Detail from Paolo Veronese's 'Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus,' 1556.
Detail from Paolo Veronese's 'Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus,' 1556.

Focusing on God and community once a week is a good thing

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 35:1-38:20

My inner artist always reads this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, with excitement. In college, I studied art history and spent a semester abroad, in Italy. That spring, I took art history classes that met on site in museums and churches. I was delighted to see famous artists’ work on walls, ceilings and canvases all over the city.

During rabbinical school, I encountered a creative professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who was also a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York. She built an innovative program in Jewish Art and Visual Culture. There are only a handful of people who got a master’s degree in this subject; I am one of them. People often ask me what that means … and I say, “it’s basically Jewish art history.” It’s the study of Jewish ritual objects from an art historical perspective, but with a unique understanding of the role of the ritual in community.

As part of my study, I researched decorative Jewish objects. I prepared a presentation on Torah mantles in India, and the influence of saris on their design. I studied the architecture of synagogues in the Venice ghetto. And I researched multi-cultural Jewish identities, as seen in the designs of modern tallitot.

Some of my interest in these artistic ritual objects came from Jewish communities I had visited in far-flung places. For example, as a rabbi in Alaska, I was wowed by intricate Native Alaska beadwork I saw on a chuppah there. I was fascinated by how local artistic culture was represented in a Jewish context.

When I had nearly completed the master’s program in Jewish Art and Visual Culture, I had only one final class to take. I searched and found an interesting one on religious art in Venice, Italy — a magical, sinking city, filled with extraordinary artistic treasures. As part of the program, I was lucky to get an internship at Save Venice, an organization that works to restore artwork damaged by the salty air and the rising canals in Venice. My internship focused on the restoration work being done on the famous ceiling panels at the Church of San Sebastiano.

The panels had been removed from their extraordinary and ornate ceiling frames — a style originated in Venice and still very unique to that region. With the conservators, fabric and wood restorers, and other very skilled artists, we climbed into the narrow space between the church ceiling and the true roof. From there, I had a very close-up look at the famous panels that were being refitted into the ceiling frames after months of tedious restoration work.

These panels are considered to be some of the finest works of the Venetian painter, Veronese. As I learned about the stories represented in the three ceiling panels, I was even more delighted with the opportunity to see the panels up close: They show scenes from the Book of Esther. Yes — our Jewish heroine looks down into the Church of San Sebastiano in Venice! The other two giant canvases in the ceiling show scenes of Vashti and Mordechai.

The paintings are famous for their ornate detail: the buckles on boots, the buttons on clothing, the wisps of hair, the dog’s fur. Once the canvases could be seen from the floor of the church, people were amazed by the dazzling details that nearly jumped off the canvases after restoration. The original details had come back to vivid life! Dabs of bright white paint showing lace, metallic paint in the clasps of shoes draw the eye around the canvas.

I couldn’t help but think of these intricate and beautiful paintings as I read this week’s Torah portion. In Vayakhel, the tiny details of the Mishkan are highlighted. For example, we learn of the specific materials used for hooks and the exact measurements used in the construction of the Mishkan. Why are such details important? I thought about the crucial role that these details served — for our ancestors, and for us.

For the newly liberated Israelites, a relationship with God was just being established. Newly autonomous, the Israelites had to construct everything from scratch: a community, a belief that God would be with them, a place to worship.

So as not to overwhelm them, perhaps God decided to have them focus on tiny, manageable details that they could understand. The enormity of the big picture would have been too much. But by taking things one step at a time — one curtain rod at a time–the Israelites could begin the journey that would bring us to the Promised Land. Perhaps the details allowed them to engage.

Art historians describe the role of detail in the Veronese canvases in San Sebastiano in a somewhat similar way. Veronese’s work draws the eye of the parishioners below up to the ceiling and then across each canvas, from detail to minute detail. In a world with temptation and sin threatening vulnerable Venetians all week, a return to details in sacred stories helped to refocus people. The dabs of bright paint served as a tool to pull people back into sacred space and behavior.

Human minds and hearts wander. A weekly check-in to restore focus on a relationship with God and community serves to reconnect people after a long week of real life. As our ancestors journeyed into eventually becoming the Jewish people, they needed to take small steps. And to focus on one detail at a time.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.