Torah Weekly

For the week ending 11 December 2004 / 28 Kislev 5765

Parshat Mikeitz

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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It is two years later. Pharaoh has a dream. He is unsatisfied with all attempts to interpret it. Pharaoh's wine chamberlain remembers that Yosef accurately interpreted his dream while in prison. Yosef is released from prison and brought before Pharaoh. He interprets that soon will begin seven years of abundance followed by seven years of severe famine. He tells Pharaoh to appoint a wise person to store grain in preparation for the famine. Pharaoh appoints him as viceroy to oversee the project. Pharaoh gives Yosef an Egyptian name, Tsafnat Panayach, and selects Osnat, Yosef's ex-master's daughter, as Yosef's wife. Egypt becomes the granary of the world. Yosef has two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. Yaakov sends his sons to Egypt to buy food. The brothers come before Yosef and bow to him. Yosef recognizes them but they do not recognize him. Mindful of his dreams, Yosef plays the part of an Egyptian overlord and acts harshly, accusing them of being spies. Yosef sells them food, but keeps Shimon hostage until they bring their brother Binyamin to him as proof of their honesty. Yosef commands his servants to replace the purchase-money in their sacks. On the return journey, they discover the money and their hearts sink. They return to Yaakov and retell everything. Yaakov refuses to let Binyamin go to Egypt, but when the famine grows unbearable, he accedes. Yehuda guarantees Binyamin's safety, and the brothers go to Egypt. Yosef welcomes the brothers lavishly as honored guests. When he sees Binyamin he rushes from the room and weeps. Yosef instructs his servants to replace the money in the sacks, and to put his goblet inside Binyamin's sack. When the goblet is discovered, Yosef demands Binyamin become his slave as punishment. Yehuda interposes and offers himself instead, but Yosef refuses.


Artists of the Soul

All of us experience moments of poetry.

They may come from events in our personal lives the re-uniting of long-lost family, a birth, a death. Or these moments of inspiration may spring from marveling at our universe of teeming splendor, from our sense of joy/wonder at the creation. Some of us, however, are not content to leave those moments of inspiration in the realm of the intangible. We feel the need to give them a physical existence, to immortalize them. Perhaps it would more correct to say that we feel the need to "mortalize" them in words, in song, in paint, or as a photograph.

And once we have made this commitment to clothe our inspiration with earthly garb there comes the difficult and frustrating process of wrestling with stubborn charcoal and canvas, obdurate gouache, obstinate film and chemicals, to say nothing of the intractable denizens of Photoshop.

Art is inspiration wrestling with constriction; the constriction of the physical doing battle with the idea. For in whatever medium the artist chooses to clothe his muse, he must struggle with the characteristics and the limitations of that medium. After all, he is trying to coax that which is beyond the physical to reside within the physical. Its no wonder then that good art is rare.

However, without this struggle of vision-constricted-through-media, there is no art. The mind can dance, but there is no dancing partner. Art is a function of constriction, not in spite of it. That dance of the mind and spirit with paper and paint, that exquisite tension between the material and the ephemeral, is where art lives and breathes. Just as a flute produces music only by the constriction of breath through a metal pipe, and without that constriction, that limitation, there is no music, so too all the plastic arts rely on the celebration of limits.

And, ironically, the more constricting the medium, the more poetic the product. To this day, black and white photographs, limited to differing shades and contrasts of light and dark, are esteemed as more artistic than less limited color photographs. Is there a more sublime poetry than Haiku in all its starkness?

Divine Art

"In the image of G-d, man is created." This axiom is often misunderstood to suggest that Judaism believes in an anthropomorphic G-d, that G-d has arms, feet, a head and a back. Obviously this cannot be a correct understanding. G-d is a non-physical, non-spiritual Entity, of whose essence we can ultimately know virtually nothing. However, whatever ends up in this world as a hand is but the lowest incarnation of something that starts off at the highest level as an aspect of G-ds interface with His creation. Thus, to the extent that is possible, G-d gives us the ability to know Him from knowing ourselves. As King David wrote "from my flesh, I will see G-d." Mans ability to create, the ability to take the material world and make it speak the language of emotion, of inspiration, must be the most distant reflection of some characteristic of G-d. In other words, the fact that art exists reveals some aspect of the Divine.

What is that aspect?

The Ultimate Artist

Jewish mystical sources teach that when G-d created the universe, He "constricted Himself" to allow the existence of something other than Himself. This concept is called tzimtzum, literally "constriction." One might say that this world and everything in it is G-ds Work of Art. It is the place where He constricted His Inspiration by tzimtzum to produce a physical incarnation of His Will the universe. The Ultimate Artist is G-d. However, when an artist of flesh and blood paints a picture on a wall, he cannot infuse his creation with a living spirit, with a soul, innards and intestines. An earthly artist can create only a static world. Show me an artist whose paintings can multiply and proliferate or a playwright whose characters have free choice to make decisions that will influence the course of the play!

The ultimate Artist is G-d. G-ds artworks move and breathe. His creations are not only alive, but they generate life.

Sublime Architecture

The Talmud says that "if you never saw the Second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), you never saw a beautiful building in your life." The Beit Hamikdash was called the "eye of the world." The eye is a physical organ but it receives something that is about as non-physical as you can get light. The eye is the gateway to a non-physical existence called light. The Beit Hamikdash was called "the eye of the world" because it was the was the portal for the Light for the spiritual dimension, for the worlds beyond. The Beit Hamikdash was the most beautiful building not because of its dimensions and proportions, or its finishes, but because it represented the tzimtzum of G-d in this world. "what house could you build me and what place could be My resting place?"

Restriction and Expression

G-d constricted Himself to allow the existence of the universe. This act of tzimtzum was the first and greatest artwork. As we are created "in the image of G-d", it must be then that we possess a parallel ability in earthly terms. One aspect we have already discussed. The universe is G-ds work of art. However, there is more.

The Book of the Soul

Chanuka is the festival that contrasts the artists of the body with the artists of the soul. If the ancient Greeks "wrote the book" on the art of the physical, the Jews are still learning the Book of the soul.

The Greek view of Judaism goes like this: "How restrictive! You cant eat scampi. You have to pray at certain prescribed times. You must eat at certain times and fast at others. You cant gossip. You cant enjoy the pleasure of the looking at the human body. You cant even pick up a telephone on Saturday." The life of a Jew is brim full of constrictions and restrictions. It is these very restrictions, however, that allow our souls to dance. G-d put into this world a mystical song. It is called the Torah. The Torah is the score, the notes and semibrieves of existence. The Torah allows us to turn this world into art. The mitzvot are the raw material of the artist of the soul. They restrict us but they are the paint and canvas that allow us to bring down that which is beyond the physical into the physical. They are the media through which we create the ultimate art that can exist, because they allow us to form a partnership with the Ultimate Artist in His Ultimate Artwork.

They are the tools of the artist of the soul.

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