Any artist will tell you—once you create something, it can take on a life of its own. Musicians say that songs they wrote are no longer their songs, not only because they mean something different to each person who hears them, but because when they play or sing that song, they are transported into an experience beyond themselves. Visual artists describe an urgent drive to manifest a feeling or a vision on canvas, only to step back and behold something they cannot describe in words. Once created, art becomes its own entity.
In parshat Bresheit, the creation story, God is the artist, and we are the painting. Methodically and intentionally God separates light from dark, water from dirt, designs the stars and planets and everything growing on earth. It used to confound me how God could create everything in existence, and then struggle to manage it—its only one week before we read the story of Noah and the flood, when God is clearly unhappy with creation. But when the sculptor draws her hand away from the statue, it takes on meaning separate from her. And on the 7th day God steps back and beholds all of God’s work, and the universe is simultaneously connected to God, and is something wholly within itself.
As my teacher Rabbi Bradly Artson said, “we are walking pieces of stardust and our consciousness is cosmic and we understand the universe because we are a product of the universe.” We are forever connected to God and creation, even though we have our own hearts, our own will, and our own understanding of everything around us.
We know that art is more than a beautiful representation of an idea. Art can heal, art can celebrate, and art always tells a story. As author Robert Wuthnow said in his book Creative Spirituality, “artists are typically in the business of storytelling, either as creative writers or through the lyrics of their songs or the representations in their visual art.” And stories are at the foundation of how we see the world. The stories we read and we tell define who we are.
The rabbis also knew of the power of storytelling. Halakha in the Talmud is backed up by stories of how a rabbi said kiddush, ate in a sukkah, gave to the poor. Gaps in narratives in Tanakh are filled in by midrash, creative stories which interpret events, emotions and divine consequences from white parchment. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev teaches that on Shabbat, we are re-enacting God’s story of creating the world. Stories go beyond the written and spoken word. Our rituals, our mitzvot, the way we speak—it is the physical manifestation of our ancient stories.
Every time we tell someone about ourselves, we create a story. When someone asks you what you do or what you are passionate about, you, intentionally or not, design a story to tell them. Think of the different ways you’ve answered the question often asked at Beit T’shuvah—why are you here? There can be different versions you tell of your life that are each honest and true, not because what happened in the past has changed, but because who we are and what we know about ourselves changes every day.
If one of you asked me why I want to be a rabbi, I might say, because I love the Jewish tradition and believe it can teach us deep truths of life. But if my best friend asks me, then I might tell her about a vision I had which showed me that this is my true calling. If you ask me what my childhood was like, and then the next week you ask me the same question, I will probably answer differently. It depends on how I feel, what I think will connect me to the person I’m talking to, what I am insecure about or what I am proud of. The more aware I am of how I am telling my story, the more I see how far I have come, and where I still need to grow.
Even God has multiple versions of one story, and Bresheit is the most obvious example of that.
The first Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we read two versions of creation, one after another. The Torah goes through the 6 days of creation, says “this is the story of heaven and earth,” and then the next verse starts with day one again. And the second story about the same days is very different. It is an age-old question that tempts us again and again: what does it mean that there are two stories of creation in our tradition?
I believe it reflects our creative power, our storytelling. When we share a story, in a moment we describe who we are and indicate what our values are.You can create a version of your present or your past that is deceitful and manipulative, maybe because you feel unsafe, you don’t trust the other person, or you want something from them. I takes hard work and wisdom to change those patterns. But even more difficult is when we tell an untruth because we cannot even face the truth of our past. Then we fabricate a story based on our own delusions and are unable to truly see ourselves.
But as Bresheit teaches, there is no fear in facing ourselves, because we are beautiful and holy souls made b’zelem elohim, in the image of God. It is in our nature to forget this—even in the Garden of Eden, we hide from ourselves. Adam hides from God after eating the fruit of a forbidden tree. And God calls out: ayeka. Where are you. Not, what happened, what did you do. Where are you hiding.
Whenever we share ourselves through words with others, we must hear the challenge: ayeka. Where are you. Where are you hiding in this story, in this moment. Are you being true to yourself? Are you taking responsibility for your creation? Because what you say will take on a life of its own. And you, the soul artist, are fueled by the stories of your life.
Our world is filled with artist souls, trying to make sense of things. And what a gift that we have so many to journey with in this garden. Let us all try to start this new year by telling our true story. Let us respond to the call ayeka. We will not hide from ourselves and each other. We will speak with honestly. And we will listen with hearts wide open.