A common conception is that human creativity, particularly artistic creativity, will flourish only under conditions of unbridled freedom. Limitations and inhibitions of any sort—goes this line of thinking—are anathema to art.
The history of man’s attempt to evoke beauty and meaning with the materials of life has shown the very opposite to be the case: that “oppressive” circumstances have stimulated humanity’s most profound and innovative creations, while conditions of unmitigated freedom yield lesser and shallower works. Indeed, working within bonds is intrinsic to the process and product of artistic creation: the challenge to reduce a landscape or personality to a two-dimensional surface of limited size is what makes a great painting; the need to express a thought or feeling with a limited number of words arranged in accordance with rigid laws of meter and rhyme is what makes a great poem. The very essence of art, it can be said, flows from the tension between the expanse-seeking spirit of the artist and the constraints of the medium and circumstances by and under which it expresses itself.
“Because of our sins,” we say in the Musaf prayer recited on the festivals, “we were exiled from our land and driven from our soil. No longer are we able to ascend to show ourselves and bow before You, and perform our obligations in Your chosen home, in the great and holy house upon which Your name is called.”
The 613 commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah are a bridge between the finite and the infinite, the means by which mortal man achieves connection with his Creator and Source. Today, however, we are capable of achieving only a limited fulfillment of the mitzvot: there are hundreds of mitzvot that can be observed only when the Holy Temple is standing in Jerusalem and the entire community of Israel resides in the Holy Land. Indeed, the Torah forbids their actual observance in our present circumstances.
So our current state of galut (exile) is much more than a physical displacement. Before we were driven from our land and the House of G-d was taken from us, all Jews would make the thrice-yearly pilgrimage (on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) to the Holy Temple “to see and be seen by the face of G-d”1 in the place where He chose to make Himself directly and uninhibitedly accessible to us. There we would observe the commandments associated with the Temple service, actualizing and experiencing those aspects of our relationship with the Almighty embodied by these mitzvot. But since the destruction of the Temple and our exile from the Holy Land, these venues of connection with G-d have been closed to us.
This is not to say that these mitzvot have been abolished or have “expired”—a fundamental principle of the Jewish faith is that “Something that is clearly specified by the Torah as a mitzvah endures forever, and will never be changed, abrogated or added to.”2
The commandments remain in force; it is just that we are prevented from fulfilling them by the circumstances of galut. Indeed, therein lies the ultimate frustration of our exile: these channels of connection with G-d exist, yet the limitations of galut prevent us from pursuing them.
The Poetry of Prayer
The Talmud cites an interesting rule of etiquette governing guest-host relations: “Whatever the host instructs, you must do, except when he says ‘Get out of my house.’“3
Chassidic teaching applies this to our relationship with G-d: As “guests” in G-d’s world we must obey all that He instructs us to do—except when He tells us to “Get out!” When He banishes us from His presence we are not to obey, but to persist in our efforts to come close to Him.
So even as we submit to its decrees, we do not reconcile ourselves with the phenomenon of galut. When G-d commands, “Do this” or “Do not do this,” we obey; yet we refuse to accept the galut per se, refuse to accept the closing of venues in our relationship with G-d.
And it is from this incessant struggle—from this unremitting tension between our acceptance of the curbs of galut and our striving to break free of them—that our most “creative” achievements in our relationship with G-d arise.
Prevented from performing many mitzvot in their actual, physical guise, we direct our energy and creativity to their spiritual essence, which remains unaffected by the circumstances of galut. For example, the deeper significance of the korbanot (animal offerings) that were offered on the altar in the Holy Temple is that man should sublimate the “animal soul” within himself, refining his naturally self-oriented drives and desires. Today, we achieve this through prayer: three times a day we contemplate the majesty of G-d, inspiring and reorienting our natural selves to strive for higher and more transcendent aims than the satisfaction of its animal instincts. In the words of the prophet: “Our lips fulfill [what was accomplished through] oxen.”4
Furthermore, we do not suffice with exclusively “spiritual” versions of these mitzvot: whenever possible, we accompany them with physical deeds that commemorate and evoke the manner in which the mitzvah was originally and optimally fulfilled. Thus, in commemoration of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah (“Water-Drawing Festivities”) held in the Holy Temple on the festival of Sukkot, we conduct our own nightly Sukkot celebrations, “going through the motions” of singing, dancing and playing musical instruments, even though the heart and essence of the event—the drawing of water from a spring for pouring on the Altar—is absent from our celebrations. At the same time, however, we take great care to ensure that our actions do not in any way suggest that we are actually performing the mitzvah in violation of the laws that forbid their implementation in a galut environment.5
Pushing the Envelope
Daily we pray for and await the day that our lives will be freed from the confines of galut. Yet there is something very special about our present-day struggles and the unique potentials and achievements they exact from our souls.
To strain the bounds of galut, while taking care not to overstep these bounds; to onform to the will of G-d, while appreciating that it is G-d’s desire that we contest His will whenever it dictates that we limit our connection with Him—this has yielded the most profound and innovative achievements in the divine art of life.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Sukkot 5751 (1990) and on other occasions.
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.
- Exodus 34:23-24, as per Talmud, Chagigah 2a and Ohr HaTorah, Vayeira 103b ff. ↩
- Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 9:1; cf. Maimonides’ Thirteen Principle of Faith, Principle 9; Sefer HaIkkarim, 3:13-14. ↩
- Talmud, Pesachim 86b. ↩
- Hosaia 14:3. ↩
- A case in point is the zeroa (roasted “shankbone”) on the seder plate: while we place it on the seder table to commemorate the Passover offering brought in the time of the Holy Temple, we do not eat it, and refrain from eating any roasted meat at all that night, to avoid any appearance that we can fulfill this mitzvah in galut. ↩