A week ago yesterday I was in shul. Actually I was in three shuls, none of them in use, all in the nearly floating city they call La Serenissima – Venice.
I was on my way back from spending two weeks helping and hanging out with my in-laws in Israel and Oren was on his way to Israel to do the same, and we decided it would be exciting and cinematic to cross paths for four days in Europe, as an early celebration of our upcoming 25th anniversary. We discussed the possibilities. I tried to be circumspect. I admitted that February is not the time to force him to visit my family graves in Germany, and that Poland is, frankly, not romantic even for me.
But then he said, "I've never been to Venice."
"Sold," I said.
I am lucky enough to have visited Venice a couple of times in my backpacking youth, but it's been a long time. We arranged our tickets and barely gave it any more thought until we arrived.
Arriving in Venice after decades is like, I don't know, eating some rich and delicious dessert after a long and completely unnecessary abstinence. The beauty of Venice is not like that of other places; it is of another order. It is a city built to impress – it was the capital of an empire after all. But unlike other European capitals, its beauty is not in its massiveness. It is in the detail. Because every view is beautiful. Every bridge offers something. Every window. Every palazzo. What in other cities would be a back alley here is art.
I know I sound like a tourist, maybe a 19th Century tourist from an E. M. Forster novel, meant to be laughed at by the reader; and I know that with my tourist posture comes the privilege of seeing the city romantically; of not having to know all the hard work and hardship that go into it; of being able to be blithely unaware of the politics and resentments and the bitter battles over architecture, reputation, class and money. I am a tourist. I get to simply sail up to the gates and appreciate the view.
And Venice was made to be viewed. It was the capital of trade in Renaissance Europe; the crossroads of Italy and Spain and Turkey, the meeting place of Catholic and Muslim and Jewish. It was designed to inundate weary travelers – merchants, sailors, diplomats – with beauty. It was designed, inch by inch, to make an impression that sears itself into the eyes, an impression to bring home and talk about. As I am compliantly doing now.
Venice fills every nook and cranny with beauty; an abundance of it; an embarrassment, a generosity of beauty. Not just the palazzi and the theaters and the bridges and the canals and the churches. The synagogues too. There are five of them, representing the consecutive waves of Jewish arrivals. The oldest is the Scola Grande Tedesca – the great German synagogue, built by the influx of Jews who crossed the Alps from Ashkenaz, from the German Rhineland, to settle in this great capital at the beginning of the 1500s. Then there is the Roman synagogue, the Scola Italiana; the Middle Eastern synagogue, the Scola Levantina, and the Spanish synagogue, the Scola Ponentina (Spagnola). And one more synagogue, the Scola Canton, privately built by a small group of very wealthy merchant families.
Like the rest of Venice, these synagogues were built with a generosity of beauty. Gold, silver, marble, gems, frescoes. Not only influenced by the Catholic and secular architecture all around them in the city, but often designed and executed by the same artists who built the palazzi, who built the church of San Marco, who built La Fenice, the iconic opera house.
This inundation of beauty, and its use in creating these holy places, feels to be of the quality described in this week's Torah portion, Vayak'hel, and the portions we've read over the last few weeks, in which instructions are given for the building of the mishkan, the holy tent where the priests will commune with the Divine. This week's portion alone includes 118 consecutive verses of art and architecture. Lists of materials – gold, silver and copper. Blue, purple and crimson yarns. Skins. Fine wood. Precious stones. Oil for lighting effects and incense so that the delight is not limited to the eyes. Instructions for skilled people to come together and make curtains and poles and screens and lamps and basins and altars, as well as the sacred costumery of the priests.
This Torah portion contains an explicit invitation for everyone to contribute, with women, for once, specifically included, since the crafts common to women were needed for the mishkan's completion. The master designers, Bezalel and Oholiav are identified, with the instruction that the work be done by everyone upon whom the Divine Spirit rests.
These commandments leap out from among the mitzvot. They are different. They are not mitzvot that one does in a minimal and miserly way in order to tick them off the requirement list, or as we say in Jewish, just to be yotzei. These are mitzvot to be done generously. Kol n'div libo the portion says – let everyone of generous heart contribute. Or perhaps more literally, let everyone whose heart volunteers them contribute. Because sometimes your heart does just that. Maybe our most creative moments are this way: not the product of our analytic heads, but instead our hearts kicking us in the butt.
The aesthetic extravagance of the mishkan building project is reminiscent of the Jewish practice of hiddur mitzvah – that if a mitzvah is worth doing, it is worth doing beautifully. Hiddur mitzvah is why we have fancy Torah covers and kiddush cups and candlesticks. The sages of old based this value on a verse of Exodus, in the Song of the Sea, where the Israelites sing, Zeh Eyli v'anvehu – "This is my God, whom I will glorify." (Exodus 15:2). The rabbis ask, "What does that mean? How does one glorify God?" And Rabbi Ishmael declares,"It means I shall glorify God in how I perform mitzvot. I shall prepare a beautiful lulav, beautiful tzitzit, beautiful tefilin." (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Masechta de-Shira cp. 3.)
And so all our mitzvot contain an implicit open invitation for us to give thought as to how they might be performed beautifully. Almost as if the extra thought about beauty draws more mindfulness to the underlying mitzvah. You can make kiddush with a Dixie cup, and you would be yotzei, and this is what you certainly should do on a camping trip or otherwise in a pinch. But the pretty cup – whether it's a family heirloom or the recent work of your friend the potter – draws your attention to that act you are performing. It makes you notice. In some ways, the fancy is what makes Shabbos Shabbos.
In the Torah portion the generosity of the people's hearts was so great that Moshe finally had to call a halt to it. There was too much! And looking at the old synagogues of Venice, one wonders if maybe someone should have set some limits there too. The interior of the tiny Scola Canton synagogue, for example, is practically armored in gold, with breaks only for small fresco paintings of biblical scenes.
Whereas more restraint and more air breathes through the Scola Tedesca – the Ashkenazi synagogue. Built initially in the 1500s, it was redone recently – in the late 1700s – around the time the magnificent La Fenice opera house was being built. The story goes that they had the same architect. And indeed as you stand in the Scola Tedesca and look up at the women's gallery, you see what looks like a theater loge. There are low upright pillars to about knee level, and then a gilded latticework screen up to perhaps the neck of a seated woman, and above that it is open. Unlike the women's gallery at the Scola Canton which puts in mind the window flaps of a tank, this gallery is not meant to hide the women, but frankly, like at the opera house, to foster flirtation. It is a lattice of the sort referenced in Song of Songs (2:9): "My beloved is like a gazelle; . . . metzitz min hacharakim – he stands peering through the lattice." If the mitzvah of separating men and women in synagogue (if it is in fact a mitzvah and not just a convention) is meant to reduce distraction when praying, the hiddur mitzvah – the beautification of the commandment – at the Scola Tedesca turns that intention upside down. The furtive peeking that the architecture encourages completely diverts the attention from prayer to romance.
And why not? If we believe that all love is a reflection of Divine love, if our stealthy glances across the divide are apiece with our desire to see God and experience God's love, then the architect who built the women's gallery might not have been trying to subvert the custom, but rather to infuse it with something deeper and more stirring to the heart than the words of the siddur.
So I returned from Europe saturated with beauty. Awash in canals and bridges. Tenderized by Tintorettos and Titians. Softened with pastel colors and gilded ornament.
I arrived home, as some of you know, to an unexpected circumstance. I arrived to find that my beloved co-parent Anne's mother, Taylor, was in the emergency room. In our family of rather baroque kinship relationships, we have a minimalist's paucity of kinship terms. So I don't have a good title to call her. But she was like a mother-in-law to me for the last 22 years, and she was grandmother to our children. It was suddenly clear that after years of slow change, this was about to be the end. We brought her home to our house and suddenly beauty entered also. Because when you rearrange a room for a hospice bed, you have permission to rearrange and reorganize anything you want. In part it's the desire to counteract the medical equipment. But it's bigger than that. You look at the once familiar space and the question becomes, "What would I like to look at if I were dying" rather than "What am I willing to look at while I'm living." So the clutter goes away and the space opens up and the window shades get pulled open and flowers and fruit get placed like a still life. Maybe these situations don't always go this way, but it did for us, it did for Taylor. There was the sound of rain, incessant rain for three days. There were the things Taylor said, and then the hush when she stopped saying them. And there was music, the sound of us quietly singing niggunim to her, including the one we opened with tonight, during which she relaxed and at some point, we're not even certain when, drew her last breath.
Not every death will or can be that gentle. But if it is a mitzvah to visit the sick and to accompany the dying, and if our own deaths are inevitable anyway, then let's bring the principle of hiddur mitzvah to bear even on these experiences, these experiences that frighten us and that have been made ugly and cold by our culture. And to what other of life's moments can we bring an unstinting generosity of heart and of beauty?
Bring your gifts, says Torah. All the ways in which our hearts are wise and our fingers clever – these are not treasures to be hoarded but gifts to share. When our heart kicks us in the butt, telling us that now is the time to bring those gifts, to bring our skills, our imagination, all our beautiful raw materials, and to put them into play, for the glorification of God, as Rabbi Ishmael would have it, or simply because we know that beauty is a kind of prayer, and a kind of reverence, why wouldn't we?
And if we do – when we do, when we bring all our generous beauty to our work in this world, all of our politics and all of our relationships, may our mitzvot and all our actions be like gilded lattices, through which we can eye the Divine, and catch the Divine eyeing us back.