My article for Shma Kolaynu, a publication of the Young Israel of West Hempstead Sisterhood.
Halachot & Creativity
By Ann D. Koffsky
Succot is coming, and like everything Jewish, there are lots of rules-we call them halachot. This many walls. This many tefachim. This type of roof.
Then we pile on top of those even more regulations: Exactly what is a wall? Do all the walls need to be complete? What must the roof be made of? So many halachot. So many pages of Talmudic dialogues about them.
Why all these dictates? Is the halachic system doing everything in its power to make sure that we each build the exact same sukkah, like a giant, halachic robot army?
Well, we all know that’s not going to happen. In fact, every sukkah built in West Hempstead this year will be both halachic and unique. Even those made using a pre-fab modular design, will, by the time the decorations are hung and the candles lit be as distinct and special as the family that builds it.
Indeed when Sukkah City, an architectural design competition that was hosted in Union Square Park in 2010, challenged artists to design sukkot, while keeping to halachic parameters, the resulting works produced were wonderfully, incredibly creative and fantastically unique. There were sukkot of cardboard, sukkot of spikes and bamboo. One had a log as its roof. Another was crafted with tangled wire and transparent walls. Each artist followed the same rules and halachot that we follow when we build our own sukkot each year, and yet each of the over 600 designs submitted to the completion managed to somehow be different from all the others! (After Yom tov, go to www.sukkahcity.com if you would like to see pictures. There is even a documentary about the exhibit. It’s directed by…wait for it…Jason Hutt. Get it? Hut. Ha.)
So, conformity cannot be the goal of these rules, because if that is their goal, then they have failed spectacularly each and every Sukkot.
In fact Rabbi Beryl Wein, in a discussion about the twelve tribes, points out that not only is conformity not a Torah goal, it is actually the antithesis of human nature and therefore the antithesis of Torah! Twelve tribes exist, he suggests, because it is important for Am Yisroel to include varied personalities and talents. He writes:
“It seems to me that the Torah here is emphasizing the important, but often overlooked, difference between unity and conformity. Each of the tribes, and certainly each of the leaders of those tribes, bring something different to the table of society…”
“… The task of ancient and modern Israel – and of the Jewish people as a whole- is to create the unity of spirit and commitment that the Torah represents, without falling into the trap of tyrannical conformity.”
By this thinking, conformity cannot be the goal, because conformity is a trap to avoid! So then the question still stands: what is the point of having so many boundaries and rules?
Now you wouldn’t think so, but as an artist, I find rules and boundaries very necessary. I say you wouldn’t think so because many have this romantic idea that artists like to be free and unfettered, and able to express themselves without limits or care. But in fact, one of the most difficult things that someone can ask me to do as an artist is to please “make a pretty picture of anything.”
Anything? An open-ended art direction like that is the very best way to ensure that no art will actually be made. How can I possibly pick from the infinite choice of ANYTHING and figure out what to create? A directive like that freezes my creativity faster than a cold night in a sukkah with no chicken soup!
But if you ask me to:
Make a piece of art that celebrates Rosh Hashonah for a 5×7 greeting card
Write and illustrate a 32-page picture book about tzedakah
Paint something on a specific wall in the HANC lobby that will reflect Jewish ideals
Then I can come up something! Those parameters, those limits, give me a frame to work within, and a goal to work towards.
Albert Einstein and his friends felt similarly. Well, the fictional Albert Einstein, as portrayed in Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, did. Martin wrote the following scene:
Einstein (indicates a painting by Matisse): What makes it so great?
Sagot: I‘ll show you what makes it great. (He goes to the bar and picks up the Matisse. He takes it out of its frame. He holds up the frame.) This is what makes it great.
Gaston: The frame?
Sagot: The boundaries. The edge. Otherwise, anything goes. You want to see a soccer game where the players can run up into the stands with the ball and order a beer? No. They‘ve got to stay within the boundaries to make it interesting. In the right hands, this little space is as fertile as Eden.
So perhaps the goal of all these halachot is actually the opposite of conformity; that, in fact, they are there to help our own uniqueness and creativity shine and allow us to each serve Hashem in our own unique fashion. Unified of spirit, as Rabbi Wein states, but unique in our path and approach. As Martin wrote, the frame, the boundaries make it interesting; they allow us to be interesting as well.
My Sukkah this year will be of the pre-fab variety, and decorated with strings of colored lights, projects my kids have made over the years, and maybe some plastic fruit from Michael’s. What will yours be? How will your Sukkah be yours this year?
How will your year be uniquely yours this year?
… Ul’ner tamid ekach li ess aish ha’akeidah, Ul’korban akriv lo ess nafshi,Ess nafshi hayechidah – [In the Tabernacle that I will build in my heart] I will take as the ner tamid/the perpetual flame the fire of the flame on Yitzchak’s altar, and upon it I will offer [to God] my soul, my own unique soul.
May we all be inscribed in the book of life, and good health, and able to use our own unique character and soul in the service of Hashem.