A Creative Life

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, teaches how we should relate to a new baby. “The astounding miracles of matrimony, birth and raising a child open a person’s heart and eyes and his ears to see that nothing ‘just happens.’ This experience should awaken any thinking person’s ability to be emotionally moved.

“This is the meaning of the Midrash Tanchuma on the verse וילדה זכר And she birthed a male.’ The Midrash applies the verse, ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ to this. It explains there that the word צורcan be understood to refer to צייר which means one who fashions. In this context the verse is saying that there is none who can fashion like God does. A human makes a picture on the wall. Can it move? Can it breathe? Can it speak? God creates man who moves, breathes and speaks. An expert painter has many types of paint to create a picture. God can create a human from one drop.

“We see from here that one who sees a child should be filled with wonder. Studying a child should bring one to contemplate the works of God. Giving this any thought should lead one to the same conclusion as the Midrash: ‘There is צייר , no artist like God.”

Rav Yechiel Michel Stern pointed out the obvious question on this midrash: “It seems strange that our sages took the verse ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ out of the simple meaning. Usually the word צור literally rock, means forceful or powerful, and does not refer to an artist or fashioner.

“The Maharsha in Berachos answers this question. Since the verse tells us that there is no צור like God it implies that there are others which should be referred to as צור , but they cannot be compared to God. Clearly, here we are speaking not of the one and only Rock, but of a different meaning related to the root צור!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Ultimate Artist”
Niddah 41

In Rabbi Yaakov Menken’s commentary on last week’s Torah Portion Chukat, he addresses the mystery behind the sin that resulted in the death of Aaron and Moses being denied entry into the Land of Promise. For many, trying to comprehend what sin Aaron and Moses committed that was worth so terrible a price is extremely difficult. But we must remember that not only were Aaron and Moses born to accomplish a very high purpose, but we see that the more exalted a person’s holiness, the more is required of them. In other words, the higher you fly, the further you have to fall.

Precisely because the Bible is dealing with individuals on an exalted spiritual level, if it were to tell us merely what they did, we would be unable to perceive anything wrong. For those people, their behavior was no less a transgression than if a more common individual had committed a major sin such as murder, adultery or idolatry — and thus the Prophets use severe language, similar to HaShem’s own words that Moshe and Aharon “did not believe” in Him. Just like the anthropomorphic references to HaShem Himself, these passages use language which we can understand, so that we can learn from them, but are not intended to be taken literally at all.

Every human being is just that — human — and no one is perfect. Even as we are humbled by recognition of the heights reached by prophets and great scholars, we should never lose hope, or imagine that those who came close to G-d were truly angels, without inner struggles or difficulties. This is the lesson the Torah brings home to us when attributing unimaginable ‘sins’ to our forebears. And yet it is also incumbent upon us to realize that we could be, ourselves, so close to HaShem that our ‘sins’ would be something we could not even recognize today.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this event in the Bible is nearly impossible for most of us to understand is that the majority of us are not tzaddikim; exceptionally righteous ones. Our worldview does not operate at such an exalted level. In the same manner, this is most likely what made it difficult for Christ’s own disciples to understand him at times and, what continues to contribute to what we often refer to as “the difficult sayings of Jesus” as seen from the perspective of the 21st century believer.

I know most Christians like to think of Jesus as ultimately approachable, friendly, kind, and understandable, but in spite of 1 Corinthians 2:16, we may be forced to admit that the mind of the Messiah is beyond most of us. Even the sins of those lesser than the Messiah but still exalted Holy ones are difficult to comprehend. Hence the following from Rabbi Menken:

On Rosh HaShanah, there is a tradition to go to a body of water and “cast off” one’s sins, as it were, and ask that they be covered over like water covers and hides the fish who swim within it. Many Chassidim have a custom to take bread crumbs along and throw them in, to give physical expression to this idea.

It is said that after a particular Chassidic Rebbe threw crumbs into the water in accordance with this custom, one of his Chassidim bounded into the lake and began to retrieve them. When questioned, the Chassid explained: “what the Rebbe considers his ‘sins’ are Mitzvos where I’m concerned!”

For years, I couldn’t understand this story or its intended lesson. A transgression is a transgression! But then, I heard that the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Mayer HaKohein Kagan (perhaps the greatest known Torah scholar of the last century) once repented on Yom Kippur for having wasted eight minutes from Torah study during the previous year.

Can we imagine wasting merely eight minutes in an entire year? I would be extremely happy to say that I had managed to waste no more than eight minutes on a given afternoon! Maybe, maybe I’ve spent a few hours without wasting eight minutes once in my life. Maybe.

It’s impossible to imagine being able to account for every moment of every day, save eight minutes (I would almost be relieved to be told that I had heard this story incorrectly). And this is what the Chassid was saying: for us, it would be a great Mitzvah! The sins of great people occur at such a level of precision, that _reaching_ that level, to be worthy of being judged at that level, would be a phenomenal achievement.

Previously, I momentarily seemed to disregard a passage from 1 Corinthians 2, but I’d like to revisit those words in the context of Paul’s epistle:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. –1 Corinthians 2:12-16 (ESV)

This part of Paul’s letter makes it seem like, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all believers and disciples of the Jewish Messiah should have an equal ability to comprehend the Word of God, as if we were Jesus Christ himself. But do we? If we did, you’d think that the endless myriad of questions I post on this blog wouldn’t exist or would just be rather moot. You’d think instead of the 35,000+ Christian denominations (and counting) that exist in the world, we’d have only one. You’d think that we would all have the identical understanding of God and the very same template for organizing the community of faith.

You’d think God would have finished writing the Word upon our hearts by now. But apparently, He hasn’t.

As we saw in the “Story Off the Daf” from which I quoted earlier, God can be considered a magnificent artist. He fashions each and every one of us miraculously and He has repeated His artistry in an endless progression from the beginning of Genesis until now. He is creating His “paintings” still, and will continue to do so until a point in time we cannot yet even begin to grasp.

And He has created us for many purposes, all of which serve His will. But all that being true, He gave us the gift of self-determination to the point where only a human being may actively and purposefully defy the will of God. In other words, we can take the incredibly wonderful work of art that was created by the hand of God and turn it into the moral equivalent of a velvet painting of Elvis (and I apologize to all of the fans of Elvis Presley and those of you who enjoy velvet paintings).

I can hardly accuse Aaron and Moses of such a sin against God. It is God who held them both responsible for how they chose to treat His “artwork”. And while you and I (or at least I) are not tzaddikim and we do not operate at the level of Aaron or Moses (and certainly not at the level of Christ), we have been created as God’s handiwork to serve a purpose and a goal. We are responsible for what we do with our lives. There are consequences for choosing not to live as we were designed to live.

The end of the lives of Aaron and Moses give us an idea of those consequences. We also have examples such as Nadab and Abihu.

Who are we and where do we come from? Do we have a purpose in life, or is everything we do random and meaningless? Is this all there is or is there something more?

We spend all our lives trying to answer questions like these. Even those of us who adhere to a specific religious tradition encounter great difficulties in answering what should be the simplest questions about our faith. Now we see that these questions and their answers aren’t just meaningless exercises in philosophy. They are what define us, not just as individuals, but as a species. If we are simply the most evolved animals on the planet, then it pretty much doesn’t matter what we do. Go ahead and destroy the physical environment and contribute to our extinction. It doesn’t matter. The planet will eventually recover and even if it doesn’t, so what? We will have exterminated ourselves, but the Universe goes on.

But what if we have been created by the “Master Artist” for a higher purpose? If there are consequences, for good or for bad, for the manner in which we live out our lives, then our every action does matter, our every decision does have an impact beyond that of the moment. Our words, behavior, and feelings are all part of a greater design that contributes to the infinite tapestry of Creation. Each individual life is personally important as an artistic act of God and it matters to Him how things are going for us each and every day.

Just recently, I compared a life of faith to a bird in endless flight. Given the example of Aaron and Moses, we can see how “dangerous” it is to fly as high as they did, because with one subtle failure, they lost their wings and fell back to earth in disgrace. And yet the wonder and majesty that they beheld, especially Moses who spoke to our infinite “Artist” as one might speak to a dear and close friend…isn’t that worth even so great a risk? Isn’t soaring through space, nearing the court of the Mighty One, tasting the excitement, the freedom, the glory of approaching even the tiniest thread of the hem of the living God worth our time, our effort, even our very lives?

The Artist with His brush, puts the finishing touches on His latest painting and looks upon it with satisfaction. The painting, moments away from birth, stares back at the Creator and smiles with gratitude and love.

Then, as a child might send a paper airplane aloft with a single flick of the wrist, we are sent up into the Heavens and born into our lives. May we fly with the wings of an angel and live with the soul of His Image.

Why can’t He provide simple, clear directions and let us just follow His Divine plan? Why does He place these challenges before us, forcing us to make our own decisions, to chisel out our own paths?

Because He desires a home in our world
—not a home manufactured in heaven and transported downward to earth,
but a home made in our world
out of worldly materials,
chosen, designed and constructed
by citizens of our world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Made On Earth”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

4 thoughts on “A Creative Life”

  1. Rabbi Menkin (expressing a common idea,) writes, “Precisely because the Bible is dealing with individuals on an exalted spiritual level, if it were to tell us merely what they did, we would be unable to perceive anything wrong. For those people, their behavior was no less a transgression than if a more common individual had committed a major sin such as murder, adultery or idolatry.”

    Really? The concept that what are minor sins for us were major sins for them is not very complicated. Rabbi Menkin has expressed it well and I resist the claim that the biblical authors were incapable of doing the same.

    But I also resist the idea that the clear descriptions of the sins of our great forebears should not be taken at face value. They shared the same humanity and vulnerabilities we have (though some rabbinic sources claim that their urges are stronger than ours). Their minor sins had great consequences and their major sins had even greater consequences.

    One great lesson to be gleaned from their failures should be a sense of great humility about human capacity (that is, incapacity) for perfection. Another lesson is that their cries to God – I am thinking especially about the Psalms – are so relevant to us precisely because they reflect common human circumstances in which we are all enmeshed.

    To my mind, the lives of our great forebears are so impressive not because they were on a different spiritual plane but because they accomplished great things despite their vulnerabilities and shortcomings.

  2. I should probably start adding disclaimers to my “meditations” whenever I quote midrash stating that I’m including them for their metaphorical value rather than accepting them as literal truth. It’s sort of how I view the Chassidic tales and even quotes from the Tanya. It’s not like I adhere to those writings as if they were scripture from the Bible, but they do tell stories that I think we can draw from and apply to our own lives.

    I agree with you Carl, that the greatest value of the stories of the men and women of the Bible wasn’t their exalted spiritual loftiness, but the fact that they were human beings who had flaws, just like we do, and yet were able to serve God in great and wonderful ways. I do maintain however, that having such a relationship with God as say Abraham or Moses did, would have altered their perceptions and they would have been sensitive to a good many things that I’m sure I would miss completely.

    Imagine being Jesus during the three years he was working with his disciples and trying to impart to them, let alone the crowds of “ordinary Israeli Jews,” what the things of Heaven were like. Even though he tried to communicate as simply as he could using parables and metaphors, even today, we struggle with some of what he was trying to tell us.

    Just my humble opinion.

    1. I agree completely. I don’t think that everything can be expressed simply, clearly, and unambiguously – just that Rabbi Menkin’s thought was quite clear and if that’s what the Bible meant, it could have been expressed that way.

      If you accept as metaphor some what Chassidic sages mean as literal truth, it would be good for you to make that clear somehow.

  3. If you accept as metaphor some what Chassidic sages mean as literal truth, it would be good for you to make that clear somehow.

    I need to find a way to say that unless I state otherwise, I don’t accept the tales of the Chassidim as literal truth. At best, it’s moral and ethical commentary with a mystical twist. But I like a good story. In my opinion, some of the best teachers I’ve ever had were good storytellers.

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