In 2012, Neil Gaiman gave the commencement address at the University of the Arts. Gaimon is a prolific author of fantasy books, including the well-known and critically acclaimed, Coraline, which was made into a stop-motion animation film in 2009.
I’m guessing that Gaiman did not have Rosh Hashanah and Judaism in mind when he delivered his speech in Philadelphia. His words, however, could not be a more perfect introduction to the beginning of our New Year:
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do:
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Make it on the good days too.
And while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
The Torah is good art.
B’reishit bara Eloheim - In the beginning, God created.The Torah wastes no time in creating the grandeur of the universe - the sea and sky, light and darkness, mammals and bugs, fish and plants, and after six days, man and woman.
Like other works of great art, there is much to be gained by looking at the nitty gritty details, the specifics. And so, let us magnify our interpretive microscopes a bit more as we look at the canvas of our Torah. Let’s look at the first word of the Torah … no, even closer, at just the first letter, the letter beit.
I want to share two things about the letter beit, both involving the artistry of its physical structure. You may know that the word beit comes from bayit, the word for house. The letter looks like a house that needs one last wall to be constructed, as if it’s not quite finished. And so, beginning with the physical structure of this very first letter of the Torah, there’s an unstated idea that the creation that follows is unfinished, not complete.
Creation is not perfect.
In fact, as God begins the process of creation, there’s some gunk in the universe. The is the Torah's second verse: The earth was unformed and void, darkness was on the face of the deep. There are some midrashim that suggest that unfairness, tragedy, and even perhaps the existence of evil are all attributed to this cosmological detritus that was present even before God said, Let there be light.
Remember Gaiman's words: Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways life can go wrong.
The beit injects this truism into the Torah right at the beginning: The world is not perfect. It is not easy. In fact, it’s not always good. Bad, tragic, and awful things happen.
And … Happy Rosh Hashanah … By the way, if you you think this is a downer, just wait until you hear my Yom Kippur sermon!
Yogi Berra said, If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be. Imperfection is part of the fabric of creation.
Judaism abounds with related stories.
Susya reminds himself that God doesn’t want him to be as brave as Abraham or as inspirational as Moses. God doesn't want Susya to be perfect; God wants him to be Susya. Here’s another: a person goes to see his rabbi after committing many wrongs. He is despondent because he feels like he will never be as close to God as the rabbi. The rabbi pulls out two pieces of rope, both the same length. The rabbi cuts one of the ropes into two pieces, explaining that when someone sins, the link between God is broken. Then, the rabbi ties the two pieces back together: But when you perform t’suvah,you would in fact be closer to God than the me!
Our Talmud contains my favorite teaching along these lines: It tells us that before creating man and woman, before creating the universe - before even creating light, God created 7 things. One of them is T’suvah.
I didn't know that Yogi Berra was a Talmudic scholar, but he was absolutely right. Imperfection is built into the fabric of the cosmos. It’s in the very first letter. It’s in our Torah. It’s in our Midrash. And it is certainly in our lives.
Good art allows for many interpretations and perspectives … So let’s look at another.
This also looks at the structure of the beit. It's closed on three sides, with an opening toward the left. The narrative of our history flows forward from the beit’s opening, and moves forward from the right to the left. The beit opens up to our future.
From this, our tradition teaches that what matters most is what is front of us. Yes, we recall the past. Memory is both an honor and an obligation, especially as it is mentioned 169 times in the Torah. But our past is meant to propel us forward.
Dory said it memorably in another piece of good art, Finding Nemo: Just. Keep. Swimming.
We see that the letter beit describes the what of life and the how of life. What is creation? It is a precious, holy thing that is often imperfect, and sometimes incredibly painful and tragic. And how do we deal with it?
When God creates human beings, God creates us in the image of God. This means that we are partners with God in continuing the work of creation. We are artists. So how do we deal with life? We can make good art.
Music is a powerful art form. During these High Holidays, music was created to take us to a higher spiritual plane. This is especially true for Untaneh Tokef, a central part of our High Holiday liturgy. It is also a very difficult prayer.
It is so troubling, that some rabbis won’t read the english translation, with its gruesome enumerations of how some of us might die - who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast …
The prayer's specificity of painful possibilities are dated, but we can easily imagine a modern equivalent: Who shall die by car and who shall die by gun. Who by hatred and who by war. Who by violence and who by recklessness ...
At best, the prayer makes us uneasy with its theology of a supernatural God that many of us may not believe in. At worst, however, it suggests that God intentionally takes the lives of our loved ones because they didn’t pray enough, or did not perform enough.
Thinking about the Untaneh Tokef reminds me of a story told by one of my Bible professors. When Dr. Aaron was a student at HUC, he asked a mentor of his why the books of Job and Ecclesiastes were in the Torah. Like our Untaneh Tokef, both deal with randomness and awful tragedy. I’ll never forget what Dr. Aaron said. His professor said that those books were in the Bible because they are true to the human condition.
Untaneh Tokef is also true. It reminds us that even if we are righteous and do Mitzvot, even if we pray, even if we study Torah … there are no guaranties. I've mentioned before that life is a pre-existing condition. The imperfection of the world, the randomness, the tragedies, the pain ... they come along with the life we are given. Like our beit that introduces the sometimes troubling and imperfect fabric of creation, Untaneh Tokef describes the what of our world and our lives.
The Untaneh Tokef's power comes partially from this understanding that it describes a powerful truth about the frailty of human life, reminding us of our mortality. But its real importance lies in moving us from the definitional - the whatof our experience - to the behavioral - the how of our future selves.
After going through the littany of various deaths and punishments, the Unataneh Tokek concludes by telling us, T'shuvah, T'fillah and T'zedakah can temper judgement's severe decree. Repentance, prayer and righteous deeds temper judgement's severe decree.
These are the good works of art that we need to make.
We make such art today and tomorrow, as we blow the shofar and recount our actions this past year. We make such art every Friday night when we celebrate creation and our partnership with God. We make such art when we gather to mourn together at a funeral or a shiva minyan. We make it when we celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We create art when we learn together, break bread together, fast together, break the fast together, pray together, and as alluded to last night, even argue together. Judaism makes good art.
The artfulness of Judaism teaches us how to respond to life, and its joys, its tragedies, its routines, its surprises.
Every day that we have the non-guaranteed blessing of waking up and being alive, we have the opportunity to move forward, to do T'suvah, T'fillah and T'zedakah.
We must emember that we are created in the image of God. We are good art.
Think about that as I read The following words. They are often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but they are from a poem by Marianne Williamson:
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
You are a child of the creator. That makes you a creator. Create a life of meaning and joy, hope and friendship, laughter and understanding, learning and love, empathy and wisdom. And do it knowing that life is imperfect, difficult and painful.
And like Neil Gaimon said, don't make good art only when life is hard. Don't do it just to temper judgement's severe decree, or as Picasso said, to wash the dust of daily life off our souls. Make good art to enhance the joy and sacredness of life.
Life is a pre-existing condition. Repentance, prayer and righteous deeds are also a pre-existing condition. Today, the combination of both lies ahead of us. It is our blessing and responsibility to take both together and then ... make good art.