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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A (Belated) Poetic Midrash for Parshat Toldot. How have we inherited the sibling rivalries of Genesis/Bershit?

Dear Online Hevre/community,
 
I read this poetic midrash this past Friday night, but have been continuing to edit it.  As it is still a work-in-progress I would appreciate any comments you might have.

In response to the horrific terrorist attack at the synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem last week, which killed five people, including four rabbis, I joined so many other rabbis in trying to figure out the best way to address the occurrence at services.

As has been the case in the past, I really believe it is my job to present some kind of a theological response to the tragedy, rather than to talk politics.  Of course, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and terrorist attacks, it is impossible to be apolitical.  I have learned that the hard way.  So, even if my intention is not political, there are certainly political implications.  But I will leave it to the reader to draw her/his own conclusion.

In ancient times, the rabbis did not write systematic theology.  Rather, they used midrash (rabbinic tales based on biblical texts) to portray the relationship between God and humanity.  In these tales, one can discover their ideas about that relationship, and about the nature of God and the human beings created in the divine image,

I decided to write a midrash based on the birth of the twins Jacob and Esau, and the sibling rivalry which existed from the start, but was certainly exploited by their parents.  I related this sibling relationship to that of Isaac and his half brother Ishmael.  The two relationships were very different, as they are portrayed in Bereshit/Genesis.  

People often speak of the latter sibling relationship because the Jews are the descendants of Isaac and the Muslims and Arabs are the descendants of Ishmael.  However, perhaps the other sibling rivalry is a better description of the situation.  I'll leave that for each of you to decide.

As I am writing this, here in America we are watching the reaction to what occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, and the discussion about racial inequality and prejudice which still exists today in America.  I can't help wonder whether or not the same issues I raise here could also be raised in relationship to race relations in the USA and, if so, how would they apply.  I would be interested to hear any thoughts on this subject.

L'shalom - in Peace,
SPN
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these are the generations.....this is the heritage

two brothers emerge from one womb    
struggling from the start      vying for attention
sibling rivalry in utero
continuing through the pain and struggle
of being birthed into a world
where without any choice
one knew he was bound     to be subservient to the other
their positions determined by the chance of birth
leading to a lifelong struggle
for father's blessing    father's fortune    father's approval
for mother's love     mother's attention       mother's guidance

a generation ago        two other sons had also been born
born of the same father but
different mothers    different wombs     different circumstances
one born of desperation necessity resignation
one born of divine miracle blessing salvation
they were not twins     not linked to one another from conception
not bound together for life even when they tried to drive each other away
with their jealousy and murderous desire     as this pair is to be

those sons were merely brothers     not rivals or enemies
God had made it clear who was to be most blessed       who was to inherit divine blessing
but his mother did not have enough trust faith in the promise
made by an invisible deity speaking only to her husband

in spite of all the miracles she had witnessed     including her son's birth
her belief was overshadowed by her fear      of the other
the other boy      the other woman       the others who might take
what belonged to her to her son
perhaps event  take some of the love of the man
the one through whom the two woman    were chained to each other

the struggle of mother against the other       mother against mother
became mother against      the other's son 
it was never brother against brother       until her fear made it so
for the two boys were pawns        not players
as mother forced father to turn    the others away       perhaps to die
but this was not to be
for both sons had a blessing         both were destined to become great
though the younger would be greater than the elder

years later
the two brothers came together in peace to honor their father
       the man who gave them their names    their blessings     their curses
together they buried him next to  her
                    the mother who had created the rivalry where none had been
the other mother     also a victim of her fear
    was to remain separated       remain other       even in death
together they pray that they bury with their father the struggle     which he allowed to occur
that harmony will has been returned    to the family   the people   and the land

lifetimes have passed since then   until today
the struggle continues     brother against brother      sister against sister    cousin against cousin      neighbor against neighbor       blessing against blessing curse against curse
yet which of these struggles have we inherited

by rights      by heritage     by our names      it should be the latter
Isaac and Ishmael         the struggle between two brothers      
 forced upon them by their parents        which they never desired
a struggle more easily resolved          a peace more easily achieved

instead  it seems  we have inherited the other struggle        never meant to be ours
Esau and Jacob     a struggle from before birth 
      two linked to each other         struggling with each other
each desiring everything       one tricking the other        the other filled with  murderous rage
this struggle is not easily resolved    this peace impossible to achieve
for it was fueled by jealousy   rivalry     desire    manipulation    mistrust  hatred

why has this become our struggle      when it should not be
we are not twins of the same mother     rivals from birth       or perhaps we are      in our minds
each believing we were given birth by the same small piece of land
each believing that our parent in heaven desires us to remain on that land at all costs
each ready to fight      to die      for the cause         to defend their birthright

but some are also  ready to kill       not only in defense      but simply out of hatred for the other
they kill not only soldiers      who are prepared to die
they murder innocent women   men   toddlers   teens    children   elderly    infants
murdering  men praying to God      the parent of both       of all humanity
cutting them down      giving no thought to their actions
never really asking if this is truly what God would want       though we know it is not

as the righteous are cut down    their blood sinks into the ground
yet it cries out to God      why
as their souls of the righteous ascend to heaven    returning  to their source
they look down on earth     together   with the angels
they weep tears of suffering and sadness       for God's children below
for the family still torn apart     by the hatred of millenia

God asks these souls why they cry
for they are now at peace       they are with the angels       with God
the souls cry out          we weep for those we have left behind
we weep for the loved ones of those who have taken this journey before us
we weep for those who shall make the ascent in days and years to come


and we weep too for the others    those who have shed our blood
for the enemy who has   murdered us       and for their families
for we are all your children     though they seem to have forgotten
we mourn the loss of their humanity         we cry for their souls
which they have tainted      by their actions

and God we weep for you as well
for the misunderstanding    the misuse     the perversion      of your teachings
which have led them to commit these atrocities
in the name of the source of peace    they bring terror
in the name of the source of love     they preach hatred
in the name of the mother of compassion    they practice cruelty
in the name of the father of justice     they let vengeance guide their actions
in the name of the one who brought Isaac and Ishmael together to bury their father
        they come wishing to bury the other's children
as Ishmael weeps    together with the angels     with Isaac     with the souls of the righteous

Jacob and Esau look down on the land and wonder if their legacy   of brotherly animosity
is the source of the struggle       the hatred
but the people forget     that eventually   they embraced    reconciled
filled with forgiveness        each content to accept the other as they were
so that they could each live in peace        even if not together

Isaac and Ishmael look down on the land and wonder if their legacy
     the rivalry and mistrust    spawned by their mothers     which tore them apart
is the source of the struggle     the hatred
but the people forget that they too came together in peace
to bury their father         the true link between them
who never desired them to be enemies          but didn't know how to stop it

Looking down on the land which gave birth to them all       and to the struggle
they know that there are those on both sides who understand this      
those who want to follow in their fathers' footsteps     reconcile       and live in peace
at this moment      these voice praying for    shalom   salaam      can be heard on high
are so difficult to hear  below  over the din    of hatred    fear   mistrust    violence

 our ancestors look down with the angels     with God      with the souls of those who died
for the sanctification of God's name       even if it was not their choice    
they wonder     why this must happen        what is to become of their loved ones below
they wonder     when the hatred     the violence     the mistrust      the terror     the atrocities
will end       or if they ever will



Friday, November 14, 2014

(Better Late Than Never)....Walking Down the Road Less Taken (the Wisdom of Robert Frost and Jewish Tradition), a Sermon for the Eve of Yom Kippur

I posted three sermons connected to the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe last month, and I've been meaning to post this one as well.  Even though the holidays are long since over, I hope that you find this meaningful.

L'shalom,

SPN

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Last week I spoke about some of the implications of being human and being created in God's image. After all, there is a great deal of responsibility riding on our all-too-human shoulders. On Erev Rosh Hashanah I cited a midrash in which the angels argue with God about whether or not the first human being should be created and debate whether or not the creation of Adam will be good or bad for the world. In the end, the midrash acknowledged that human beings would act in both good and evil ways, make both war and peace and speak both truth and lies. And so we humans constantly must make choices in our lives.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, in my exploration of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, I spoke of the centrality of feeling connection to being human It is connecting with others and with all of creation which is the essence of the Divine Presence in the world. Connecting and living life to the fullest involves finding a balance which inevitably leads us to do good and to be partners with God in the ongoing work of creating the world. In order to find that balance we must make choices at every moment. If we do not choose, then we do not act. If we do not act then there is little difference between us and the two dimensional characters in a painting who can not act and who cannot really connect. We can't let fear of other's opinions or judgment, nor fear of making the wrong choice, prevent us from choosing and acting. For even not choosing is actually a choice. For we are choosing to let others choose for us.

The importance of making choices and maintaining balance are also woven through the themes of Yom Kippur. At the moment when we are portrayed as facing God in judgment we must make a choice. We choose what path we will take as we enter the new year. We choose whether or not to seek forgiveness and whether or not to forgive others...and ourselves...and even God.

In the Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer which perhaps most clearly expresses the dual meaning of Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe and the Days of Fear, we imagine God choosing “who shall live and who shall die.” But the prayer is really about us making choices. For to live an ethical and moral life, a life modeled after what we believe are the positive attributes of God, then we must make choices as each day we face new challenges. It is as if in each moment we are at a crossroads, though at this moment perhaps a more important one, and we must choose where our next step will take us.

These thoughts drew me once again to texts I'd never imagined using in a sermon, two familiar poems by that great New England “rabbi,” Robert Frost. As you're probably aware, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” describes the poet, having unexpectedly stopped in those woods, not only noticing, but experiencing and connecting with the woods, the snow, and everything around him. Even as he experiences and connects with the beauty of the woods he also acknowledges that they are not his woods. They belong to a not-quite-stranger who lives in the nearby village: “Whose woods these are I think I know.  His house is in the village though;   He will not see me stopping here   To watch his woods fill up with snow.” And yet, I couldn't help but think that in some ethereal way, the stranger will indeed know, or perhaps knows at that very moment, that the stranger is there. In truly experiencing the woods, it is as if he is somehow connecting with the not-quite-stranger. Just as when we connect with the world around us, we connect with the others who have enjoyed it's beauty. In this way we connect with the the owner, or creator, of our world. The not-quite-stranger, the not-quite-knowable entity or force we call God. For the Divine Spirit and Presence of God, the Shekhinah, is always present when there is true connection. We just might not realize it.

The poem famously concludes: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   But I have promises to keep,   And miles to go before I sleep,   And miles to go before I sleep.”

The woods, like life, are beautiful, mysterious and endless (or at least seemingly so). Like the poet, there are times when we want to simply get lost in the beauty and the mystery of the world and of life. He wants to stay where he is and share the beauty of the woods which have been presented to him, like a gift, by the mysterious, yet not mysterious, owner. And so too when we are able to connect with the beauty and mystery of the world which has been given to us as a gift as well. But being fully present in the moment as an important spiritual practice does not mean that we simply stay in the same moment ad infinitum, l'olam va'ed. For the truth is that moment no longer exists. Time moves on, things change, whether or not we want them to. So if we choose to try and stay where we are we simply get left behind.

And so we must continue our journey moment to moment. We have promises to keep. We have tasks which need to be done. We have relationships which need our attention. We have commitments, for there is a world which needs us to continue to create and repair it. And so we must choose in this particular moment of Yom Kippur: Do we stay put in the place of regret, guilt, and certainty, or move ahead to do the work of creation, repairing and returning. We know that there are miles, days, weeks, and even more time to go before we may be able to rest, but do we let that fact keep us inert or do we see it as a challenge to us to move on and live?

The other Frost poem I would like to explore is “The Road Not Taken,” which begins: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood. And looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair...”

Having chosen the road which appears less taken, though perhaps that was just an illusion, the poet imagines that some day he'll be able to come back, travel the other road and see what lies there. But then he acknowledges, “knowing how way leads on to way,” that he will never again return to this spot. And, imagining that he will surely retell this story in the future “with a sigh” the poet concludes: “ two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The poet made a choice and that made all the difference, but neither the reader nor the poet knows what that difference is, for we never see where the other road leads. He has no idea if the life he might have led would have been better or worse than the one he did. But as mindfulness practice teachers, better or worse are labels which we create out of our own needs. They are totally subjective judgments and not objective truths. All the poet knows, all any of us knows, is what path we have taken and to where it has brought us at this very moment. To wonder what lay down the other path is to squander our time on a vain and fruitless endeavor.

Once again we come back to the unavoidable fact that we must make choices and that we can never know what the choice not made would have held for us. As the Sondheim lyric I quoted often last week states “I chose and my world was shaken, so what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not. You have to move on.”

But what happens if, in moving on, we suddenly realize not that a choice was “wrong”, per se, but that it has caused pain to us or others or has done some kind of damage? That is when we engage in the act of teshuvah, repentance, return and repair. For this is what enables us to repair any damage which resulted from our choice, to seek or grant forgiveness and then move on with our journey. The late Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the miracle of Teshuvah is that it can turn back the clock and give us a chance to make amends. Perhaps that is an apt metaphor. But it is not like an a science fiction story where we turn back the clock so that we don't have to seek forgiveness, as the act was never forgiveness. Rather, it is the reverse. Doing the difficult work of teshuvah with another person then allows us to turn back the clock of our relationship so that it is once again like it was before we acted wrongly. At that moment we may end up back at a seemingly familiar fork in the road again, but it's never really the same fork. And the the paths that lie ahead may look the same to us, but they never really are. And so we choose anew and continue our journey.

The message of the Kol Nidre prayer, which signals the start of Yom Kippur, can help us in this endeavor. This beloved, yet controversial, prayer states that all vows we make to ourselves or to God during the coming year are null and void the minute we make them. In a way this gives us a chance to turn back the clock before we even make a move or take any actions. Of course, this only refers to vows we make to God or one's self. Still, this prayer is based on the recognition that we human beings are prone to making vows or promises, often without fully considering whether or not we can fulfill them. That is why the Torah warns us against making vows and the ancient rabbis referred to the making of vows as a frivolous activity. And yet, though some vows and promises are indeed frivolous and to be avoided (the vows we refer to as New Year's resolutions for the secular New Year comes to mind) I believe some vows, or shall I say commitments, are an essential part of human existence. For these are the commitments which focus on creating, connecting, and repairing our world.

Believe it or not, this brings us back full circle to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which is central to the High Holy Day liturgy. This prayer presents us with an image of God seated on a throne and judging us as we pass by, like sheep before a shepherd, who then determines who shall live and who shall die, and by what means . On this day each of our names will be written in the Book of Life or, God forbid, the Book of Death. But the essential part of the prayer which often gets lost as some of us struggle with those images is the statement that each of us writes in the book with our own hands. We seal, or create, our own fate. In other words, the road we are to take this coming year based on the choices we made this past year and, most important of all, the choice we are making in this moment.

The Unetaneh Tokef then ends with the proclamation that Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah can have an impact on the impact of the final decree. In other words, these three simple, basic acts can have a profound impact on our lives. Though traditionally translated as Repentance, Prayer and Charity, I would like to reinterpret and expand their meaning. Teshuvah means returning, but this is not only about repentance or forgiveness. It is about returning to our truest selves. Returning to who we are meant to be. And it is about returning to connect with family, friends, community and all of creation, and the Divine which is within each of us.

Tefillah, is more than just the prayers in our siddur (prayer book) or Machzor (High Holy Day prayer book). Tefillah comes from a reflexive verb l'hitpallel, a verb which implies an action which has a direct effect on who we are. It is just as often prayer from the heart or other types of spiritual practice which helps us connect with the godliness within ourselves and others.

Finally, Tzedakah is more than just giving money, or charity. Tzedakah, in its broadest sense, means any righteous action which helps to repair our broken world and enables us to continue being partners with God in the work of creation. True acts of tzedakah are about more than just money.

This trio of actions also connects with another trio in our tradition in order to form a 6 pointed star, a magen David, to guide us. The rabbis wrote in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim. Torah refers not only to the 5 books of Moses, but to all types of learning. Avodah, refers to worship, originally animal sacrifices in the Temple, but eventually prayer, or sacrifices of the heart. I view Avodah, as all types of spiritual work we do to connect with God. But it essentially that these practices involve community. Though many prayers can be said individually, communal prayer is essential, as were communal sacrifices. The same is true for other spiritual practices such as meditation, chanting, yoga, dance, etc. We can and should practice them all in private, but as the Hasidim know so well, it is much more powerful when we engage in these practices in community.

Gemilut Hasadim, acts of abundant love and kindness includes all acts that we do to help other people and all of God's creation, including the animals and the earth. Our rabbis actually taught that Gemilut Hasadim can be seen as greater than the traditional understanding of tzedakah as a monetary donation, for Gemilut Hasadim requires giving of yourself, your time, and your energy and not just money.

And so Tefillah in the Unetaneh Tokef is intimately linked to the greater concept of Avodah in the Pirkei Avot text. So too with Tzedakah and Gemilut Hasadim. But how is Teshuvah related to Torah? Simple. If we truly do the difficult work of returning to our truest selves we must give it our all. By doing this we are learning from ourselves as well as from those with whom we are connecting in the process. We all become the study text, we become the Torah. We learn from and teach one another.

But it doesn't stop there, for all of these are lifelong processes. They are not just reserved for the Yamim Noraim. And so we must continue to learn from and to teach each other, we must continue to connect to God through spiritual practice and we must give of ourselves and, if we are able, of our money to make the world a better place through acts of overflowing love and acts which bring righteousness and justice into our world.

These are also the essence of what it means to be a Jewish community, whether we call ourselves a temple, synagogue, Federation, community center or, of course, Fellowship. These institutions are not just there to serve us once or twice a year, or when we are in crisis or celebrating a simcha. They are hear all year round for us and we should also be here for them. We do this by dedicating ourselves to the six points of the Magen David, the star of David: Teshuvah and Torah, Tefillah and Avodah, Tzedakah and Gemilut Hasadim. These are the ways in which we receive from and give to our community. And there are so many opportunities here at the Fellowship, at the Jewish Federation and elsewhere where we can fulfill what I consider to be the six obligations for us as being created in God's image. But we need to commit ourselves, we need to make meaningful vows, to participate in these endeavors. And what better time to do that, or at least to begin the process, than on Yom Kippur.

And so my assignment for tonight and tomorrow is for each us to think about what commitments or vows we can make for the coming year in order to not only better our own lives, but to connect us to God, our community and our world. How is each of us going to commit ourselves to learning and sharing knowledge, to returning to our best selves, to some kind of spiritual practice, individual and communal, or to bringing righteousness and overflowing love into our community, the Jewish people, the land of Israel, all of humanity and our world.

To return to a phrase from my first day of Rosh Hashanah sermon, think of all of us on this holiest of days as a blank canvas. There are so many possibilities. So many ways we can create, connect, and repair our world together. So many commitments we can each make and use to paint our own canvas. Don't worry about whether or not you're going to be able to fulfill your commitment 100%. Don't worry about doing it perfectly or how the end result may look. Don't worry about what others might think or if anyone else is going to join you. Just take the leap. Choose something. Begin to walk down a road you've never taken before, while also appreciating the beauty of the world. For if when the shofar sounds tomorrow night we each commit ourselves to even one thing, no matter how small it might seem, we can change the world, and not just ourselves. And that is what this day and this season are really all about.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rosh Hashanah (5775) in the Park with George (...or what a Broadway musical taught me about life, communication and a little bit of Kabbalah)

Dear Online Hevre/community,
 
This following is the text of a sermon which I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5775, though I have tried to expand and clarify some of the ideas in the original version.  In some ways this is a work in progress, because it has been in the process of being written as I have lived my life for almost the last 30 years.  I welcome any comments or uestions you might have, so please don't hesitate to contact me with your comments.

I wish you a good New Year and a joyous festival of Sukkot, if you celebrate that particular holiday.
SPN
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 Rabbinic tradition teaches that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the first human being. Throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I want to explore what it means to be a human being created in God's image and how it relates to creating a better world as “partners with God.” I especially want to focus on the importance of creating connection and community in this endeavor.


The texts I am about to turn to in order to explore this question are a little out of the ordinary. Actually, I have a feeling they have never been used as texts for a sermon ever before. Though their author is Jewish, they are not religious or Jewish texts. But they are texts which for year have spoken to me in profound ways and have actually guided me at various points in my life. And so I would like to share them with you. But first a brief introduction.


I have long been a lover of Judaism and a lover of musical theater. I am not sure which came first. For me, any occasion can be connected to a song lyric. This is something I learned from my mother I realized recently However, I have never used lyrics from show tunes as the basis for a sermon. Until now. By means of this somewhat unusual sermon, I hope to teach something for this new year by means of bringing together the different parts of who I am: rabbi, singer, musical theater lover and a fanatical devotee of the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. I realize this may be a risk, but taking risks is part of what life is about.


As I wrote above, the rabbis taught that on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of the world, and specifically of human beings. The Torah states that God made a conscious decision to create humanity and our tradition als0 teaches that we are meant to be partners with God in the ongoing eternal work of continuing that creation. We each must find our own way to create with God. We can do this by creating new life, through our work, through the arts and many other means. We also create through through connections such as building relationships, helping others and doing what we can to make the world a better place.


Creation is also a central theme running through a piece of musical theater which has had a profound impact on me over the last 25 years. As a matter of fact, I can honestly say that it started me on the path which led to me making the choice to enter rabbinical school, when this had been the farthest thing from my mind. I am speaking about Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine's (book) Tony Award nominated (it really should have won) and Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George. I have admitted many times to adoring, and even worshiping, the work of Sondheim. However, as with all of his work, it's not just because of the beauty of the music, but about the meaning of the lyrics and how the music helps to convey and enhance that meaning. 

Just as Sondheim has stated this show was in many ways his most personal show, because of it's message, it is the one which has had the most personal impact on me. I don't know if the meaning I derived from the show is what Sondheim and Lapine intended, but this is true with all forms of art. Having heard Sondheim discuss this particular show himself, I know that much of what I have learned from this musical text is in keeping with their intent. But I also know I have discovered some new meanings from my own experience. For instance, I don't think Sondheim or Lapine knew that within their words one could find teachings from the Kabbalah. Actually, I never realized that either until I sat down to write this sermon!


Sunday in the Park with George focuses on the French impressionist painter George Seurat, creator of pointillism. By painting with tiny specks of individual colors side by side, instead of mixing the colors on a palette, Seurat beloved that our eyes would blend them and create a wholly different effect. However, his new techniques was looked on with disdain by the painters of his day, even those who might have been viewed as iconoclasts in their own right at one time. But this never stopped his creative process, for he knew that he had something important to share with the world. The musical is built around his creation of the large painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which consists of people in a Parisian park on an island in the Seine on a Sunday afternoon. 

When they set out to write this musical, both Sondheim and Lapine sensed that there was something missing in the painting. They determined that the something missing was the painter himself. And so, they set out to create a story about George Seurat, his relationship to the people in the painting and the creative process. But it is also an existential exploration of what it means to be human and how we create meaning in our lives and our world.


Not only is Seurat missing from the painting, but if you look at it you will notice that though there are many people in the park (and the show). Some are standing next to others, some are alone, some are even holding hands, but no one is looking directly at anyone else. Neither can you make out the features of most of the faces. To me the painting represents a dilemma which is very much a part of our contemporary world, that of being alone even when seemingly with others. So often we are with other people, but we don't feel connected to any of them. We may even look at them, and yet we don't. We may think we see their faces or know who they are, but do we really? And do we really let others know us? In a world where so many put everything on Facebook, Twitter, etc. how much do we reveal to others face to face, heart to heart and soul to soul? So many people live their lives connecting, but not really connecting.


Over 20 years ago Harvard's Robert Putnam wrote a book entitled “Bowling Alone.” He based this book on the phenomenon that, though the number of people bowling in America had grown tremendously, the number belonging to bowling teams or leagues had decreased just as much. In other words, people were engaging in activities which were once group or team activities as solo individuals. Lots of people were going out and having a good time, but fewer and fewer were making real connections while doing so. They were like the characters in the painting and perhaps in many ways like the character of George himself.


The play begins with a large white screen representing a painter's canvass at the front of the stage. We then hear the voice of George proclaim: White. A Blank page or canvass. The object? Bring order to the whole through design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony. This may be Seurat's description of the artist's challenge, but it is also a challenge facing all of us. Much of theology, Jewish and other, posits the idea of creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing (or in Hebrew, yesh me'ayin, something from nothing). God started with a blank canvas and step by step created the world. But what about us as we try to be creative partners with God, however one chooses to understand God and this process?


I write and teach a great deal about mindfulness practice; mindfulness teaches one to live life with “moment by moment non-judgmental awareness”, as Jon Kabat-Zinn once defined it. Each moment is brand new. The past is a memory. The future is a dream or a fantasy. Neither really exists. There is only the present moment in which we are facing a blank canvas in a way on which we must try to create in the moment something meaningful and important. Something which connects us to God and the rest of creation. Each day, indeed each moment, we must try to somehow bring order to the whole. And I believe that Seurat's tools for creation: design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony can guide any of us in our creative pursuits. But I will focus primarily on tension, balance and harmony.


Maimonides and others talk about avoiding extremes and maintaining the “golden mean.” This is about creating balance, something which is essential, but not easy to achieve. The challenges of maintaining balance are part of the central teaching of Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticism. Kabbalah teaches about God in through the concept of the sefirot, or the 10 emanations of God's essence. The aspects of God are are also reflected in human behavior and interactions, as we are seen as a microcosm of Divinity and because we were created in the image of God. The sefirot consist, in part, of pairs of opposites which are then mediated by a third attribute. One essential pair of Divine qualities is the pair of hesed, abundant and overflowing love, and gevurah, strength and power. As with any of the pairs, when these two are out of balance it can have dire consequences for the entire universe. On a human level, if these are out of balance within us, there can also be consequences. For instance, if hesed, abundant love, exists with few or no boundaries or limits (which are a major aspect of gevurah) then everyone can do whatever they want and then chaos and anarchy can result. But if the boundaries and limit so gevurah exist without enough love and kindness to balance them, then the result can be excessive harshness and punishment, which can bring about pain, suffering and abuse, not to mention tyranny. This applies on the global level, as well as the level of individual human interactions and relationships.


Seurat speaks, or sings, about the importance of harmony, which is also essential to the musical composition. It might be easy to confuse balance with harmony, but they are not the same. For harmony is about more than just balance, it's about blending different voices or musical lines (I am speaking musically, as that is more my language) to create something new. Yet, when you hear the new voice, or the new sound which has been created, you can also still hear the individual sounds which create the harmony. And so harmony creates something new and beautiful while still allowing the listener to hear both the parts and the whole simultaneously.


In the realm of the sefirot the aspect of God which mediates Hesed and Gevurah, abundant love and strength, in order to create balance is called Tiferet. Though translated as beauty, it is not about physical beauty. Tiferet is a deep spiritual beauty associated with the soul, the divine within us. It is seen as representing the tzelem elohim, the image of God in which we are created. Tiferet also manifests itself in the attribute of Rahamim, which is mercy, or focused compassion. Rahamim is what gives us the ability to forgive. And so, Tiferet is about creating a harmony of our emotions and our actions which then enables us to be compassionate and forgiving.


In the first act of the play we meet all of the different characters who are in the painting, including Seurat's fictional lover, Dot. We also meet another painter, Jules, and his wife. They represent the art world and Parisian society, which simply did not understand what George was trying to do. If, as in dream interpretation, all of the characters represent parts of ourselves, they are the inner critic. The voices we try to ignore, but which we cannot. The voices telling us we can't do it, that we are wrong, that if we want to create we really need to follow the path others have set out for us and that we need to do what is expected. One of the central messages of the play is the importance of creating based on what you're passionate about. An essential part of this is creating something that expresses you,  rather than trying to imitate others whom you might admire. George represents these beliefs, as well as how difficult others try to make it for those who do believe as he does.


However, one of George's problems is the lack of balance in his life. Though George is passionate about creating something new and unique, he alienates others while doing so. By living in his painting rather than truly being present in life he pushes away others, including Dot, even though she is going to have his child. He is so strict when it comes to his own unique world view he is unable to connect and he angers or annoys various characters in the painting because they feel used and watched, rather than seen as real people. In other words, he allows his gevurah to overpower his sense of hesed, and therefore the mercy found in tiferet is difficult for him to find.


One of the characters in the painting is George's mother, with whom he has a strange, seemingly distant, relationship. Towards the end of the first act, his mother pleads with George to paint what she sees because everything is changing too quickly. She longs for the old view, even as George tells her that some of what she says she saw was never there. But it doesn't matter, for it is the old view which is beautiful to her. As the voice of the past she wants things to be as they always were. But that is not possible, nor is it clear that they ever really were as she imagines. We must focus on the present. It is not the old view which is beautiful, even though it may be pretty. But pretty changes with each moment, whereas “What the eye arranges is what is beautiful.” I would reinterpret this as “what the soul arranges”. What we see and experience in the present with our soul, the divine essence within is what is beautiful. That is tiferet.


George understands this, to a degree, but because he cannot connect with others, as he often states, there is something missing. What is missing is the unifying principle. The harmony and the true beauty which creates unity out of the many is missing. It is the balance and harmony which represents the tzelem elohim, the image of God, which is also what is missing in the picture. It may be true that "God is in the details," (which is the original quote)  but only when the details are harmonized to create unity and connection.


This lack of balance and harmony in George's life is reflected in the words of the painter Jules and his wife, the critics. For they sing that George is “all mind, no heart.”  There is “no life in his art because there is “no life in his life.”  But at the end of the first act, as George begins to direct the actors so that they begin to create the actual painting on stage during, something changes. As they walk around the stage, no one looking at another, the harmonies become truly glorious as the music reaches a crescendo which is filled with passion and touches my soul in ways that few pieces of music can. In that moment, George and his ex-lover Dot, whom he has placed in the front of the painting, suddenly look into each other's eyes. They do so with such beauty and tenderness that it is clear to me that the harmonies of the music are reflecting what is within their hearts. 

Finally, George is able to connect. He is able to see Dot for who she really is and she can truly see him. And it is the ability to connect which creates true balance, true beauty and true harmony, allowing the image of God within each to shine forth. The structure (gevurah) which has guided George is finally balanced with his ability to experience and show love (hesed).  And so George tenderly, passionately and compassionately places Dot in the front of the painting where she is to be immortalized as the first act draws to a close.  


But this is not the end of the story, the journey or the message. For nothing is perfect and nothing is permanent. The second act starts with the characters in the painting still frozen in place. After all, they are in a painting they can't move. And even though they have been immortalized in a great work of art all they can do is complain: it's hot up here, it's monotonous, one of the characters is shvitzing and stinks, another is smoking a cigar that never goes out. They are stuck there forever and they can do nothing about it. Except complain. 


As with life, thing may seem beautiful one moment and then things change. It's true that George and Dot connected at the end of the first act, but now the characters, including Dot are standing there once again with no connection. They are part of a masterpiece, but they are unable to see the beauty. They are stuck, just as we often are. It may be true that we're supposed to live in the present, but we still have to move on and not stay stuck in the present. Otherwise we end up like the characters in the painting. We complain. We don't appreciate the beauty around us. We can only see the negative. We are greedy and want more. Our inability to connect with and celebrate the truth of the moment prevents us from being truly alive. We are merely existing. But the second act addresses these issues in a unique way.


After the lights go down on the people in the painting we are suddenly in the USA circa 1980s. There is a new George on the stage.  This George has been told that he is the great-grandson of George Seurat and Dot, though he doubts the veracity of that lineage. The scene takes place in an art museum where he is exhibiting the 7th in his series of laser light projection sculptures (I'm not sure exactly what to call them) which is also an homage to Seurat and his painting, which is on display in the museum. He is there with his elderly grandmother, Marie, who claims that she is the daughter of Seurat and Dot, and that she is also the baby seen in the painting. It is obvious from their interactions that George and Marie have a close and loving relationship.


This George is successful at what he does, and has clearly been accepted and celebrated by the art world. But he is still frustrated and unhappy. He keeps creating different versions of the same laser light machine because, as he sings, “you do what you can do.” But an art critic challenges him at one point by stating that he is capable of so much more and that his creations are simply becoming “more and more about less and less.” In a way he is as stuck as the people in the painting, not knowing where to go or what to do. He is afraid of taking a risk. Yet, he has the ability to move, whereas they did not. He is just unable to see the truth.


Like so many people, George is successful in is career, but he is still unhappy and dissatisfied. He seems to have friends with whom he is connected , but is he really?  However, he does have is his relationship with Marie. The love seen in the looks the first George and Dot gave each other at the end of the first is reflected in the tenderness seen in the relationship between Marie and her grandson. But Marie also sees the truth.  She knows that he is stuck and in pain. She wants him to be able to see that he needs to change. She tells him that her mother, Dot, always said that one should have “a little less thinking, a little more feeling.” But George refuses to listen.  And so the scene ends with Marie bidding farewell to her mother in the painting and with George still stuck.


In the next scene we return to the Island of La Grande Jatte, circa 1980s. George has returned to the island to display the light machine he created in homage to the  Seurat painting. Marie had planned to join him, but she has recently died.  And so he is there alone among the buildings that have replaced most of the trees on the island.  However, George has finally realized that he needs to stop making these machines . He has finally realized that can't keep on doing the same thing, no matter how successful, simply because he thinks it's the only thing he can do. He must move on to something new.  But he is scared.


Alone on the stage, there suddenly appears the figure of his long-deceased great-grandmother Dot dressed as she was in in the painting. She addresses him by name, but it is unclear if she realizes which George she is addressing. Past and present have merged and the boundaries are blurred. Dot tries to use her own experience and what she learned to help George to move on. After all, as she says, it's not like him not be creating “something new.” As the two connect with each other again new harmonies start to emerge. Dot is trying to help him find a connection with who he really is.  Her present is not meant to give him permission to live in the past, but to remind him that connecting with his past, where he came from, can teach him something and help him begin to  create something meaningful and new in the present.


In trying to help George connect Dot sings a line which has had a profound impact on me at numerous points in my own life, including when deciding to enter rabbinical school: “I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not. You have to move on.” 

We must make choices in life, no matter how afraid we might be. If we don't make choices then we end up like the 2-dimensional characters frozen in the painting rather than the 3 dimensional human beings ready to live with joy and connection, beauty and harmony.  It may turn out in hindsight that we made the wrong choice, but we can't know that in the moment when we choose. But choose, we must.  We can't be afraid to make choices simply because we don't want to take a risk.  For even not choosing is itself a choice, for we are actually choosing to let someone else make the choice for us. We then end up like the characters in the painting, first letting others move us around and then merely existing, not living, unable to move.


As the music swirls around him he begins to read aloud the words his great-grandmother Dot wrote in her journal which his grandmother Marie had left him. In the back of the journal he reads what Dot tells him are "the words he muttered so often" when he works.  These are Seurat's steps for creating that we first heard at the beginning of the show. But he can't read the last word in the list.  He asks Dot to read it for him.  When she says the final word... “harmony” ...the characters from the painting begin to come on stage while softly singing the words and melody from the end of the first act.  He then continues to read Dot's words from the journal in which she expresses not only her love for George Seurat, but for his creative process.


Though the music is almost the same, this is not the same ending as in the first act, for it can't be. It must be something new and different. We cannot go back. But George is finally able to embrace the truth of who he is and take from the past and bringing it into the present. He is truly alive. The harmonies in the music tell us that George has created harmony as well. He is ready to chose.  He is ready to create new worlds. All is right in this moment. The next moment will be something different. As God says to Moses at the Burning Bush when Moses asks for God's name,  “I will be what I will be.” That's all we can ever know.  We are constantly in the process of creating and becoming.


The show ends as a blank white canvass again descends and George reads the last lines of Dot's journal: White. A blank page or canvas. His (George's) favorite. So many possibilities.
 

The second act reveals lessons we can learn from another triad of sefirot/divine attributes. The first is Hochmah, or wisdom. This is the power of intuitive insight, flashing across our consciousness. It also represents the ability to look deeply at some aspect of reality and connect with its essence until one discovers the underlying truth within. This is the role played by both Marie and Dot, who both have a deep wisdom and an ability to see the underlying truth which both this George and his namesake are unable or unwilling to see.


Hochmah is in tension with Binah, or understanding. This is the power of conceptual analysis and reasoning, both inductive and deductive. The “understanding” of Bnah also implies the ability to examine the degree of truth or falsehood inherent in a particular idea. It is also the ability to explain and elucidate concepts both to oneself and others. This is George, who is able to analyze and reason, as well as to examine what is true and false. How both George characters are able to see the truth on the surface, but not the deeper truth which Marie and Dot see.


These two forces are mediated by Da'at, or knowledge, which is associated with the powers of memory and concentration. Da'at recognizes the potential meaningfulness of the ideas created by Hochmah and Binah and seeks to harmonize them.  Confronted by the figure of Dot, who is pure memory (and who spent much of the first act trying to learn the art of concentration), as well as the words of her diary, he is able to finally connect with the not only the truth he was able to see before, but the deeper truth which the two women were trying to impart to him. In reading the words written by Dot in the back of her journal, but expressing the feelings of, and Dot's feeling for, his namesake, George Seurat, it is as if he is able remember that which he never knew before. This enables him to find the meaning which was lacking in his life. He is now able to truly connect his intellect with his emotions and act in a way which is in concert with both. This is another role of Da'at, which is is also seen as the key which opens up all parts of the heart and fills them with the life force. 
 
This is also the source of of yichud, or unification”. It is what leads us to the realization that everyone and everything is one. For when George and Dot connect and become as one across time and space, he is no longer “all mind, no heart”, in the words of the critic from act one. His heart is finally open to life. All of its gates are fully open. This is what happens to George at the end of the play when all of the characters from the past reemerge, the park reverts to how it looked in the first act and George is finally ready to move on. The swelling harmonies of the music and the actions taking place on stage represents the harmonizing of all of these aspects of George which then fills him with life for perhaps the first time. This harmony arises from finding balance and connection, from embracing the act of making choices and from making the commitment to move on. 

George is prepared to act in accordance with the essential truths which he has come to realize. These truths are once again represented by the principles for creating art enumerated by the George Seurat and now repeated by his great-grandson as he reads Dot's journal: design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony. Though I have only discussed tension, balance and harmony, I believe that design is simply another aspect of creation and light, as is always the case in Jewish teachings, represents the light of God and the light of the soul, which are really what is guiding this entire process.


Creation, as portrayed in the opening of the book of Bereshit/Genesis begins with a blank page or canvas filled with possibilities which God is portrayed as bringing into reality through the process of Creation. Each moment of each day we are presented with a blank page or canvas on which, in each moment, we hopefully make the best choice to create. When fear and uncertainty makes us pause, wonder and doubt our choices we must remember that the choice may be mistaken, but the choosing is not. We have to move on.


In the end, as past and present merge, George finally achieves balance and harmony, through connecting with spirit of Dot.  He is not afraid to take chances.  He is heading the words sung by Dot, “don't worry if your vision is new. Let others make that decision, they usually do. You keep moving on.” George is ready to do just that. But are we? Are we ready to move on, to create, to take risks in spite of (or perhaps because of) the reality that every action has consequence which we need to face, whether we label the good or bad.


But we must remember that key to all this is one simple word which is repeated so often in the play and in this sermon: “connect!”  As it says in Bereshit/Genesis, "it is not good for the human to be alone."  If we remember to connect with others, we may not find ourselves captured for eternity on the canvas of a masterpiece or surrounded by swirling harmonies created by a great composer which can bring one to tears. For that is fantasy. Rather , we'll find ourselves truly living life, creating a world filed with beauty and harmony and truly fulfilling the potential of what it means to be created in God's image and being partners with the Divine as we continue the work of creating a better world for all of humanity one day, one step, one moment, one choice at a time.




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