© Arlene Goldbard 2000
This essay originally appeared in Living Text: The Journal of Contemporary Midrash, Number 8, Winter 2000
The Lord replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements.
Of all My productions, this remains My favorite.
The secret Hebrew who becomes a prince, the reluctant prince who becomes a class traitor.
What a story!
The burning bush, the plagues, Pharaoh’s heart of stone.
“Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11)
What a mise èn scene!
The waters parting, the multitudes singing My praises as they danced upon dry land.
I really maintained creative control, laying out the dialogue, the props, the set-up, the motivation. If the time for cameras to be invented had arrived, I would have told Moshe how to light each scene, what angles to shoot from.
So why don’t you get it? How could I have made it any clearer? Naturally, Moshe blamed Me for your incomprehension “the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (Deuteronomy 29:3) But what should I have done? Spelled everything out, one-two-three? No secret meanings, no hints, no puzzles? The most boring story ever told: God dictates, people follow, repeat until you would sell your birthright for the slightest sign of insubordination. I admit it: it has not been given to you to know precisely what I have in mind. Isaiah tells it like it is: “My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) But that isn’t a license to ignore the obvious, people! I gave you those big brains for a reason.
Consider another one of my major productions, Jacob and his sons. Remember when Israel takes leave of his life? He calls his sons to his bed, saying “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” (Genesis 49:1)
And then what does he do?
Reuven, having fallen into unforgivable error, is written off. Simeon and Levi are doomed as well, Joseph is made the shining star, and all the rest are cast in supporting roles Zebulun to the sea, Issachar to work the land, Asher to live in the lap of luxury, and so on.
Did you ever ask yourself why I cast them this way? If Torah were simply an instruction manual on how to be good, I could have given each son a happy destiny to fit his gifts, a realization or completion of his nature.
But what could be more monotonous?
Any of the great storytellers will tell you the same thing: No pain, no gain. (Who’s to say who’s great, you ask? Well, just use this rule of thumb: any of the guys who thought they were Me Shakespeare, de Mille, Coppola, whoever.) There was a new Oliver Stone interview in the trades the other day. His latest extravaganza, which cost much more than a pyramid, did not do box office to match. Oliver defended himself very well: “That’s creative risk,” he said, “letting go. At a certain scale, things get away from you. Stuff happens you couldn’t predict, and you just have to go with it.”
Okay, I freely admit it. Here we come upon a difference. Since I can predict all possible futures, things can’t exactly “get away from” me.
But the fact that I can do everything does not mean I will. If you futz with anything too much, you ruin it no spontaneity, no serendipity. Even for Me, one of the great pleasures of existence is the element of surprise. To keep Me interested in your story, I needed to load it with variety, friction, conflict, color. The world proceeds from incompletion, like all great art. What needs fixing provides the Artist’s palette, gives Him emotional scope. It took me awhile to really appreciate this. Look at my early work: I was only dabbling. The Adam and Eve thing, a simple three-character drama. By the time Noah came along, I was already a little bored. These earthlings are never going to take direction, I thought, here’s My chance to end the experiment, flush it right down the drain.
But then I realized it was My own fault: if every single plot had to turn on whether you people could work with a Director, how good could the story get? So I let go a little, amped up free will, and before I knew it, I’d become fascinated by the possibilities. The story was simply too delicious to quit.
And still you don’t get it!
So just this once, I’m going to try the spell-it-all-out approach and let you in on a secret, no hidden meanings: God is an artist, and you are My medium. That is why I created you, and that is why I made you human beings of infinite variety and potential instead of angels of single intent.
You doubt this?
Why did I cause Moses and the Israelites to serenade Me? “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:1) Why did I provide such precise instructions for the making of the mishkan and priestly vestments, the unsurpassed richness of their decoration? I singled out sons of Judah and Dan, endowing them with “a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft…” (Exodus 31:3) Then why did I add that “I have also granted skill to all who are skillful to make everything I have commended you…”? (Exodus 31:6) Why do My Psalms end with dance, with an orchestra? “Praise Him with blasts of the horn; praise him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise him with lute and pipe. Praise Him with resounding cymbals; praise Him with loud-clashing cymbals.” (Psalm 150:3-5)
You were created in My image, so I made you artists. The impulse to dance when you might have shuffled or trudged this is merely part of the deal. When you’re babies, you smear food of all colors on any surface you can reach. Children, you sing to yourself as you play; you hear music and begin to dance. In the most extreme situations, you create in war, you write poems, in prison, you scratch pictures on the wall or make figures out of hoarded bread.
You were created in My image, so I gave you the challenge of being misunderstood, as Joseph was detested for his dreams: “Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more.” (Genesis 37:5)
You were created in My image, so I gave you discernment, as any artist worthy of the name knows the genuine article from the dross: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream; and let him who has received my word report my word faithfully! How can straw be compared to grain?” (Jeremiah
You were created in My image, so you love music: “It has pleased the Lord to deliver us, That is why we offer up music all the days of our lives at the House of the Lord.” (Isaiah 38:20)
You were created in My image, each one unique in talent and purpose, yet all longing equally to be heard and understood. “Give ear, my people, to my teaching, turn your ear to what I say. I will expound a theme, hold forth on the lessons of the past….” (Psalm 78:1-2)
What do I want of you? Do I need to make an infomercial?
I want you to comprehend that the world is My work of art, and to make yourselves in My image. I want what every artist wants: to be understood, to be met. “O you who linger in the garden, a lover is listening; Let me hear your voice.” (Song of Songs 8:13)
This is great, and it happens to be pretty good process theology, too, for whatever that’s worth. Rabbi Bradley Artson’s new book, God of Relationship and Becoming, can explain. If we hone in on the idea that God can be surprised, we see the becoming. What actually happens in the world, as a result of our decisions, is an actualization of possible futures, and causes a bit of becoming in God’s own life, no matter how many possible futures imagined. Can we hope that God responds with lures, discovered within our own minds and hearts, to create beauty even out of the messes we’ve made, in a kind of continuing revelation? Could some works of art, as received in certain ways, be a vessel for such lures? I think so, and imagine you do, too. But the One who lures must also take delight in our creativity, messes or no messes: “O you who linger in the garden, a lover is listening; Let me hear your voice.” (Song of Songs 8:13) Your own ideas inspire such hopes in me.