Opening to a Creative Life

A week after Passover ends, we read in the Torah portion a strong reminder that we should truly leave Egypt behind. God tells the people, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt…” (Leviticus 18:3). Having taken the people out of Egypt, God wants to ensure that Egypt gets taken out of the people as well. Having lived there so long, they no doubt picked up habits, customs, rituals, beliefs, internalized oppression, false refuges, the strange comfort of known pain.

A week after Passover ends, we read in the Torah portion a strong reminder that we should truly leave Egypt behind. God tells the people, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt…” (Leviticus 18:3). Having taken the people out of Egypt, God wants to ensure that Egypt gets taken out of the people as well. Having lived there so long, they no doubt picked up habits, customs, rituals, beliefs, internalized oppression, false refuges, the strange comfort of known pain.

God seems a bit worried that not only will they relapse into Egyptian practices, they might be tempted by the practices of their new neighbors the Canaanites as well. “You shall not copy the practices…of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you walk in their statutes!” (Leviticus 18:3).

It would be easy to read this verse and conclude that there is truly only one way to be Jewish - follow God’s laws! We received Torah at Sinai, and we observe it. Don’t look back, don’t look around you. Just stay in your lane. The Jewish path in the world is one of separation and differentiation.

Which makes it all the more surprising when we read a comment by the great 12th-century scholar Abraham ibn Ezra, which offers us a more expansive way forward. Ibn Ezra is troubled by the apparent redundancy of the verse. He wonders why it says both “You shall not copy the practices…” and “nor shall you walk in their statues”. If the point is to steer clear of what other people are doing, we don’t need doubled directives. The second phrase must be teaching something new. Ibn Ezra therefore comments, “Don’t walk in their statutes [means] don’t get used to walking in this way so much that it becomes a statute for you.”

Here’s the radical assumption behind Ibn Ezra’s words: Sometimes you actually do in fact do what the people around you are doing.

The boundaries are not so clear anymore. Ibn Ezra opens us up to a way of being in the world that acknowledges we are influenced by other cultures. We live in a broader world. And that’s okay!

Ibn Ezra’s point then, is that if we live in a world where the boundaries are porous, where we participate in our larger culture, then we have to cultivate a countercultural practice as well. We must not get so caught up in the habits of society that we mistake them for eternal truths. (Presumably, becoming habituated in Jewish practices is laudable, although there is a tradition of keeping things fresh here too - strikingly, a key distinction is made betweenkeva, the fixed aspect of Jewish practice, and kavana, the fresh and revitalizing intention and interiority we bring to ancient ways that keep us on our spiritual toes as we walk them.)

Ibn Ezra’s comment points us to a countercultural project of Jewish living in a larger context - live in the world but don’t become too attached to it. Critique power, challenge the mainstream, be a little punk with an attitude of nonconformity (to give credit to some of the music movements that grew up in the Pacific Northwest).

Being creative is one of the most powerful ways to bring kavana to Jewish practices and to cultivate a countercultural sensibility - to see things differently, to know that societal norms are just that, norms not nature, and that we are inherently and wildly and beautifully diverse. When we explore our creativity, we avoid “walking in a way so much that it becomes a statute for us”. We can see the world in new ways.

We are in the season of Sefirat HaOmer, Counting the Omer, seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The traditional practice is simply to recite a blessing and count each night, but for many people today it has become a season of creative practice. For me this year, I am watercoloring a tree a day - not to do it well, but to do it with joy, to help train my eyes to appreciate this densely-wooded city of Seattle, to keep asking the question, “What else might this be?” when I make a mistake. (You are welcome to follow me on Instagram @jaylev13)

Kavana Partners Stacy Lawson and Laurie Reed and I are also hosting a few Makerspaces (date of the next one TBD). If you love playing with art materials, this is for you! Also, if you are terrified at the thought of playing with art materials, or feel like you aren’t an “artist”, or if you just need to get out of a rut and try something new, this is absolutely for you. The Kavana Makerspace is a place to reclaim the countercultural practice of creating, without needing to qualify, credential, or critique your art, but just to explore and follow the pleasure of raw making.

May our creative exploration help us walk through life with passion and open to possibility. Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jay LeVine