A Rabbi's World
The JW Q&A
A Rabbi's World
In the Beginning
A Rabbi's World
I was 5 years-old and my father was the President of Crayola Crayons. This gave me significant popularity points as a kindergartner. One day, my parents came home to find that I had taken my Crayola markers and painted all over all of the white walls in the house. As protocol for this type of normal occurrence, my mother scolded me while my father, as a marketer of ideas, stood back and thought. It was in this precise moment that the washable marker was invented. I take some credit for this invention.
Only a few months later, I decided to help my father by washing his car. Unable to locate a rag, I decided to use Brillo pads. I never claimed I was the cleverest lad in the ‘80s. I was shocked when I washed away the soap suds to find that I had scratched the paint off of the entire 1985 Buick. Unfortunately this one didn’t spur an invention.
My justification in both of these incidences was that I was expressing my creativity. Growing up I tended to confuse the virtue of creativity with the vice of destruction. Creativity simply meant exploration and experimentation albeit with good intentions even if it happened to destroy.
“Bereishit bara Elohim et ha’shamayiim v’et ha’aretz” is the first line of the Torah - In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. Bereishit bara Elokim – G-d creates. G-d is a being of creativity.
Why does the Torah want to be sure that we recognize creativity as the first Divine virtue of all? This is based on the two primary foundations for ethics. Firstly, Jewish law guides us and can set moral and spiritual boundaries. Secondly, Halakhta B’drakhav - Imitatio Dei – we must strive to imitate the ways of God.
God creates and then God sees that creating is good. If we are to emulate the ways of G-d then we are asked to create – to become agents of creativity – as an ethical and spiritual necessity. In essence, man is a creative being.
What is the one mitzvah that we learn from the Torah? According to the Sefer HaChinuch, it’s Peru U’rvu - to be fruitful and multiple. On a halakhic level, this means that we need more Jewish babies. But on a broader plain, it means that humans were created in order to become agents of creation – to be fruitful and multiply. However the mitzvah might mean even more. The Me’am Loez, the great 18th c. Turkish Torah commentator, has a radical interpretation suggesting that Peru U’rvu is not only fulfilled through procreation but through chiddushei Torah (novel Torah interpretations) and the necessary new ideas that each person much create on their own. Peru U’rvu is a general command for religious creativity: perpetuating what is just and good and holy in the world. We are constantly commanded to fulfill Peru U’rvu to an infinite extent as we can always seek to be more intellectually and spiritual creative.
We’re not asked to be creators just once in our lives but as daily creators. As we say twice in our morning prayers each day: “Mechadaish b’chol yom taamid maasei bereishit” (God creates daily, constantly, the work of creation). We should all yearn in our professional and private lives to be mechadaish (creative)– to have our own effect on the world.
When a writer is up late at night trying to finish an article on deadline: “mechadaish b’chol yom.” When a parent is struggling to learn a more effective way to discipline their child : “mechadaish b’chol yom.” When a person realizes that they just don’t understand the Talmudic passage after a few hours of concentration: “mechadaish b’chol yom.” When someone gains a new understanding for the suffering of others in the world and is seeking the best way to help: “mechadaish b’chol yom tamid maasei bereishit.” Everywhere in life, there is room for innovation and creativity creating a deep impact.
Creativity as the purpose of our existence is what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik called the charge of “majesty and humility” – that the religious personality must be humble but also seeking to live like a king – as a radical creator in the world. He writes:
“The power stored up within man is exceedingly great, is all-encompassing, but all too often it slumbers within and does not bestir itself from its deep sleep. The command of creation, beating deep within the consciousness of Judaism, proclaims: Awake ye slumberers from your sleep. Realize, actualize yourselves, your own potentialities and possibilities, and go forth to meet your G-d. The unfolding of man’s spirit that soars to the very heavens, that is the meaning of creation…..Action and creation are the true distinguishing marks of authentic existence.”
This is the great challenge placed on each of us. Yet while creativity can at times be such a rewarding spiritual process, it can also involve a complex array of feelings: fear and hope, discord and harmony, discomfort and determination, exuberance and angst. Creativity is not merely the moment of finding a solution (the light bulb moment). Rather it is the moment of finding the problem – all of our days, all or our lives we can remain in a creative process when we’re focused on the problems to be addressed.
It’s at the moment of despair – when it seems that there are no answers left when our unique human capacity for perseverance and creativity can kick in. This is when we have experienced failure and struggle but we keep looking.
After all, Thomas Edison had to try thousands of different types of light bulbs before the first one finally worked. Leonardo da Vinci destroyed many of his own canvasses. Albert Einstein once said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
For even the best musicians, there are a lot of cracked notes. Failure and confusion is a necessary part of the creative process but it can be so scary to think of ourselves failing but also that we often think of creativity as requiring the most brilliant and grand innovations. And so it requires serious courage to create, where courage is not about the absence of despair and doubt but the capacity to move forward in spite of despair. We must conquer the fear that our creations will fail, will be rejected, and will be irrelevant.
So many of us, in this past challenging year, have really struggled and lost? For some of us, it was a tremendously challenging financial year. Some of us lost almost all we had saved. For some our big plans were destroyed. For others relationships simply disappeared. So much despair, nothing feels quite as complete or whole like it used to, our past plans have not all come to fruition.
Yet, in this way, we can perhaps also emulate G-d. The Midrash teaches us a very profound lesson here on creation. The Midrash teaches that G-d created ten worlds, destroyed each one, tried again, until finally this world was created. Our universe emerged only after other unsuccessful attempts (Genesis Rabbah 3:7, Esh Kodesh p. 114).
Now, of course, we never know if the text is actually speaking of God and a historical reality or just teaching us a moral value for human experience.
This world may have been the most perfect of the ten created but still the world was left unfinished so that humans could have a part in creation. When we wake up to the realities of existence, we can participate in the creative process.
As emulators of G-d in creation we are called upon to see problems as opportunities where we can respond to challenges as positive opportunities for creation. We don’t just sit and complain at challenges – we create partnerships and solutions.
When life is seen as a series of moments of creation through speech, through relationships, ideas, and love we can re-imagine possibility in our lives. It is only by being present in the moment and by acting in the moment that we can truly be creative to create new possibilities in the world as Jewish theology is a performative theology where the act (the mitzvah) is central to creating. Even further, Jewish theology is a transformative theology – in creation, in fulfilling mitzvot, we recreate ourselves and our world.
As George Bernard Shaw once said: “Life is not about finding yourself but about creating yourself.” I’d go one step further: Life is about creating yourself but also creating space for others to create themselves: Every person is full of creative energies and potentials. But to what end can we really seek creativity – after all who has time to break from the routine thinking to challenge their norms and assumptions? The prophets taught us that to be a visionary and to change the world requires significant creativity. We are called upon to inspire in ourselves the courage to create.
The Ramban explains in the creation story a brilliant idea about the human condition based upon the language used in the Torah. He explains the significant difference between bria and yetzira (creating vs. forming). The Torah uses the language of bria to describe the initial creation of the world and the creation of humans. This is a creation called yesh m’ayin – a creation out of no prior existence. Other creations, the Torah describes as yetzira. This is a creation called yesh m’yesh–a creation from existing substance and existence. We say this every morning “yotzeir or u’vorei choshekh” (light comes from other light so it is the language of yetzira (forming) but darkness is a creation from nothingness so it is the language of bria (creating)).
Being that humans were uniquely created from nothing, we too have this capacity through the intellectual and spiritual realm to be creative beyond ever imagined. Now perhaps we may only create something from nothing (yesh m’ayin) on a grand level a few times in our lives but yesh m’yesh (creating from something) is constant throughout our day. This constant yetzira (constant forming process) can be such holy work that transforms mundane parts of our lives. This is where religious life becomes transformative for us – when it informs how we form our daily realities based on the tools we have. It can be so scary to think that all creativity must be totally innovative and that with our creative potentials we must only create the most grand ideas. Rather we need just to maintain a steady commitment and focus by living a life of creativity and a life of possibility.
It is the constant process of creation that we as humans are engaged in that Rav Kook believed to be at the core of spiritual life. He wrote in Orot HaKodesh:
“Every fleeting moment we create, consciously and unconsciously, multitudes of creation beyond measure. If we would only condition ourselves to feel them, to bring them within the zone of clear comprehension, to introduce them within the framework of appropriate articulation, there would be revealed their glory and their splendor. Their effect would then become visible on all of life.”
For Rav Kook, the mandate is not only to seek to perpetuate our creative energies but to become aware that at each moment we are engaged in a creative process (spiritually and practically).
As the High Holidays have now come to a close, it is so easy for us to just move back into our daily routine. The story of creation comes at the right time to remind us of our potentials that we are full of immense potential put in this world with the purpose to create with our unique capacities. In the face of losses and defeats, we can have the courage to create. In working to build our community, create change in the world, and in each and every career and type of work, we have unique and vital creative energies and gifts to share at every stage of our lives. We were brought into the world specifically to offer our gift, to be partners with God in creation in our own unique way. When God says “Let us make man,” it has been suggested that G-d is actually talking to man as a partner. God transcends nature and we are asked to do the same, to acknowledge that what is doesn’t necessarily have to be. As the Kabbalists explain, God works through us to create change in the world. To actualize God’s creative potential, each of us must create.
While sometimes our creative energies may unintentionally lead us to paint marker on the walls or accidentally scratch paint off of cars, and this can make us fearful of striving to continue to create, it is this creative potential that needs to be fostered and then courageously channeled in the most holy and noble of endeavors.
Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012.
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