Tag Archives: art

Ultimate Artistry

I like to think that God is an artist. The Ultimate Artist. After all, in the beginning, God creates.

For six days, God makes. On the seventh day, God rests. Six days a week, we go about our lives, taking care of the various tasks and duties at hand. On the seventh day, we are gifted a chance to be like God—to rest, as well.

Often, when I’m speaking with someone about being Shabbat observant, I get a response like, “Rabbi, I couldn’t do all that traditional stuff. It seems so restrictive.” Restrictive or freeing?, I always want to reply. We are busy being creative all week long, and Shabbat is an opportunity to stop to appreciate the art we’ve made.

When we look at the traditional prohibitions on Shabbat, we can see a single theme: The restrictions keep us from creating. In Mishnah Shabbat 7:2, our Sages outline 39 categories of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat. They include sifting flour, kneading dough, and dying wool, spinning thread, weaving fabric, and tying sistine-chapel-creation-of-adamup the loose ends. Each of the 39 actions is a creative act. Come sundown on Friday our rest is all about stopping creation for just a bit. We don’t make fire, we don’t write, and we don’t build.

When we stop creating on Shabbat, we do it for ourselves, those within our household, and even for our land. Our tradition takes Shabbat seriously, and places that obligation to break from the workweek even on the land, itself. Our tradition treats the land as a creative being. Out of the soil comes fruit and life that sustains and nurtures us. Gardeners know that overworking the soil will exhaust it. The soil demands a break. The grower is creative, and after hard work, needs rest. And the rest of us, creators in a variety of ways, are no different.

Within Shabbat lies the message of why we create—for the sake of appreciation. When else would we stop to marvel at Creation?

The Ultimate Artist rests on Shabbat to look at the masterpiece that emerges out of a 6-day creative binge. On the seventh day, God takes a step back from the canvas to see what the entire painting looks like. We artists—to be at our best—need to do the same.

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Hiddur Mitzvah — Beauty in what we do

Recently, I found myself in a Judaica shop, picking out a kiddush cup for a family friend’s son who was becoming bar mitzvah. As I searched around, I wanted to find one that both was beautiful and reflected the young man’s personality. Browsing up and down the shelves, there were countless objects, each one artistically designed, speaking out and saying—I am beautiful, and I want to help beautify your rituals!

In reality, one does not need anything more than a paper cup to make kiddush. We only need a stick of cinnamon for havdallah, not a formal spice box. A tallit is constructed out of a four cornered piece of fabric, with tzitzit tied on the corners. I even once used a small branch as a yad for Torah reading, because for my life, I could not find a proper pointer.

Walking around any Judaica store, I am struck by the thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty that goes into the making of our ritual objects. Judaism is not world-famous for its material culture; yet, our community has constantly created beautiful objects to be used in our most sacred of moments.

The want for this beauty comes out of a concept known as Hiddur Mitzvah, which is the enhancement of a mitzvah (commandment) through aesthetics. We are commanded to affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of our house. Take a small wooden box with the proper small scroll, set it diagonally on the doorpost, and say the blessing—there, we have fulfilled the mitzvah associated with mezuzah. But how does that plain, small box draw our attention to our obligation? Beautify the box, making it interesting and eye-grabbing, and suddenly the mezuzah has transformed into an attention grabber for something that we—as the Jewish community—are supposed to do.

Hiddur Mitzvah, our efforts to beautify the things that we as Jews do, is also made meaningful by memories created around the times those ritual objects are used. My favorite example of this was the tallit that I gave my brother and sister-in-law when they were married. My brother picked it out. It was a large tallit with a blue geometrical pattern that was woven into the stripes along the edges. We incorporated that tallit into their chuppah. It was the canopy under which they were married. And now, my brother wears that tallit each Shabbat. All the more so, we wrapped his daughters up in that tallit when I performed their baby namings, welcoming them into our community as daughters of the Covenant. We have charged that tallit with great power. The mitzvah that is fulfilled each time my brother puts it on is beautified by the memories of these various moments and the anticipation of other meaningful moments.

I am confident that I am not alone in the practice of placing meaning on family heirlooms, along with the want to beautify the rituals that we perform in the contexts of our families and our community. When we embrace and practice Hiddur Mitzvah, we bring light and life further into the commandments and rituals, the meaningful moments of our Jewish experiences.

Bringing light into our community is something that Anita Winer z’’l was dedicated to. She understood the power of aesthetics in our tradition. That is why I am so proud of what our congregation has done to keep Anita’s memory and blessing alive through the Open Your Eyes fund and the Shine a Light initiative.

Beginning last month, and going well into 5775, our congregation will have the opportunity to engage, learn, connect, and create in different ways, all designed to lift up the beauty of our tradition, through the context of visual and performing arts. We hope that this initiative will involve everyone within the congregation in some way or another.

The beauty of our tradition—through the glow of Channukah candles or the light that shines through a stained glass window—has the power to enhance our relationship to Jewish life. Hiddur Mitzvah calls us to consider what we do as Jews, and how we work to make it meaningful and special. I hope you will join in one of the many opportunities over the next months to bring beauty to our tradition.

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A Mile In Their Shoes

A little known secret about me is that I began college as a studio art major. I only last in that for a semester, because after a few nights in my freshman photography course, I dropped out. I could not take the criticism. Every few evenings, our professor asked us to bring in the prints that we had made for our various assignments. Each student put his or her photos up around our classroom. Then, the professor would walk around, making suggestions as to how we could improve our work.

By the third critique night, I was jazzed to show off my new prints. I had one in particular that I wanted the professor to notice. I placed it dead center on the wall, and it was the first one he commented on.

The professor was your classic artist. He wore a black turtleneck sweater and jeans, his hands were dried and cracked from years of exposure to the harsh darkroom chemicals, he had a greying goatee, and he wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses. The professor came up to the prints I had pinned to the wall, and he focused down on the one I wanted him to notice most. He placed about an inch and a half between the photograph and his nose. He lifted his glasses, resting them on his forehead, peering deeply into the shot, as though he were the photographer on the street looking through the camera’s viewfinder, composing the image. He was entering the physical space recorded in the print itself.

Then, just as intensely as he had approached, he lept back. “Mr. Hirsch, this photo fills me with a sense of existential fear,” he shouted, rolling his wrist around, his finger extended and pointing toward the photograph. He said nothing else as he continued on to other students’ works, leaving me standing there, open mouthed.

That was it. I called mercy. In hindsight, I have come to realize that the professor’s comment was a compliment. At 19 years-old, though, I heard it as criticism, and I received a flavor of existential fear. The next day I made an appointment with my advisor. I changed my major over to art history, which seemed like a safer major.

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“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes,” the joke goes, “because then you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” We are naturally critical of others. It is how we hold standards of ourselves and of others. Criticisms is easily given, and often hard to receive. It can be electric between individuals. It charges us up, and it makes the hair on our arms stand on end.

To discharge my discomfort with criticism, I have taken refuge in Hillel’s teaching, “Do not judge another until you are in his place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). This is a kinder, wiser version of the old joke. Judgement has utility for individuals and for a community, but it is power that can so easily be misemployed if used by someone who does not understand it. That is why Hillel enjoins judgement to those who have shared similar situations. My miscalculation in the freshman photography course was that I did not think of the professor as one who could criticize my work, nor was I able to see that judgement and criticism would help me grow to be a better photographer and a better man.

Criticism enables us to hold ourselves and others to particular standards, it pushes us to excel and to surpass self-imposed boundaries. Through constructive criticism we grow and learn. Proper judgement can help determine in a conflict who was correct and who was wrong. Explicit within Hillel’s statement is that there are individuals fit to sit in judgement of others, namely, those who have been in similar, previous situations to our own. Those who are worthy of being judge and critic are individuals who have experience in what they judge. I wish I could go back and say thank you to the professor for helping me learn how criticism works.

More often than not, we make or we receive a judgement quickly and harshly. We jump to conclusions. If I was able to have another conversation with that professor, I would urge both of us to think and react slower to one another. Hillel urges us to be slow in our judgement. Joseph Telushkin notes, “The expression ‘to jump to a conclusion’ almost always has a negative connotation. Few of us jump to positive assessments about others, but we are likely to seize upon a comment someone has made, an action someone has or has not taken, and assume a deficit in a person’s character” (Hillel, 75). Imagine how much richer of a community we would be if we all acted with deliberation instead of snap judgements.

No better place is that seen than in the debates between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel often takes the expansive, optimistic view, while Shammai is the literalist, conservative type. Shammai is quick to judgement, slapping away the person with the yardstick who wants the whole Torah taught to him while he stands on one foot. Hillel is humble and patient, teaching expansively. He responds to the man who wants the whole Torah in a sentence, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary, now go and study” (BT Shabbat 31a).

What many do not realize about this story is that it is one of three on the same page of Talmud. Three individuals go first to Shammai, and ask ridiculous questions. He slaps the person away, and then that same person goes to Hillel. In each case, Hillel uses the opportunity to guide the questioner into a new perspective on the question. At the end of the three vignettes, the three individuals meet. They conclude, “Shammai’s great impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”

Judgement is necessary, and it takes place as Hillel calculates his response to the individual with the strange question. Hillel’s lesson in judgement teach that there is much to gain when we are judged fairly and wisely by those for whom it is appropriate to judge. And, we reward ourselves and those around us when we refrain from unnecessary critique of others.

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