Please save; [all of life] is hanging in the balance…
– From 5th circuit of the Hoshana liturgy
Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.
– Stephen De Staebler
In one of the early chapters of their neat, little self-help primer, Art & Fear, David Bayles & Ted Orland muse on the pithy quote (see above) of the late American sculptor, Stephen De Staebler. While I have worked mightily over the years to develop a fortress against the self-help obsession of my younger self, De Staebler’s words hit their mark. The act of creating art is a process that is at once chaotic, painful, vital, necessary, and (once finished), maybe even joyous. It is no small wonder that at this time of year where we mark Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah as zman simchateinu (i.e. our time to rejoice)– we Jewish folk also prepare ourselves to re-read the story of God’s creation of time and space. Unlike self-obsessed creatives, however, God doesn’t seem to suffer from procrastination, self-doubt, or a lack of inspiration. Instead, God speaks, and the world hops to. Even better, God looks at the finished creation and declares that it is good. No need for a humble brag.
As human beings are among the greatest “works of creation,” it would seem that this time of year where we retell the story of our genesis is, indeed, a reason to rejoice. But our ancient sages are quick to remind us that mundane life often diverges from the realm of myth. In the ritual calendar, most stories and rituals are tidily wrapped up. In our day-to-day calendar, life can be quite uncertain. Take this following story, for example:
Rav. Yitzchak bar Avdimi said: At the end of the last day of the Festival of Sukkot, everybody watched the smoke of the wood pile [on the Temple altar]. If the smoke column inclined towards the north, then the poor rejoiced and landowners were distressed because that indicated that the yearly rains would be heavy, and the crops would decay. [And since they couldn’t be stored away for long, prices would fall.] If it inclined towards the south, the poor were distressed and landowners rejoiced because that indicated that the yearly rains would be light, and the crops could be preserved. [And prices would rise.] If it inclined towards the east, everybody rejoiced; [ because the west wind that inclined it towards the east would cause moderate rainfall and plentiful crops.] If it inclined towards the west, everybody was distressed. [The east wind would cause a light rainfall and few crops; and prices would rise.]
While the above tale is legendary, the ideas that animate it are tangibly human. Just like our ancestors, today we face questions about ecological sustainability, poverty, hunger, the balance of social good and commerce, and all of these “signs” feel about as hopelessly intelligible as reading a smoke column beset by the wind. What is more, the various kinds of uncertainty lifted up in the story reflect the actual complexity of the artistic process; spectators might joyfully experience a finished product, but the creator knows just how precarious the process really is.
This year, I feel a profound tension between starting the next reading cycle of the Torah, the command to rejoice during Sukkot, and the contingent nature of the world we actually live in. How can I read of earth’s creation and be joyful at a time when it feels as if the very world is teetering on the brink? What good does my (currently) not-so-good art do in the midst of social calamity, or a plague? I suppose that I could think of “joy” as a “protest” against pessimism, but that seems misaligned with my view of the world; it makes sense to be sad these days. Maybe more fitting is the idea that “protest” for the artist is to create in spite of everything. In fact, many artists have reframed their art as a kind of big-r Resistance. Maybe it is even silly to ask so much of the creative process, to say nothing of art more broadly. Regardless of where I may land on any given day, the words of the liturgy ring true, “[all of life] hangs in the balance.” It is hard to know what to do with such stark words. At least on a good day, maybe a little bit of creation can help fill the time.
Hanging In The Balance
Like Smoke Driven by the Wind: Finding parallels between our life and ancient words
A Virtual Text Study with LABA Rabbinic Fellow Kendell Pinkney
Thursday, October 15 | 1:15 – 2:30 PM
The rabbis call the multi-day holiday celebration of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, zman simchateinu– “the time for our rejoicing.” However, this ritual time of rejoicing often occurred during a time of year when people across all levels of society were quite filled with uncertainty and anxiety over what the future would hold. Sound familiar?!
Come join us and LABA Rabbinic Fellow, Kendell Pinkney, as we look at a short rabbinic midrash on Sukkot and uncertainty, and seek out how they map onto our own day and time.