The Artist (non-fiction)

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As a writer, I know that my best work isn’t the work I carefully control. Instead, my best work is done when I set up the parameters and perhaps even the overall story arc and then let the work unfold on its own. I step back and let it flow.

Then, sometimes, I can produce something beautiful.

In some ways, I conceive of Hashem as the greatest of writers. Except, instead of working with fictional characters in a fictional world, he works with real people in the real world.

The greatest of writers, painters, sculptors and poets are themselves His art, working within His world. It is like they are working with one less dimension than He is, inside of the story He is allowing to unfold.

They are acting betzelem elokim.

But where their art is sculpture or words, Hashem’s art is the neshama (or soul) itself. Our spark of divinity is given to us and then, through our lives, we craft and mold it. We turn something simple into something complex and beautiful and challenging.

And when we connect with our creator, we can enrich our neshamot – turning it into the greatest art that can be imagined.

But not every neshama ends up as great art. When we make terrible mistakes, we threaten our divine core. We use up our raw material, burning it for the momentary pleasures of our world.

In the pursuit of the time-bound, we distance ourselves from the timeless.

The destruction of sin undermines the building blocks of our souls. Ultimately, our souls can be destroyed by our actions.

We might imagine that we can simply separate from destruction, but that isn’t the case. We cannot eat or drink or travel without destroying something in order to apply it to another purpose.

We are not like G-d; only he can burn the bush without consuming it. We must engage in destruction, even as we try to balance it with preservation and creation.

Of course, our relationship with destruction isn’t about being ‘fallen’ men – it is a part of our design. It is a part of being free. It is also our greatest opportunity. G-d tells Cain that he can rule over chata (a form of sin) precisely because it is at the door, waiting to break in.

The development of our ability to resist requires something to be resisted. Something real and something challenging.

It is core to the artistry of our souls.

Without it, we would lack the complexity and uncertainty of true art.

But if our acts of destruction are unbalanced and unchecked then we can become so distant from G-d that our divine souls can themselves be erased. Going back to Cain: chata is crouching by his door. It is when it gets past his door that it becomes avon and it is a burden he must carry. It slows him down, it weighs on his soul.

And, it corrupts the essence of who he could be.

And this is where Yom Kippur is so important. Yom Kippur is about preserving our neshamot the face of sin. The word kaper (in Kippur) tells us how. In its first use, kaper refers to the pitch used by Noach to protect the teva (ark). Kaper is both a sealant and the act of sealing. The act of Kaper, when applied to sin, seals the effects of sin out so that our artistry may be carried forward.

And on Yom Kippur, this is done through the incredibly unusual ritual of Azazel.

In the ritual of Azazel, one goat is a sin offering to YKVK – the name of G-d which incorporates the past, the present and the future. The goat, a rambunctious animal, often represents the Jewish people. The blood of this goat, symbolizing the creative potential of the Jewish people, is sprinkled on the kaporot – or curtains of the aron.

The kaporot, which themselves seal the timeless core of the aron from the loss of potential (sin) that weighs on the people. This is an analog of the function of kaper in Yom Kippur.

And how does the blood of the goat help? Blood represents our potential (Dam gives life to the cells of Adam who has will and combines it with Adama to bring potential to reality). Our potential – not our failings – are dedicated to the kaper. Our potential reality seals against our actual shortcomings by dedicating that potential to the timeless relationship with G-d.

But Azazel does not stop there. There is a second goat. This goat is sent to Az-Azel. This literally means “Goat of Disappearance.” One goat is dedicated to the relationship with timeless G-d. The other, loaded with our imperfections, is cast into oblivion. In some cases, our imperfections mean that opportunities are cast into oblivion before they ever have a chance to be reality.

We symbolically dedicate the best of ourselves to the relationship with the timeless G-d while symbolically obliterating our shortcomings. And through this, we protect our core. Just like the Holy aron at the core of the mishkan (Tabernacle) is protected, so too our neshama is symbolically sealed.

But this is not just a symbolic act. It is an emotional one.

Both goats die. But one protects the timeless relationship with G-d while the other vanishes as if it never existed. We not only symbolically commit ourselves to this reality, it serves as an example to us. And through this ritual we can understand two things: First, the fruitlessness of sin/missed opportunities – and the nothingness it leads to. And second, the limitless potential of our souls.

The symbolic act, combined with our own understanding, protects us from our chata – our sins. It prevents them from becoming a burden that weighs on our souls.

Today, we do not have the symbolic act of Yom Kippur. We cannot dedicate our national potential to Hashem while casting away our national sins. But we can still understand the fate of the goats. We can still understand the fruitlessness of sin and the limitless potential of our souls. And that is our task on Yom Kippur.

We must place the reality of the goats within our own souls. We must internalize the reality that one path – the path of creation and holiness – leads to a timeless relationship with G-d while the other – the path of destruction – leads to oblivion.

When we understand that, and only when we understand that, can our souls be protected from our errors. Only when we understand that can we be released from the burden of our sins. Then, and only then, will we be ready to re-emerge into the world – refreshed and reborn.

Only then can the unparalleled beauty of our lives continue to unfold.

Gmar Chatima Tova

Joseph Cox

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Image: Ars Electronica, Flickr

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (, a thriller about creating hope from war.

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