God’s Shadow
Family Edition

To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower artistic perspective universe desert meadow walk journey ship eye vision dream poem



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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

In Vayakhel we meet – for the second time – the man who became the symbol of the artist in Judaism, a man by the name of Betzalel.

Betzalel, together with Oholiav, would make the Mishkan and its furnishings and go on to be celebrated through the centuries as the inspired craftsman who used his skills for the greater glory of God. In Judaism we rarely discuss the importance of visuals. Our God is unseeable, He transcends the universe. Our religion is one of words, not images.

Given the intense connection that other religions held – until around the eighteenth century – between art and religion, image-making was seen as potentially idolatrous. Hence the second of the Ten Commandments which forbids making graven images. This concern continued long after the biblical era. The Greeks, who achieved excellence in the visual arts, were religiously still a pagan people of myth and mystery, while the Romans had a disturbing tendency to turn Caesars into gods and erect statues to them.

However, the visual dimension was always present in Judaism to some extent. Firstly, there are visible symbols, like tzitzit and tefillin. Next, according to the Sages, there is a meta-mitzvah known as hiddur mitzvah – “beautifying the command” – to try to ensure that all objects used in the performance of any mitzvah are as beautiful as possible. The most significant symbol of the visual dimension in the Torah was the Mishkan itself, its framework and hangings, its furniture, the cherubim above the ark, the menorah, and the vestments of the priests and the High Priest, for dignity and beauty.

The Rambam wrote in The Guide to the Perplexed that most people are influenced by aesthetic considerations, which is why the Mishkan was designed to inspire admiration and awe, why a continual light burned there, why the priestly robes were so impressive, why there was music in the form of the Levitical choir, and why incense was burned to cover the smell of the sacrifices. In a different work, the Rambam even alluded to the therapeutic power of beauty and its importance in counteracting depression: In short, art is a balm to the soul and has been woven into our modern appreciation for Biblical craft. 

Betzalel is also the name chosen by artist Boris Schatz for his 1906 Israeli School of Arts and Crafts, a place which symbolised the regeneration of the Jewish People in their homeland. Rav Kook noted that only in Israel could a true Jewish aesthetic flourish, enhanced by Jewish spirituality. The word for Art in Hebrew – omanut – has a connection with emunah, “faith” or “faithfulness.” A true artist is faithful to their materials and the task, teaching us ‘to see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.’

The name Betzalel means “in the shadow of God.” Art is the shadow cast by the radiance of God that permeates all things, And as Goethe said: “Where there is much light, the shadow is deep.” When art lets us see the wonder of creation as God’s work and the person as God’s image, it becomes a powerful part of the religious life, with one proviso. The Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty. Jews believe in hadrat kodesh, the beauty of holiness: not art for art’s sake but art as the key to the ultimate artistry of the Creator. That is how omanut enhances emunah, how art adds wonder to faith.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. How can Betzalel’s story inspire us to use our talents for meaningful purposes?
  2. Can you think of other times in the Tanach where someone uses their “artistic” talents to connect with their spirituality?
  3. Rav Kook believed in the deep connection between art and spirituality. How can physical art help us express or understand our spiritual beliefs?  
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Parsha in Passing

Moshe gathers Bnei Yisrael to remind them about the importance of observing Shabbat. He then discusses the building of the Mishkan. The community donates materials like gold, silver, copper, coloured wool, goat hair, linen, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices, and gemstones. They give so much, they are asked to stop! 

A skilled team of craftsmen and artisans, chosen for their wisdom and heart, undertake the construction of the Mishkan and its contents, following the detailed plans in earlier parshiyot. 

They craft three roof covering layers, assemble 48 gold-plated wall panels, and set up 100 silver bases for stability. They create the Parochet and the Masach

The artisans also make the Aron with its cherub-adorned cover, a table for showbread, a seven-branched menorah with specially prepared oil, a golden mizbeach for incense, anointing oil, and an outdoor mizbeach for burnt offerings with all necessary tools. 

The courtyard is enclosed with hangings, posts, and bases, and a basin with a pedestal fashioned from copper mirrors completes the Mishkan, making it a place sanctified for God’s presence and Bnei Yisrael’s worship.

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Parsha People

crafting silver and gold for the mishkan betzalel hands edited

Betzalel: Wise in heart and hand, crafts beauty at God’s command. With gold and silver material, his skill and art has no parallel. 

Oholiav: Hails from the tribe of Dan, Betzalel’s right-hand man.

Moshe: With God’s laws he did abide, as Bnei Yisrael’s steadfast guide.

The Parochet: A veil so sacred and so fine, separating the holy by design. A barrier between the Aron and the space, a symbol of respect, in the sacred place. 

Shabbat: A sign of covenant, bound in time, of faithful worship of God Divine. A day of rest, a day of release, after six days of toiling, a day of peace.

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Parsha Philosophy

In Parshat Vayakhel, Rabbi Sacks shares that art is more than just something nice to look at; it’s a way to connect deeply with something bigger than ourselves. He shows how, in Judaism, art isn’t just about making things look good. Rather, it’s a way to feel closer to God, even as we consider the rules against creating images of things to worship. Betzalel is the paradigm of this idea. 

When Betzalel built Mishkan, he acted not just as a builder but as someone imitating God’s own creativity, making the world around us full of meaning. Mixing art with our beliefs becomes a powerful way to feel and express what’s holy and unique, helping us find a deeper meaning in life.

  • How can you use your inherent creativity to enhance the world around you?
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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play “Silent Storytelling!” The key rule in this activity is that during your turn, there is no talking! Form a circle, and one person starts a story, but with a gesture or action instead of words. The next person adds to the story with their own gesture or action. 

This continues around the circle, building a silent, collaborative story and encouraging non-verbal communication and creativity.

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Parsha Practical

Drawing inspiration from Betzalel and his creativity, how can we merge creativity and faith into our everyday lives? Consider dedicating time each week to create something with intention, whether drawing, writing, crafting or even cooking. 

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This isn’t about perfection or skill but about expressing your inner self and connection to something greater. As Betzalel did with the Mishkan, infuse your creations with purpose and meaning, seeing them as extensions of your spirituality.

Another way you can apply Betzalel’s craft to your life is to transform your personal Mishkan or home into a space that reflects the beauty of holiness. This could mean displaying art that reflects your family’s values or Jewish thought. 

Lastly, engage with your community in art-based projects beautifying your shared spaces or supporting those in need. Such collective endeavours strengthen bonds and elevate the communal spirit, embodying the idea that art, when aligned with faith, becomes a powerful tool for good.

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Parsha Parable

The Artist Who Lit up the Dark

During the Shoah, a very difficult time in history for the Jewish people, there was a place called Theresienstadt where many people had to live under challenging conditions. Our story begins here, in Theresienstadt, where an extraordinary woman named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis brought light and hope to those struggling around her, through the power of art.

Friedl was a talented and idealistic artist who believed in the magic of painting and drawing. When she came to Theresienstadt, she had to pack light. Instead of everyday items like hairbrushes and spare clothes, she chose to bring suit-cases filled with paintbrushes and art supplies. She knew that even in the darkest of places, creating art could bring joy and help people express their feelings and dreams.

Friedl started teaching art to the children there. She transformed small, crowded rooms into places where imaginations could roam free. Through her art classes, children found a way to feel happiness and forget their worries for a while. They created beautiful drawings and paintings that told stories of their lives, their hopes, and the world as they saw it.

Before Friedl had to leave Theresienstadt, she hid two suitcases full of the children’s artwork. After the Shoah, these suitcases were discovered, and displayed. They showed the world how, even during tough times, art could bring happiness, hope, and a way to share our stories.

Friedl’s story, and the art of the children, teaches us that creativity and imagination can shine through, even when things seem dark. It’s a reminder of the importance of finding ways to express ourselves and support one another, no matter what.

artist friedl lighting up the world through painting illuminationin shoah friedl
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Parsha Ponderings

What Would You Create…

…if you were an artist specially selected to paint the central mural for your neighbourhood? What message would you want to share with the world through your art? How would you begin?

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Parsha Puzzle


How old was Betzalel when he built the Mishkan?

(See below for the answer)

This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:

 He was 13 years old.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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