must reveal some aspect of the Divine.
Jewish mystical sources teach that when God created the universe, He “constricted Himself” to allow the appearance of something other than Himself. This concept is called tzimtzum – literally, “constriction” . . . . In other words, this world and everything in it is God’s Work of Art. . . . Interestingly, the word for “artist” in Hebrew,tzayar, is related to the word tzar, meaning “narrow” or “constricted.”<6>
It turns out that the description of Hashem as an artist is not new. It appears explicitly in the Gemara:
[Hannah prayed,] “There is none as holy as God, truly, there is none beside You; there is no Rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2). R. Yehudah b. Menashya said: Do not read: biltecha, “there is none beside You,” but rather l’valot’cha, “to survive You.” Come and see how much the nature of man contrasts with the nature of God. The nature of man is that his works outlast him, but God outlasts His works.
“And there is no Rock like our God.” Do not read: “There is no tzur[Rock],” but rather “There is no tzayar (artist) like our God.” In the ways of the world, when a man draws a figure on a wall, he is unable to endow it with breath, soul, internal organs, and intestines. But God creates a form inside another form [a child in the mother’s womb] and endows it with breath, soul, internal organs, and intestines.<7>
Where do we go from here? What do we do with the understanding of Hashem as Artist? I’m not sure, but I found an intriguing possibility in the following dialogue from a comic strip called Sinfest:
Slick: This world you created is a bust! It’s a full-on hellhole! What gives?!
God: Well, it’s sort of a work in progress. It’s open to interpretation & functions on multiple levels.
Slick: Great. Our creator is an artist.
God: It might be too deep for you.<8>
In other words, viewing God as an artist can shed light on theodicy, the age-old problem of why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. (Chazal formulated it as tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo.) Many attempts at answers appear in rabbinic literature. The bottom line seems to be that we just don’t understand. In the words of Rabbi Yanai in Pirkei Avot (4:15), “Ein b’yadenu, lo mishalvat har’sha’im, v’af lo miyisurei hatzaddikim – It is not in our grasp [to understand] the tranquility of the evil or the suffering of the righteous.” In the mashal provided by Sinfest, art is often misunderstood. If a work of art doesn’t appeal to us, we should consider the possibility that it is too deep for us.<9> In the nimshal,understanding the world as God’s work of art may lead us to the same conclusion. If we can’t handle the existence of evil in the world, we should consider the possibility that Hashem’s artwork is too deep for us.
1. Cited in Michael Aushenker, “Mark of the Werewolf,” The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, 2002-07-26. http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/mark_of_the_werewolf_20020726/
2. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-), “Vayakhel: The Beauty of Holiness or the Holiness of Beauty.” http://www.chiefrabbi.org/ReadArtical.aspx?id=1617
3. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 1809-1879), commentary on Bereisheet 1:26. Compare his commentary on Shemot 31:2.
4. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), Likkutei Moharan II 5:9. The translation is from Arthur Green, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (University of Alabama Press, 1979), p. 341.
5. Rabbi Dr. Byron Sherwin, “Portrait of God as a Young Artist: The Flood Revisited,” Judaism, Fall 1984, p. 475. He adds, “It is no more anthropomorphic to portray God as . . . [an] artist than it is to portray Him as a totally rational being. All concepts of God, deriving as they do from the human mind and heart, are necessarily anthropomorphic. Indeed, one might suggest that some so-called anthropomorphisms may be, in fact, theomorphisms. Both our rational nature and our artistic nature may be reflections of God’s nature within us, rather than projections of our nature onto Him.”
6. Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair, “Artists of the Soul,” in his book Seasons of the Moon (Focus, 2008). http://www.seasonsofthemoon.com/articles/about-artists-of-the-soul.aspx
7. Talmud Bavli, Megillah 14a (compare also Berakhot 10a, which is cited by Rabbi Sinclair). The translation is from Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel, Ein Yaakov(Jason Aronson, 1999), p. 270. An elaboration of several ways in which Hashem is a better artist than a human appears in Midrash Tehillim (Buber), mizmor 18, #26.
8. Tatsuo Ishida, Sinfest cartoon, May 28, 2000. http://www.sinfest.net/comikaze/comics/2000-05-28.gif (Thanks to Rabbi Neil Fleischmann for the reference.)
9. There is an old story told about a man visiting the Louvre. When his group came to the Mona Lisa, the man whispered, “That’s it?! I don’t see what’s so great about it.” The sharp-eared tour guide replied, “Sir, the Mona Lisa is not on trial – you are.”