I have always been artistic – from as far back as I can remember. I was in pottery class at age four. My mother, bless her, held onto my creations for years – until just recently, when their impending downsize forced her to relegate my first “masterpieces” to the garbage. I painted and created throughout grade school and high school. Of course, being a New Yorker, we took requisite visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There we would walk from room to room – I don’t remember much except for the Egyptian Mummies and statues of cats.
My real appreciation of art came when I went to college and took my first course in art history. It was there that I was introduced to the scope and breadth of art through the ages. In particular, I remember learning about the art of classical Greece. We studied bas-relief and proportions. It was clear that the classical Greek idea of beauty was the gold standard of art for centuries to come. I was struck by one sculpture in particular – a headless woman who was leaning over to fasten her sandal. It seemed so current and so timeless – as if she had stopped just a moment ago. Clearly, ancient Greece was on to something and the refinement and beauty that they achieved was unsurpassed in the world up to that point.
Becoming observant placed me in a puzzling position. Was there room for me to appreciate art? Was there room for me to create it? Being faced with so many meaningful things to do in life, I constantly questioned whether painting in itself had any point beyond the positive effect on my psyche. One could argue that pursuit of art as an “outlet” is justification enough and I think it is. But on a deeper level, I think that there is much Jewish wisdom to be learned from the experience itself.
What is the goal of a painting and how is it achieved? I know that what moves me when I see an image is not its realistic depiction. For that, I can look at a photograph. I also know that my best work is achieved – not when I am depicting what I actually see, but when I forget about what I am seeing. The more I am able to let go of my preconceived notion that “this is a tree” and this is a “house”, the better I am able to depict them. It is counter-intuitive but true. It is also very difficult.
My brain constantly wants to limit my perception. It tells me “it’s a tree” – ”it’s gotta look like a tree”. So, I try and make it look like a tree – and it ends up looking like a lollipop on a stick. When I am able to shift over – to see that it is not a tree – but rather a shape that lies next to another shape then, something beyond my superficial categorization – voila – I end up with a tree.
And here lies the life lesson. The more I try to invest in the physical and hold onto it – the more limited it becomes. To be Jewish is to realize that this world is a façade to a much deeper reality and my opportunity to earn eternity is based on my ability to choose to “see” events in a transcendent way.
Let’s say that I knock the bottle of olive oil off the counter 5 minutes before Shabbat candle lighting. I can see it as a disgusting, annoying mess – a disaster and an opportunity to get angry with everyone. Think “lollipop tree”. Or I can see it as something more – a moment in time where I can choose my response and see it for what it is – an opportunity to grow. Voila – a transcendent moment: and a chance to put a few more stokes on my eternal canvas.
This brings me back to that Greek sculpture and being Jewish. My understanding of Chanukah in those days was limited to eight nights of presents and lighting candles occasionally. We used to forget a lot – since the menorah was located way back in the family room. I remember being told about the victory of the tiny Maccabees over the mighty Greeks. I never quite connected the oil of the latkes to the miracle of the oil.
Only later did I learn the details. The Greeks outlawed three specific mitzvoth: Shabbat, Brit Milah and marking the New Moon. At first glance, these seem like strange choices, random and unconnected. Actually, there is one theme that unites them all. These mitzvot connect us to a metaphysical realm that transcends physicality. For the Greeks, the physical world is perfection itself. There is no need for transcendence. There is nothing beyond. This world is it: beauty for beauty’s sake. For the Jews, living a life like that is pointless. It is flat and purposeless. Kind of like a tree that looks like a lollipop on a stick. They were willing to fight and die for the right to elevate reality. In the process – they rededicated the Temple, which was the masterpiece on this earth of spirituality transcending physicality.