The power to create

There is a prayer in Hebrew that goes

Hareyni mekabel alai et mitzvat ha’boreh v’ahavata lereacha k’mocha reacha k’mocha

The Urban Adamah translation of that prayer says

It is upon me to receive the connection of the Creator, to love your neighbor as yourself.

This translation reads a little awkwardly, but the sentiment of it is beautiful: that it is through loving our neighbors as ourselves that we receive “the connection” of the Creator, or that in receiving that connection, we will inherently be loving our neighbors as ourselves. In one way or another, it makes it such that the idea of feeling the connection of and with the Creator (in whatever way that concept makes sense to us) is tied inherently to empathy and compassion.

While the use of the word “connection” is powerful in the UA translation, it is also the source of its syntactical awkwardness. “Connection” is used here to translate the Hebrew word mitzvat, more commonly translated as “commandment.” The common translation of Hareyni would read more like, “It is upon me to receive the commandment of the Creator, ‘To love your neighbor as yourself,’” but Urban Adamah opts for the more neutral translation of mitzvat as “connection.” This is interesting to me because it provides a different understanding of what we mean when we talk about “commandments” in Judaism, and also of how we understand the relationship between God and humankind. Rather than looking at the commandments as orders sent down from an anthropomorphized God-on-high, the translation of mitzvat as connection reframes the concept as useful strategies through which we as human individuals can feel some closeness to the at once transcendent (unknowable) and immanent (all-present) Divine. It generates a more reciprocal understanding of the relationship between God and humanity, one that can be opted into, that is consensual. This understanding of mitzvat more closely relates to my personal understanding of the Covenant within Judaism, the supposed pact between God and Israel (the Jewish people) from which our entire national identity is derived. In my understanding of the Covenant, “God” is accepted as the infinite source and Creator of the universe (after all, that is Their intellectual/conceptual role), but at the same time, it is equally important to emphasize the role of the Israelites and of Jewish God-consciousness in the generation and articulation of a Jewish-specific concept of God. There exists between God and Israel a mutual bond of creativity. For me in particular, I know that it is through acts of creativity that I have felt some of my clearest moments of connection to my concept of the Divine.

SunsetOn Wednesday afternoon, the other Fellows and I went to Studio Am – The Jewish Studio Project where we spent a few hours with Rabbi Adina Allen talking about the intersections of Jewish spirituality, art-making, and justice work. In her introduction to the day’s activities, Rabbi Allen drew our attention to the fact that God’s first act in the Bible was one of creativity—in fact, it was the titanic creative act of producing the universe. The God of the Hebrew Bible is primarily a creative deity. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in my experience, many of the moments where I’ve felt the most “transcendent,” when I’ve felt a certain power flowing through me, a connection to something higher and outside of myself, have been when I’ve lost myself completely in a piece of writing. It’s those long hours that pass like minutes, when the moon’s high up in the sky and I seem to know exactly where I should be going next in a piece without having to step back and think about it. When the story writes itself. It’s in those moments when I feel the least myself, the least rooted in the world around me, but the most awake and energized, the most connected to the deepest place within me, the place that is so easily blocked out by things like ego and daily life. Even before I started to become comfortable again with the idea of God, I’d say that in those moments I truly felt like I was tapping into something spiritual, something more meaningful than the limited physical world around me, and especially more meaningful than whatever words it was that I’d just put on the page. That’s the thing I’ve come to realize about writing: that, in writing, I am trying to capture and portray something that transcends materiality but am stuck with tools that themselves are only crude, false representations of the material world. It’s frustrating. It’s futile. So too is the search for God. I cherish both pursuits all the same.

The framing of creativity as a modality through which to connect with the Divine also attaches an important ethical and communal aspect to the creative process. If we recall the words of Genesis, we realize that God’s creativity is inherently tied to an aspect of “goodness” (“God saw all that [They] had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31, NASB). One might also look again at Hareyni and remember that the particular mitzvah involved there is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We might feel a connection to the Divine through our creative acts, but the imperative to “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a part of feeling that connection reminds us that our creative acts don’t exist inside a bubble; that they must, in some respect, be undertaken with a love and consideration for one’s neighbors in mind if they are truly to connect us to God. To me, this strengthens the purpose of creative acts such they are not just an arbitrary outpouring of some pent-up mental and/or spiritual energy, but rather serve as intentional efforts to connect more deeply both with God and with other human beings. It reminds me of one of the most important lessons I received as a creative writing student at UVA, that a writer must consider their audience. After all, while there is much to be said for what I feel like I personally receive from writing, what is the point of making art if not to share it with others? To try and make your reality known to other people and, perhaps, somehow inspire them to connect more fully to their own personal truth? For me, for my writing to feel important, it must serve the ends of spiritual and political uplift. Connecting my understanding of how and why I write to my understanding of the Divine and my particular relationship to that as a Jewish person helps to refine and deepen that goal.

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