This time of the year is called either the High Holy Days or the Days of Awe and they begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, followed by the ten days of repentance, and then end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There really are three basic questions that these ten days invite us to think about.
One is can I change as a human being? Can I really become better? Can I become more? Can I continue to experience, expand, and enrich. I think that’s a really hard question to ask. Can I become better or is this the way it is and am I doing the best I can, and that’s it? And the second question is, is forgiveness possible? Can I forgive other people, and can I feel forgiven? I think that’s also a very difficult question. We talk a lot about forgiveness and wanting to be forgiven and to forgive other people, but it’s far more complex process than we may choose to realize. And the third question that runs through all of these days is am I accountable for my behavior? And I think those three questions and themes run through the entire High Holy Day period.
There’s also a practice starting the month before Rosh Hashanah of blowing the shofar, which is one of the central symbols of the High Holiday experience, blowing the shofar at the end of the morning prayer service, and the shofar is just a blast of the ram’s horn, and it, in a sense, wakes you up. You’re not used to hearing a blast of a ram’s horn, and it is supposed to cause you to become more alert to your own behavior. Another year is about to begin; time to wake up to what this last year has been and to walk with intention into the new one.
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Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is a commemoration of creation and the beginning of life.
“In the beginning God created heaven and the earth –the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water…”
The poet who wrote this breathtaking narrative was someone just like us, someone who wanted to understand, to imagine the origins of life itself. And what a vision. The world began with an act of supreme creativity. Something was made out of nothing, and life began its glorious unfolding. There’s such a wonderful order to it all: each day yielding a new form of life; ever day seeming to reach such a satisfying conclusion; then humankind, created “in the image of the Creator.”
It’s no wonder so many people over so many centuries have wanted to take the opening of Genesis literally. How incredible to think the world emerged from a fourteen-billion year “week” of awesome power and sheer inspiration. How marvelous to imagine that humankind was in the image of an artistic genius we know as God. St. Thomas Aquinas called God “Artist of Artists.”
The first chapter of Genesis is a meditation on the yearning to create; a yearning, the Biblical author intuited, that is our very birthright. In Genesis human beings are invited into the creative process on Day Six, and time as we know it begins. After the rest of the world unfolds, human beings are created in order to tend and protect it. The world was left unfinished so that humans could have part in Creation.
These wonderfully poetic passages invite us to imagine that we too can create with purpose and intention; that we too can craft worlds. The Creation story is so powerful in part because it awakens this yearning. It taps into a basic human desire to connect with something larger than ourselves, to feel like we contribute to the continuation and evolution of the universe.
The poet understood that we are all world builders. When we write a poem, raise a child, build a home, or help launch a company, we are acting from that same God-inspired impulse. We are answering that overwhelming, wondrous yearning to be creative, to contribute something of value, to make a difference.
There are so many aspects of creativity and so many manifestations of the creative act and when we really think about it creativity entails a complex array of feelings: exuberance and anxiety; fear and hope; dissonance and harmony; discomfort and determination.
Creativity demands that we break from our habitual forms of thinking and acting. The conventions and rules we grew up with, the old solutions, just won’t suffice. And we must divert our energy from the known to the unknown. We must turn possibility into actuality. Nothing could be more daunting; which is why there is almost always a period of resistance, of self-judgment, of fear of failure. Maybe we’re not ready. Maybe we’ll come back to it. Maybe we’ll move on to the next thing. Inspiration can be that scary.
But when we decide to go for it, when we step away from our preprogrammed reactions to the world, we have the opportunity to launch ourselves into a whole new landscape, a new reality, whether in our work, our relationships, or the wider world.
Once in class while talking about Creation in the Genesis story, my friend, an artist asked a great question: “Where were the mounds of dried -clay thrown in anguish into the corner?” Creation seems so quick and effortless. Maybe da Vinci had to clean up after himself, but what about God? What kind of model for creativity did that Genesis poet create after all? It all seems so glorious, so neat, so perfect, so unrealistic, especially when seen in the context of our own creative experience. But there’s a story in the Talmud teaching that God created ten worlds, destroying each one, then trying again, until finally having that one wonderful, productive week. Earlier failures become the stuff of innovation
So many of the tensions endemic to creativity are captured in the story of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. There are two paradigms of creativity juxtaposed in this one scene, one coming right after the other as if to invite our comparison. The first is the story of the golden calf, followed by the building of a tabernacle in the desert. That moment at the base of the mountain was wide open with possibilities for human expression and realization. Both stories have so much to teach us about our process, the dark side of creativity and the light.
As the ancient Israelites stood at the base of Mt Sinai, they experienced the full dimensions of the creative moment. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, they were now free to create their lives. They were given opportunity to experience a new sense of their own capacities, which they simply couldn’t have had as slaves. They’d left their old identity behind, broken from their past, and now had to construct a new future. Meanwhile, on top of Mt Sinai, Moses received instructions for building a tabernacle, a temporary temple in the desert, a sanctuary for the divine presence.
Below, the people had an encounter with the Creator that was dramatic and fiery, as creative inspiration can so often be. Everything seemed altered. Time stood still, and everything hung in the balance. Their senses fused: We’re told they saw thunder and heard lightening. They were in a different reality. Then they heard the great silence and experienced the vast openness of life. The questions they heard in all that silence were, “What now? Who will we be?” The fear of the unknown is central to creativity. Will the Israelites be able to rise to the creative challenge? To follow the inspiration? To become a people? We, too, face similar turning points. We all have our Egypts. When we’re freed from the authority of our parents, the expectations of our bosses, the limitations of a dysfunctional marriage –what now? Do we really want the power to create our own lives? When it’s time for us to run the company, create our own family, construct a new relationship –are we up to the challenge? Or would we rather stay in Egypt, where the landmarks are familiar, if confining?
For the Israelites, the encounter was overwhelming. They shuddered, were knocked off their feet, and fell back from the mountain. They retreated from the questions. The problem of freedom seemed too difficult to tackle. And then they tried to fill the silence with their old script; to resurrect the past. Instead of building a tabernacle, they built the golden calf. At that moment of unprecedented freedom they engaged in what was a magnificent act of creativity and construction. But it was an old image, one that was worshipped in Egypt. Just at the moment when they were invited to create something new, they preserved a deadened form of the past. They literally recast it. They affirmed what they already knew rather than stretching into the future. Inspiration aborted.
Often, after we see the challenge, our first move is to retreat. Only then can we step forward. Sometimes we need to reach backwards before we can reach toward something new. The key is not to mistake our first move as our last. Just because we misstep doesn’t mean we preempt illumination. We can be loyal to our past and still transcend it. When Moses came down from the mountain and saw what the people had done, he was enraged. Is this what you do when you’re invited to create your own lives?! Moses destroys the calf, and then something remarkable happened. A different kind of construction began. It was the onset of illumination.
It was as if the people heard the question once again: What kind of world do you really want to create? This time they heard it as an invitation rather than a demand; an evolution rather than an abrupt break from the past. And the language in these passages is so markedly different than those which precede them. The construction of the calf takes only a few lines; you don’t need preparation and incubation if you’re simply repeating the past. The people bring Aaron their gold rings and the calf is built. But the tabernacle takes six chapters to build.
Before there are six chapters of instructions about how to build it and what it should contain. The people are to use gold once again, but hundreds of other materials to be combined in many new and intricate ways. This the information-gathering stage; now they are willing to jump in and learn. This time their response to the unknown, to the call of inspiration, has been to prepare. Rather than creating a solid idol, they construct a space, a safe place for creativity to continue, for the Creator to dwell.
Craft, design, make. These words are used eighty times in these passages describing the building of the tabernacle. They’re the same three words used to describe the acts of Creation in Genesis. Now it’s the people who are working hard to make a world; a house worthy of containing all that is.
The poet’s language so beautifully captures our creative yearnings. Everyone “whose heart so moves him” is invited to bring gifts with which to build. The Israelites contribute their gold and silver, their yarns and linens, and their oil and spices and wood as a “freewill offering” until there’s more than enough. The people are called “inspired artisans, cravers, designers, weavers.” They use their expertise to address their new challenge of freedom. The women spin blue, purple, and crimson yarns as the men build the grand tent in very specific dimensions, with silver sockets and bars of acacia wood and planks of gold.
One commentary describes a tapestry with a different scene on each side. When you’ve been inspired, prepared, and incubated there’s an element of impossibility to the nest stage –illumination. We can combine fragments of our imagination in untold ways. What a glorious world! What amazing creators! Miraculously, in the middle of the desert there’s a tabernacle: illumination in the midst of a barren landscape. Creation in the shadow of idolatry now becomes creation in the shadow of God.
The head architect of this monumental and complex structure is Bezalel, whose name actually means “in the shadow of God.” He’s “endowed with a divine skill, ability, and knowledge.” In Hebrew the word for knowledge is the same as that for lovemaking, intimacy. Bezalel combines materials both old and new to create. The sages say he pulled himself loose of all the forms of Egypt to build something new.
We are all Bezalels. We are lovers and weavers; architects and poets. The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that life is not about finding yourself but creating yourself. Like the ancient Israelites, we always have a choice: Will we build golden calves or tabernacles? Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. The good news is, and what the annual Rosh Hahshanah celebration reminds us, we can always start again.
From Yearnings by (my) Rabbi Irwin Kula