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We Are All Artists

Rabbi Evan Schultz                                                    Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5779
We Are All Artists

There I stood, paintbrush in hand, staring at the blank canvas hanging in front of me. A feeling of fear and nervousness overcame me all at once. I had no idea what was going to happen next.

Hayom Harat Olam, Today, on Rosh Hashanah, that world is created anew. It is on this day that we imagine God, paintbrush in hand, majestically fashioning and crafting the universe, holding in the divine hand the tohu vavohu, the chaos and void, like a potter holds a fresh, softened piece of clay. Let there be light, exclaimed God, and there was light. When God saw the light was God, God then separated the light from the darkness. Let us call the light day, and the darkness night, and thus there was evening, and there was morning. In the same manner God crafted the land and the sea, the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky, the animals, the birds, and the fish of the sea. What a majestic moment that must of been, God meticulously painting each leaf, shaking out each speck of sand, blowing life into each cloud in the sky.

And then lastly, God created you and me, the human being, Adam, a figure created in the very image of God. To us God said do you see this beautiful world I have created? The rocks that crunch beneath your feet, the air that you breathe, the light of the sky that guides your way? A more magnificent work of art, I could not imagine, the human responded to the divine. I have something to tell you about this world I just created, God said. God motioned to the human being to come near. What makes this world unique, said God, is that I have intentionally left it unfinished. It is incomplete, a portion of the canvas remains blank, for you to complete it.

The human grew overwhelmed with the task given to him, he hid beneath the trees, he ate from the fruit of the garden to perhaps gain the wisdom to complete the divine masterpiece. Me, an artist? He asked. You are God, you had a vision for this world, you said let there be light and there was light, you crafted mountains that are beyond my wildest imagination, forests that I could never fathom even in my dreams, rivers and oceans that are greater than my human mind could ever conceive of. Could you imagine Mozart asking a man on the street to compose the final light of a great symphony? Or Michelangelo asking a stranger to put the finishing touches on the Sistine Chapel? You want me to complete the world?

“Yep”, said God.

And there I stood, blank canvas, paintbrush in hand, for some reason immensely nervous to touch the hairs of the brush to the white space in front of me. Maybe in that moment I recalled God’s charge to us, to be artists, creators, that the world was intentionally left incomplete. I looked around at my other twenty or so colleagues dispersed around the room. Each with a brush in hand, and moreover each of them too seemingly hesitant to lay the brush upon the canvas.

Our group was gathered in Palo Alto, California, with a Rabbi named Adina Allen, Co-Founder and Spiritual Director of the Jewish Studio Project, or JSP. Based in Berkeley, California, the Jewish Studio Project dubs itself as a Jewish startup that is “part urban art studio, part house of Jewish learning, part spiritual community.”  Through the leadership and guidance of Rabbi Allen, JSP participants gather in their study each week to, in the deepest sense, realize the divinely ordained task to complete God’s creative process. Rabbi Allen spoke about how God in fact ordained us humans to be artists, creators, and designers. Many, certainly not all of us, sort of give up on that once we graduate elementary school. I honestly could not remember that last time that I painted freely on a blank canvas. Or just played freely on my guitar. Or took pictures of something other than my kids.

Entering the creative process can be a scary one. It means in many ways delving into a world of chaos, of unknown, no structures or boundaries to catch us if we fall. Some of the ancient writers in our tradition portray the opening verses of Genesis as wildly violent and untamed. Psalm 74, for example, evokes a great cosmic battle between God and the monstrous forces of chaos. The psalmist praises God for vanquishing the forces of cosmic evil, writing, “It is You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters, it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan. It was You who set in place the orb of the sun; You fixed all the boundaries of the earth; summer and winter – You made them.”

Rabbi Allen turned on some music and invited us to begin painting. We’d have twenty minutes.

We each have the monsters and forces that seek to sabotage our creative process. Time. Jobs. Kids. Fatigue. Lack of inspiration. Fear. Those are just mine. God ordained me to be an artist, and I find every excuse not to be. And then the shofar sounds. Deep, piercing into my soul, it calls you and me to wake up, to all of the sudden in almost a dreamlike fashion look around and immerse ourselves in the creation of the world, to see God painting the stars and sun and grass, crafting the mountains and the oceans, molding the rough, raw clay of the universe. And today, as God does every year on this first day of the month of Tishrei, hands us the paintbrush, points us to the blank, unfinished canvas, and reminds us once again, the world is unfinished, you, the humans who I created in my very own image, maybe this year you will help to complete my work.

The music relaxes me as I free myself from any constrictions that tell me I must draw this or that. I find myself painting from the bottom of the canvas upwards, the rough, ragged crevices of a mountain. And then down again, water trickles down the mountain, pooling at the bottom to create a spring. And there are birds, flying through the air, I am almost in a dreamlike state, unsure exactly who or what is prompting my hand to move the brush, some inner creative force that has dwelled dormant within me for far too long. What is the meaning of the mountain? The stream? The birds? The colors that I choose? I take a moment to pause and catch my breath, glancing around the room, twenty rabbis who every day run on schedules, Jewish time, sacred time, Bar and Bat mitzvah time, committee times, together discover the divine creative spark within.

Jazz musician Charlie Haden speaks about this kind of creative practice, the first time he played with fellow jazz musician Ornette Coleman. Haden shared this in a 1996 interview:

He, Ornette Coleman, he invited me over to his apartment and we arrived, he opened the door, music was everywhere on the rug, on the bed, on the tables, I uncovered my bass, he reached down and he picked up a manuscript and he said, “Let’s play this.” I said, “Okay.” I was real scared you know. He says, “Now, I’ve written the melody here. Underneath it are the chord changes. Those are the chord changes I heard when I wrote this melody. But when we start to play, after I play the melody and I start to improvise, you play the changes, you make up new changes that you’re hearing from what I’m playing and from the tune.” And I thought to myself, “Somebody’s finally giving me permission to do something that I’ve been, what I’ve been hearing all this time.” And we started to play and a whole new world opened up for me. It was like being born again. And I was hearing music so much more deeply than I had ever heard. It’s like, it’s like a desperate urgency to improvise completely new. We used to talk about it as if, playing music as if you’ve never heard music before.”

In Judaism we refer to this kind of creativity as kavanah – it’s the improvisation, freeing oneself, harnessing into our deeply divine creative juices. It is the opposite of keva, the fixed structures in our lives. Playing the music written on the page is keva, improvising like Charlie Haden and Ornette Colman is kavanah. Paint by number is keva, freely painting on a blank canvas is kavanah. Building IKEA furniture is Keva. Designing and building your own dresser is kavanah. Praying from the words in the prayerbook is keva, the kabbalists who went into the fields for hours to welcome in Shabbat, that was kavanah.

Judaism extends equal value and import to both keva and kavanah. Like many of the opposing poles that Judaism offers, we need both. Keva, the fixed structures of our lives, keep us on track, get us to where we need to be, define our communal structures, help us to pray the words to God that are often difficult to find and articulate on our own. Kavanah is the creativity, the improvisation, the discomfort, the unknown, the playful engagement with the world, the imperative to complete God’s universe.

Peter Korn, a craftsman and author of the book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, writes that “the most godlike aspect in mankind is the ability to create, to forget order out of chaos, to shape oneself and the world in new and, hopefully, better ways. It exercises one’s innate capacity to re-form the given world in ways that matter. Creative practice is a way to proactively challenge and refine one’s beliefs on an ongoing basis.”

Twenty minutes is a long time to paint, especially if you haven’t painted since third grade. I started to wonder if I was making mistakes. Or using too many colors. Or drawing too many birds. Keva was tugging at my kavanah. I was waking up from the dream. Rabbi Allen asked us to put our paintbrushes down. Thank goodness, I said to myself, twenty minutes is a long time to venture into the creative unknown, wrestling the monsters just as God did in the process of creating the world. I felt tired and enlivened, frustrated that it took me about thirty years to come to this moment, and at the same time emboldened to find ways to continue my creative journey.

Creation in our tradition takes on many forms. A spontaneous prayer. A tangent in Torah study that leads to a new insight. A conversation with someone you’ve seen at synagogue 100 times but never said hello to. A new song. Standing instead of sitting. Sitting instead of standing. A painting. Even getting into an argument with someone. Yes, in Judaism, arguing is akin to creation. In our tradition it says that a machloket, or a disagreement, is analogous to the creation of the world. God ordained us as artists, creators, and today, on Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded of this sacred task. We create to challenge and refine our beliefs. As the brush touches the blank canvas, we make meaning of the world. Most importantly, with each new creative addition to the world, we draw one step closer to realizing God’s sacred project.

Hayom harat olam, today is the day of the world’s creation, the shofar sounds, we, God’s artists, lift our brush, turn up the music, and paint upon God’s sacred blank canvas. Shanah Tovah.