Nurturing Art: The Sacred Work of Creativity (Parshat Tetzaveh Exodus 27:20-30:10)

Walk into any room of adults and tell them they are going to engage with art materials or explore a topic through creativity — immediately, most people in the room tense up. They turn to each another and say, in nervous voices and muffled tones: “I could never color inside the lines,” “I failed art in kindergarten,” “my sister got all the creative genes,” “you don’t want me touching that paint, it will be a disaster” — as they look longingly towards the door and contemplate a quick escape. Sound familiar?

So many of us have been shut down by negative experiences with art, often as far back as childhood. At an early age, we got the idea that our work wasn’t good, or that we were not cut out to make art. As we saw others identified as “artists”, we retreated from the world of color, texture, and image-making, and left art to those deemed to have “talent.” Almost like an unspoken coming-of-age experience, an entire world of play and exploration became off-limits. Embarrassed and resigned, we searched for the places where we did get praise and encouragement, and focused our energies there.

The idea that the creative arts could be a means to know ourselves more deeply, and even to connect to God, was for most of us never acknowledged as a possibility. How do we find our way back?

Paint, collage, writing, movement, music — these are not only tools with which culture is produced. They are also invaluable modes that we can use to explore our inner lives; surface new ideas; tap into intuition, memory and emotion; and connect with one another in community. Exploring the world through the creative arts is, ultimately, a way to connect to the Divine. And it is a way that is open to each and every one of us.

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is all about connection to the Divine. We pick up in the midst of God’s instructions to Moses about how to construct the sacred space in which the Divine Presence can dwell. Last week we read about the building of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the wilderness. This week, God describes how the children of Israel are to create the sacred vestments for Aaron and the priests, so that they may serve God in this new holy space they’ve built. Through details of measurements and materials, color, texture, and process, we are given a blueprint for the creation of a nexus for Divine-human contact.

But who is to engage in this sacred creative work? Of course, Bezalel, Oholiab and those with special skills are designated to take on this task, but they are by no means the only ones. Throughout the descriptions of architecture and pattern-making, God repeatedly instructs Moses to speak to all who are “wise-hearted”—they are to be the ones to create these holy objects. This phrase “wise-hearted” appears ten times in the Torah, all of which are connected to the artistic creation of sacred structure and tools.

What exactly is meant by “wisdom of the heart,” and what does it have to do with creativity?

Seeking to explain how God created the universe as depicted in the beginning of the Torah, the midrash (creative interpretation) describes God creating with the help of wisdom. Here, wisdom is also called an “amon” — a multifaceted Hebrew word that can mean many things, including nursemaid, great, hidden, roadmap, or tutor. According to this midrash, wisdom is even older than the world itself. It is the nurturance, the tool, the process by which God connects to God’s own creativity.

Each and every one of us has access to the timeless, holy wellspring of creative wisdom. As soon as human beings are created, we are described as being made “b’tzelem elohim,” in the image of the Divine. Just as God is creator, we too possess the sacred capacity for creativity. Regardless of perceived skill or talent, simply by being human we are, by definition, creative. We draw on the same deep source of wisdom to make sense out of chaos, to give form to ideas, and to add beauty and complexity to the world. Tapping into wisdom through the creative process is where humans and the Divine meet.

We left behind long ago the specific task of constructing the ancient Mishkan and the sacred priestly vestments, of woven linen, crimson, and wool. Though there is certainly general wisdom in Jewish texts and tradition about materials and imagery, we do not have many commandments that are now relevant to our choice of materials, patterns, and images in creating sacred space or pursuing creative work. But the call to our wise hearts has never ceased. We are continually being called upon to honor the wisdom of our heart, to play with all forms of color, texture, movement, and sound, to create ever-new places for Divine-human connection.

At The Jewish Studio Project, every time I engage in the creative process with individuals and communities — using the materials most of us left behind in the second-grade classroom, to bring texts and rituals to life — I am in awe of the palpable presence of the Divine among and within us. The creative expression that results serves as a trail back to a time when we more easily traveled to the well of creative wisdom. There is no one set way it must look, and no person more suited to the task than any other. Each of us, created in the Divine image, is invited to dip into that ancient well of creativity, to play and explore without limit or judgment, and to call forth the Divine in the process.

CreativityJeff Kasowitz