Why are there no Pictures in the Torah?

The Torah is an extraordinary text in no small part because it devotes many chapters to describing what things ought to look like, but never has so much as an accompanying sketch to help the reader along. A single picture certainly can be worth a thousand words, especially when conveying an architectural plan. But we are given no such thing.

In the text, Noah’s Ark, the tabernacle and many of its appurtenances are described with dimensions and materials requirements – and very little besides. Even when we dip into the Oral Torah, we find a dizzying array of possibilities and no visual certainty. Which, if you think about it, is unnecessarily imprecise. After all, if one were to start with a vividly-described description of a landscape written by a superb author, and ask a panel of artists to paint what the words describe, the resulting paintings would look quite different, one from the next. Translations between mediums are inherently inexact.

The traditional explanation of how the Tabernacle was crafted is that Moshe and/or Betzalel were given a detailed and precise vision of what the item in question was supposed to look like. Thus unburdened by having to make actual decisions, the craftsman would simply “plug and chug”, copying the image in their head into the tangible world. Skill was required to do it well, of course, but the craftsman would not need to be creative. The resulting product would be a divine creation, with the role of the people limited to translating the spiritual vision into the physical realm. In other words, the tabernacle would be more like a superb forgery (true to the original) than an original work of creation.

The problem with this suggestion is that it runs counter to the text of the Torah itself! Ex. 26-30: “You shall erect the Tabernacle according to its manner, as you will have been shown on the mountain.” Or at least, that is a common translation. A closer examination will show that the word used for “according to its manner” is “k’mishpotei” which is itself comprised of two words: mishpot, and the prefix “k’”.

A mishpot is not a simple law, a command to be blindly followed. Instead, it is a guideline for how we should behave, but it is not “strict” law. A mishpot may, for example, tell a court how to deal with a thief, but the court has significant discretion when it pursues justice and mercy. A mishpot is thus a signpost, a direction of travel for how people are supposed to relate to one another, to handle and massage all of the imbalances and inequalities in our connections to each other. This requires a deep sensitivity about the parties involved, a mind that is constantly seeking wisdom and guidance in situations regarding the human condition, when the path forward is not clear.

In order to perform a mishpot, it is necessary to have a grasp of the reasons for the commandment. If a chok represents the letter of the law, a mishpot is all about its spirit, and so knowing why the law exists is essential to intelligently and sensitively applying it. One cannot merely do a mishpot. Once must instead seek connection and understanding before trying to see the way from the present into a better future. There is no easy way out: fulfilling this kind of commandment requires a full and intimate engagement.

All of this, of course, strongly suggests that the craftsman needs to treat any vision, even one that is received through direct revelation, as a guide, or an inspiration, but most assuredly not as a blueprint. The vision is not meant to be what is actually created. If it was, the Torah would have used different language. The Torah, in this example as in many others, provides the boundaries and perhaps even the skeleton: the rest has to come through our personal connections to ourselves, each other, and to G-d.

Divine inspiration is not meant to provide the masterpiece which a forger can carefully copy. We learn this also from the k’ prefix (also discussed in other contexts here). k’ is used in the Torah to mean something that has a shared quality, but is clearly NOT the same thing.

“And G-d said: “Behold, man is become like [k’] one of us, to know good and evil.” (Gen. 3:22)

We may indeed be able to know good and evil, in some qualitative way, but I very much doubt that the text is telling us that we have the same level of understanding as G-d.

Another example: k’ coming as a prefix was G-d’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be k’ the sand of the sea and the stars of the heaven. We perhaps are, in a qualitative or metaphorical way, k’ those things – we are clearly not numerically or in any exact way the same as the sand of the sea or the stars of the heaven.

The k’ is the qualifier: it means that there is some shared commonality and similarity. When k’ is used, it means that the two things are similar but clearly not the same.

So when the text reads, “You shall erect the Tabernacle according to its manner, as you will have been shown on the mountain,” we should read it as: “You shall erect the Tabernacle guided by the inspiration that you have been shown on the mountain.” Which means that the Torah is explicitly inviting the builders of the Tabernacle to tap into their own creativity.

The fact that the Torah uses words and not pictures tells us that we are enjoined to think for ourselves, to engage our imaginations, at every level. Being a Jew does not mean obediently going through the steps: it means engaging with G-d and ourselves in order to jointly build G-d’s home. The challenge of building is not the negation of the self: it is the responsibility and challenge of both understanding and interacting with a divinely-inspired internal vision and one’s own soul, and building something that is the synthesis of the vision of both G-d and man.

The tabernacle is not merely holy because it exists: it is holy because we build it. The investment of human capital – both physical and spiritual – is required to build a home suitable for G-d.

In this way, we can answer the original question: having the Tabernacle (and much else besides) described using merely words is not a “bug”: it is a feature. Many of our sages compare the creation of the Tabernacle by mankind to the creation of the world by G-d: there are many deep and beautiful parallels, from the connections to Shabbos, to “man and woman” mirroring the angels on top of the ark, to a “measure-for-measure” partnership between G-d and mankind. When we build the Tabernacle, we echo G-d’s own creative act.

The first words of the Torah begins with creation: Bereishis barah Elokim, usually translated as “in the beginning, G-d created”. Hebrew is a rich language because of all the ways in which things connect, one to the next. The word we translate as “in the beginning” shares the source word, the shoresh, with the word meaning “head” (see Gen 3:15). Which means that “in the beginning G-d created” can also be read as, “In/with the head, G-d created.”

The creation of the world was an act of imagination – G-d’s imagination. And so when we create in turn, emulating G-d’s creation of the world by building His home, we are to involve our own imaginations, our inner visions. The Torah does not paint us a picture for a simple reason: the Tabernacle is not fully designed in heaven. We are to be full partners in that act of creation, engaging both our physical bodies and our spiritual souls in the act of making something new and beautiful so that He may dwell among us.

Comments are welcome!