“Man prepares his heart and Hashem gives him a language to speak in” (see Proverbs 16:1). The shape of one’s life is formed and characterized by the language in which he speaks. One’s speech reveals his thoughts, one’s thoughts are where a person resides, his home, and therefore his speech is a picture of his home, of him. One’s actions also describe his thoughts but as his actions are restricted to his body alone, therefore they describe his animal, earthly nature; whereas his speech describes his humanity.
When I was a young man searching for my direction in life in undergraduate college in America, the outcome of my intellectual queries led me to a very individual conclusion: I concluded that I was not able to express my understanding of life and its problems in words. I felt myself with verbal (and written) language battling a raging sea of falsehood towards which I saw no chance of success. I had been graced by Hashem with a strong visual-creative orientation and inclination and I considered that the path of an artist was the means that would enable me to arrive at the truth which I sought to possess and communicate to my fellow man. Despite the obvious great obstacles to success in such an endeavor I was nevertheless compelled by a very strong inner compulsion to dedicate my life to what seemed real to me, for if it were truly real then surely it must also be possible.
I would like to explain this “decision” a little more fully. I was raised and trained in the American educational system in the 1960’s, 70’s and first part of the 80’s. I was always a very successful student, and in every area; I had good study skills and predisposition towards learning, as my parents highly valued education. As I had facility in learning I also enjoyed it. I took it very seriously; that is, I considered that having correct knowledge of life is a prerequisite to a good life. I thought that in this I was living also my parents’ true ideals and those of the society. I was optimistic, if naïve, that truly everyone was looking for the best, and I believed very much in the goodness of people and that surely everyone really wants the truth and to live by it, if the truth would be presented it would be embraced. This naïve idealism of mine was not completely naïve; that is, I recognized the “other side of things”, but maintained that if the positive side is emphasized it can/will be realized.
At the same time, it seems, I began to realize the opposite; in short, that not everyone was so idealistic and trying to direct their lives towards creating a better world; rather were, in simple terms, “out for themselves.” I began to sense that the idealism which I had thought was the true heart of the society in which I was reared, was perhaps just a mask, a thin veneer draped over the true motivating forces of the society: competitive egoism, pleasure-seeking, self-aggrandizement, material consumption for its own sake and worse.
In particular, in the universities, which represented the ideals of the great society; where all the intellectual force of the nation labored together, as in an enormous factory, to write the headlines and all the articles of the future, I began to observe what I can call almost a “conspiracy of falsehood”, this “veneer” that I mentioned, was, it seems, primarily in the universities, woven and embroidered, for there were the master craftsmen of the tongue.
A thorough treatment of this subject is obviously required, which is not in the scope of this essay. Nevertheless I hope that the essential point has been conveyed: that in the place of true idealism, which is the expression of the human soul, and in particular the Jewish soul, the western world promulgates a clever veneer of idealism whose evil is at least twofold: 1) it is a lie, in that it professes that it is not only a veneer, rather the expression of the true heart of the nation. 2) not only are the contents of the package not what is written on the package, but even if the contents were as advertised it would be completely evil, for the writing itself is fabrication. This requires some explanation.
We are taught about Esav, who is likened to the Hazir, the pig, that he thrusts forth his front feet showing the world that his hooves are kasher, hiding the fact that he is lacking the internal attribute of kashrut, thus rendering him entirely treif. Twofold is his evil: one, he lacks the two simanim of kashrut, and two he tries to fool the world with his one external siman, as if it is sufficient. Thus, also, what is extolled as the American ideal: “with liberty and justice for all” and other such “headlines”– not only is the truth not so, and never will be, as it is not what is being striven towards, but the writing itself is a lie for it expresses the wish to pass off idealistic language alone as sufficient. This also finds its fullest exemplification in the “textbook” of Western culture, the “New ..”, which is not only false in what it claims as true, but even were it true, Heaven forbid, it would be entirely evil, for the text itself is a disastrous distortion of spirituality. I hope that this important insight has been made understandable despite my extreme brevity due to this format.
In such an atmosphere, to be able to live and speak my true inner “idealism”, that is, the pursuit of building my life upon true principles, to this end, I saw the “word” as futile. For even if I expressed the truth as I understood it, my word would not be understood in its true sense. This fact was absolutely clear to me for my entire experience bore it out. This ‘atmosphere’ I now understand by the description of the Torah of Amalek who is termed a laitz: a scorner. Not only is truth not sought, but if it happens to be found it is scorned; since the truth cannot be negated, for it is, after all, the truth, therefore evil’s only method of coping with it is to mock and disparage it in order to keep it from entering anyone’s ears or heart.
I did not know that there was another society than the one I was in, a society that spoke words of truth, I didn’t even hope for or imagine such a thing. [This is testimony to the awesome power of this society of falsehood–that it snuffs out even the hint of an alternative! To this I attribute that lack of the great majority of Jews there to be able to escape the madness: Hashem should have mercy on his remnant, speedily in our days.] I knew that the language that was being spoken all around me everywhere was not to be trusted. I couldn’t exactly define what I did trust, and this was a problem, but it was clear to me that what I did trust was surely not being spoken nor was it written in what I had read. It should be understood that I felt my life continually face to face with a lie through and through.
What I could say was certainly true was that I saw an awesome creation around me. The creation itself, per se, all that was in it, and all human life was to me a grand wondrous and beautiful whole asking constantly that it be heeded and understood correctly. What I had been taught, from the day I was born until the day in which I was standing, as explanation of this wondrous reality of ‘life in our world’ I learned, as I said, not to trust. If some of the labels that had been attached to reality were somewhat acceptable, that is, I used them also; this was only out of necessity of “getting along” in the world. I wanted truth very badly, but I wasn’t interested in destroying myself for it.
I chose to be an artist, a painter, because in this I was grappling with something that transcended the falsehood. How so? When I stood before a tree, for example, and sought to “describe” its form and color and where it “sits in space” with respect to everything surrounding it, I am stripping myself of all human theory about the tree, any of their “knowledge” of it. I am a being capable of responding to the world in a straight, simple, intuitive way, with my “natural intelligence”. As a painter I focus on the subject in front of me, what I see, and this restricted realm at least is surely real. If I felt that my work was small, almost completely insignificant, in light of such a huge world that needed nearly endless solution and correction, it nonetheless was in pursuit of something true, and in the end of my “workday” I have something beautiful that makes people happy. Thus I thought I had found my niche.
I would like to flush out here one more aspect of the decision to choose art, which can explain the seemingly puzzling question of how someone who is so concerned for finding and living truth would settle upon art which is artifice, the quintessence of falsehood! The Kabbalists teach that the sod which is the innermost aspect of reality is always connected to the peshat, the simple, most apparent aspect of reality. The more that one achieves a peshat understanding of something, the more he has, paradoxically, pummeled its concealed depths. The most external form of “reality” conceals the deepest essence. Thus what we see of an object, let’s say a tree, it’s very most external aspect, its shape and color, purely what is registered about it by our eye, (and other senses) without any “knowledge” of it, this grasp of its most superficial quality is actually grasping onto its most sublime essence. Contemplate this and you will understand it; it is an enigma which is profoundly true yet difficult to explain, it needs to be “copped” (thought about over and over until it is grasped).
If you are presented with an object that you have never encountered before, you examine it. It is absolutely mysterious to you. You see something and you don’t know what it is. In general people, confronted with the new, will immediately ask: what is it? They wish to know its secret, its essence, and are uncomfortable remaining in the dark with a mysterious unknown. In encountering the most external aspect of reality, an image in front of you that has not yet been described, you are encountering its sod, its most secret aspect. This is an extremely profound principle and needs to be grasped well.
I stopped wanting to know what people had to offer as explanations for “what is it?” I stepped back and said to myself: What do I see? I will describe to myself (and to anyone who is interested in seeing my painting) what I see. What are its dimensions? Which direction does it move? How does it compare to what is around it? What is its color(s)? What are the colors of its surroundings? Also: How can I best describe it and my relation/reaction to it? How does it “make me feel”? Etc. Even though most people saw me as copping out of the “real world” and embracing a superficial “leisure activity”, I “knew” that I was encountering and grappling with the secret behind the world.
What I see remains awesome in its mystery and my wonder remains fresh with it. I don’t allow myself to become “used’’ to what it is, what people call it, rather. I try to examine it anew always. I try to see reality, as much as I can, for what it is. Of course I don’t know what it is, but I try to do the best I can; that is: not to label it in the least for what it isn’t!
In the several years in which I pursued this end I came to realize that not only the “art-world” (that is, the commercial and social aspect of an artist’s life) was but part and parcel of the greater society as described above, but that also the art works themselves which I had so highly esteemed, I began to suspect were perhaps lacking true meaning which I had so plaintively searched. In truth I did not consciously realize that I was undergoing a change in my perception of art: the great masters of painting whose works had so taken me with their beauty and exalted level of craftsmanship continued to impress me immensely. I had held high the artist as something like mankind’s last hope of grasping reality and I still thought that if I continued on the course of self-sacrifice for the cause of finding reality through painting surely then I would be able to show my works to the world and have it shudder and wake up. I still thought on a conscious level that this also was the goal of all the great artists, and that they had all boldly “done their best” to change the world for the better. In truth, though, my extreme naivety was being quickly worn away by the reality of living as artist (as opposed to as an art student) and I eventually found myself as in a vast desert, very alone; the great masterpieces of art did not begin to speak to me out there, and if I did not openly transform my understanding to myself of the place of art in the world, it was mostly because it didn’t matter to me. The reality of my life and my isolation was far too profound for those questions which people were seemingly so interested in: they seemed merely academic and even vain cruelty to engage in it.
My desire and ability to create remained a flowing spring from inside of me, nevertheless it found no trees to water, and my wellsprings merely flowed out onto the desert floor and evaporated leaving no memory or impression.
In short, it seems that art was simply the last hurdle I had to jump; the last great magic trick of the “great society” whose veneer I had seen through, all but this last finest thinnest wrapping. The enormous personal destruction which my life had become in my search for truth had taught me , without myself actually knowing so, that it is not enough to know what everything isn’t, one needs desperately to know what it is!
How much explanation is needed here! Isn’t this the essential point, the bridge between there and here. There and here? I am here? Rather this is the bridge; maybe the first bridge. Or a large bridge. For sure there were bridges after, and probably bridges before.
How does one come from not knowing what it is to knowing what it is? It seems now: only through prayer. And if one doesn’t know to pray, one knows to shout, scream, wail, moan. Express his pain. What is this? It is interesting; it seems at first appearance that it is a lack of submission; one says: it is not my fate to suffer so.
This cognition, surely it can derive easily from knowledge. Once one knows that Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu is ‘on his side’…once he know all the good advice of the Torah and the true Tzadikkim for reversing every fall into an elevation, fine, he has help. But before he has knowledge, how does he escape from ‘submission to his fate’?
It is true, every child screams in his pain, every being naturally seeks to escape his imprisonment. But spritual imprisonment isn’t as simple. For one screams when he doesn’t have physical comfort, but how does one awaken his soul when…
the entire world says: no. no to you. No to what you are saying. no. turn here: no. turn there: no. look up: no. look down: no.
Not just: I look, search: here, there, etc. and find nothing, find: no. Rather: ‘no’ points at me and proclaims itself: no. boxed in by no. Shot at by no. Bombarded by no.
Where does the emunah to scream back at all of the world: no, no to you, world, and yes to me?
And the truth is, that the knowledge spoken of above, the advice to scream out, which the Tzadikkim teach us…there is also a limit to the benefit we can attain from this, not because of the limitaion of their advice, rather from our limitations…for there is always a place where we fall into slumber, where we don’t see the advice as usable for us, there are always places where we reach where we must rely on emunah, for our knowledge, even if we possess it, is not operative yet in this new place.
And if emunah we have, in a general way, which enables us to ‘keep going’; nevertheless, this is not enough; for a person must catapult himself to a new level in order to live, in truth. And from where comes this catalyst? For there is a frontier of darkness where we reach, where emunah has not yet shed light, and it is truly as if we haven’t started yet, that we are still here at this first bridge, and how do we cross over what we can’t see?
Perhaps the impetus comes from recognizing that not he, alone, is in this plight, rather that others, maybe all, are equally in such a plight, or a plight of there own, perhaps much more than he, himself. This can cause him to see the importance of his postion, that is, he is now concerned with a universal problem, and if he will succeed he will not only help himself but also others. This can give him the impetus to shout out.
Middah caneged middah. That he is awoken to have mercy on another, then Hashem has mercy on him. This seems to be the way out of the box.
Another way: similar; perhaps more primary, perhaps more important. Perhaps more effective: he has mercy on his own poor soul. His soul; in such deep and awesome galut, in such pain, in such plight..in such dire need of mercy, of someone, of himself to ask to cry and cry and cry over it, to beg for it’s redemption, for it’s freedom, for it’s release, for it’s relief,
and who can plead for his worn soul better than him? Who know’s his own soul’s pain, plight, awesome despair, better than he itself?
Who can wake the poor person to cry for himself, to have mercy on his being? Who can teach him to run from the blizzard of the world’s demands upon him to run to the depths of his being and cry without cease for the wreckage that lies there?
Ribbono shel Olam, You alone know each of your children’s awesome plight, awesome distance from You, awesome forlorn state, awesome need for Your help alone. If he cannot wake himself, if he has no mercy on himself…if it be his own fault, without doubt, but, for sure you can find find a point of mercy, a point where he could not be expected to arouse himself from such a position, please look there, at that place in each one of your children, in that place where only You can have mercy upon him. Where for him, himself, it is too far, too much to ask of him, from there have mercy on him and rescue him, show him his plight, teach him to scream, to cry, to wail, to moan,to mourn his galus, to cry over the awesome destruction of the holiness of his being, of it’s awesome distress and ruin. If not now, when, Ribbon shel Olam?