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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.

 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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