The Creative Imperative: Reclaiming Imagination (5768)
As many of you know, this year I gave birth to my newest recording, Becoming. It was the product of 7 long months of hard work, and during that time I wrote two stories in connection to this project.
One of the stories concerns the last days of mixing: I'm pretty excited about the work I've done so far, I like what I hear and I'm sitting next to my producer as she begins to scrutinize each track for this final go-round. Somewhat to my concern, she's frowning and starts to find things wrong. This track seems to be off by a micro-beat, in that track the harmonies feel too cluttered… “Let's see what it sounds like without those tracks,” she says to me, and sure enough the music seems crisper, more elegant. “Its gonna be beautiful,” she reassures me. On another song she asks me why I keep repeating certain words —I argue that it's a refrain and that's what refrains are supposed to do— but she says I am belaboring the point and she wins the argument and we eliminate that track too. On yet another song, she listens to my voice and somewhat delicately asks me if I was sick the day I recorded that song. Needless to say, that track —in the story— gets eliminated as well. And so it goes: each time she eliminates a track, she beams at me and tells me its gonna be beautiful. Here is the last page of the story:
So you ask: “What does this story have to do with the High Holidays?”
Well, a lot. This somewhat tongue-in-cheek story is about birth and engagement in the creative process and the challenges of making and committing to our own choices; themes that are at the core of the High Holiday narrative.
Starting today with Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world —the very first of all creations— a world which we are told is created from formless chaos — from tohu vavohu, over which God pronounces a daily verdict: mostly God says it's good, “tov”. On one day, God doesn't say anything at all; and on another, God says it's very good, “tov m’od”. God never says, “great” or “perfect”— and therein lies our teaching.
For we learn that creation is never finished; it can always be improved upon. In a single day, it can go from good to very good. It is always becoming. The phrase Tikun Olam —repair of the world— is precisely about our responsibility, each and every one of ours— to be involved in the daily endeavor of improving upon the raw material given to us, even with all of the imperfections and false starts and stops. And in the Pirkei Avot— the Sayings of Our Sages, it says we are not required to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Martin Buber tells us that a person's foremost task is the actualization of her/his unique unprecedented potentialities.
And it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.” (And I would say do that — occasionally.)
I would call this the ‘creative imperative’.
In two of the stories we read in shul today, we read about women longing to bear children. The story of Sarah and the story of Hannah.
Why are these stories important? The Hebrew word for an infertile woman is Akarah, which literally means ‘uprooted’. It suggests that we are not fully rooted or grounded in ourselves when we have no possibility of creative outlet or expression. It is a barrenness of spirit as well as of body. To fulfill our responsibility to participate in and improve upon creation, we need to be grounded enough in ourselves to explore our own unique relationship to life. Freud said that to live well, we must each understand ourselves in all our singularity.
In our Haftarah today it says: “Hannah spoke in her heart; her lips moved, but she uttered no sound.” We are told that the words she is praying, in longing for a child, are her own words.
Hannah, acting on her own behalf, is said to be the first person to offer an original prayer from her heart.
And when she does this, the story tells us: “paneha lo hayu lah od” Her face is no longer the same. Something in Hannah is changed. And it happened when she gave expression to her deepest desire.
In later centuries, the Rabbis justify their rewriting and addition to our prayers by pointing to Hannah's example. Like a pebble in a pond, the consequences of her praying her own words ripple down through the centuries. Change yourself, change the world. And the opposite holds true as well. As we the change the world, so we are changed.
So how do we fulfill our creative imperative? How do we discover and actualize our unique potentialites? I am not talking about becoming painters or musicians or liturgists or about bearing children. I am not really talking about product or outcome but about engagement.
The creative imperative can be about the way we relate to friends and family, about how we might be affected by the elm tree we suddenly take note of on the corner. Maybe you love to cook, or you are the person who helps keep the synagogue functioning smoothly. I am talking about how we might infuse ordinary moments with our extraordinary selves and derive meaning from each encounter. I am talking about those experiences that may or may not be measured in tangible outcome but are nonetheless our contribution.
The only way to be in touch with our unique potential, and to understand our singularity, is to take the time to know ourselves.
Let's look at another of today's Torah readings; Hagar is in the wilderness with her son Ishmael. She has given him her last drop of water and she prepares for his death. Here in the quiet of the desert she has emptied herself out, and that is when she becomes most open to a new vision, and it is at that moment that she sees the well which will save her and her son.
Freud said we must be able to pause and consider who we are: our values, our desires, our inhibitions and contradictons. This means that we need to take time away from habit and routine, away from the noise of our televisions and cell phones, away from the stimulus of the Internet, and occasionally let ourselves move into stillness, let ourselves go inside our own deserts and wilderness, to our own tohu vavohu —to a place that I might call ‘thoughtless thought’— from where we can open to new revelation, new insights, new prayers, to where we can see our own visions and where we might find the underground streams that feed our wells.
In fact, how about taking these next ten days for your timeout?
The creative imperative is about reclaiming imagination — the imagination that you might have had as a 4 year old or as a young graduate starting out life on your own. And reclaiming imagination is ultimately about reclaiming ourselves.
To reclaim ourselves is to be rooted in ourselves; it means we accept and forgive ourselves for all our missteps and imperfections. We don't dwell in remorse. We can't stop and erase all the tracks; we don't let ourselves become so overwhelmed by potential or too many choices that we are paralyzed; but we move forward with new possibility, recognizing that some days our choices might only be a “tov”, some might be a ‘no comment’, others might be a “tov m‘od” or even beautiful. And this brings me to my second story.
In this story I talk about using some of the tracks from my very first recordings from over 20 years ago for this newest one, and I describe encountering my 40 year-old self in the recording studio.
What do you need to forgive yourself for? What can you learn from your younger selves? What's holding you back from being fully grounded and engaged in the creation of the world? What desires have you relinquished that you would like to reclaim? Can you stretch beyond who you assume you are and what you assume you are capable of? It's never too late — as we learn from Sarah, who at 90 gives birth to Isaac.
Creation takes place at every moment of every day in our lives and We are all its creators.
Rosh Hashanah, which we translate as the Beginning of the Year, could also be translated as the Beginning of Change, Rosh Hashinui. Let this year's change be you becoming your deepest you.