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Otherwise, What's the Point?

12/08/2022 10:25:20 AM

Dec8

Rabbi Scott Hausman -Weiss

I have always loved the story of the two painters who are hired by a king to then compete for the job of Chief Designer for a new castle. The King tells them both that they have to live in this one large ballroom for an entire year and that they will be provided all the materials that their hearts desire, in order to be able to complete a mural, one on one wall and one on the opposing wall, and at the end of the year, the King would return to decide whose project was the most inspiring, would win all the gold and jewels they could ever need, and would earn the job.  One of the artists, let’s call him Joseph, immediately sets to work, sketching out his plan first in pencil and then over the course of months, filling in the details with the brightest and most beautiful colors, filaments, and carvings.  However, the other painter, let’s call him Levi, sits, and does nothing. Month after month after month, Levi does nothing, while Joseph doesn’t just paint and create, it feels perhaps a bit more like witnessing a master at work.  And Levi just sits, contemplating maybe?  Meditating in preparation of some soon-to-be burst of creative effort?  But no, nothing, until right about the 50th week.  As Joseph is at this point just perfecting his masterpiece, Levi requests that mirrors be brought into the hall, along with a floor to ceiling curtain that runs the length of the room.  

And then finally, the day comes.  The King, aching with anticipation, had kept his word, providing whatever the artists would need but staying completely away from the ballroom.  With the room still divided, the King enters and on his left is Joseph’s masterpiece relief.  Its images are inspired by nature and history, art, and science, it is an ode to human progress and God’s creation.  And the King weeps, moved as he is by what he is witnessing.  Ready to view Levi’s, he turns the other direction, and the curtain is dropped and there before him is a perfect replica of Joseph’s work, reflected in the floor to ceiling mirrors he installed against the wall.  Every detail, every brush stroke, every striking and inspiring image crafted by the hand of a true artist.  The King’s breath is taken away.  “Inspiring, remarkable!” he declares.  Levi is pleased, Joseph is not.  The King tells them that he will return the next day to let them know of his decision.  Joseph leaves with a big hurumph, and Levi leaves with a sense of self-satisfaction.  The next morning, they return. They are told to wait outside the ballroom until the King arrives. Once they enter, the curtain is gone and there in the middle is a pile of gold and jewels hard to imagine.  The King tells them that he believes it is a tie, that both works are clearly of equal mastery, that they both have won the gold and jewels, as well as the job of designing the rest of the castle.  Taking Joseph’s hand then, the King accompanies him to the gold and jewels and embarks on the very exciting discussion for plans and designs.  Levi stands there a bit confused wishing to know where his gold and jewels are, and when he will begin this discussion with the King.  And the King responded, “Indeed, I apologize for my oversight.  Pointing to the reflection of the gold and silver, the King says, “That is your reward,” and pointing to the reflection of the painting, “and that is what you will be designing. May you find the same wealth and inspiration in this reward and this work as you have this past year.”

We only live once, as far as we know.  And in the absence of knowing more than that, Judaism reminds us that we are both “just like everybody else,” and “fundamentally different” at the same time.  Shying away from making our mark, simply replicating what has already been said and done, not rocking the boat, not ruffling feathers, not breaking or reframing or reimagining, isn’t the proper act of humility, it is a squandering of the divinity of human creativity. As we settle into this post-Covid lockdown world, it's time to dream again, to play outside of our comfort zones, to explore, imagine and re-create.  Otherwise, what’s the point? 

Sat, January 28 2023 6 Shevat 5783