Thursday, 21 Sep 2023

Written by Eleanor Davis

While illustrating the memoirs of the Mughal prince Babur, around 1590, the artist Dhanu faced a challenge in how to depict one particularly fearsome hunt scene.  Having never seen an alligator, Dhanu took this extraordinary animal’s Persian name at its literal meaning (shīr-i-ābī or ‘water lion’) and painted a golden lion, attacking a buffalo in the middle of a river.  Some forty years earlier, the French naturalist Pierre Belon had taken on a similar challenge in a book collecting information on aquatic life: how to depict the little-known monkfish.  In the absence of personal experience, Belon too relied on the name’s components to guide him and produced an image showing the head and torso of a monk in his robes, with the scaly fins and tail of a fish.

However imperfectly, both Dhanu and Belon created something beyond their ken, wondrous beasts which appeared among the British Library’s summer 2023 “Animals” exhibition; literal illustrations of both the extent and the limits of our imagination when encountering the unfamiliar.  Sadly not included among them was Rashi’s commentary on Parashat Ha’azinu, which takes an already worrying image and makes it more disturbing, by combining elements of behaviour rather than physical characteristics.

Among the misfortunes that are promised to befall the Israelites when they go astray are “Wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts (shen b’hemot)” (Deuteronomy 32:24).  As if “fanged beasts” weren’t terrifying enough, Rashi explains that this isn’t quite the correct translation: rather, we should read shen b’hemot more literally as “teeth of cattle” – that is, ordinary domestic animals turned dangerous.  “It indeed happened once,” he adds, “that ewe-lambs began to bite people and caused their death.”  Where we might imagine only wild beasts biting, Rashi imagines the same behaviour from ewe-lambs; for many of us the very picture of innocence and sweetness.

Using elements of the familiar in unusual combinations can be an unsettling way to create fantastical animals, but that kind of creativity could also be surprisingly helpful for our experience at this time of year.  In all the time we spend thinking about teshuvah, the ways in which we have missed the mark can be very clear: whether in our machzor or in lists we make ourselves, it’s easy to find pages and pages that illustrate (in words) all the mistakes we might have made.  When it comes to thinking about what we should do instead, however, the specifics of how we might get closer to our big ideals may be harder to define.  The new person we’re hoping to become can feel like a fantastical creature, as if we’re trying to describe a monkfish with only its name to guide us.  It may be hard to conceive what you might look like – who you might be – without your failings, yet this is a key part of our High Holy Day challenge.

Teshuvah doesn’t only mean turning away from where we have gone astray; it also means turning towards a new, better direction – and that relies on us having the creativity to imagine new possibilities for who we might become.  Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira taught in 1941 that teshuvah “is also a kind of creativity. … As a creative act, teshuvah is not a simple return. We return to who we are meant to be, but have not yet become. We return to growth and possibility that has lain dormant within us and not yet flourished, much as a sculpture lies hidden within a brute block of stone.”  Like a sculptor, like the Sculptor of Sculptors who initially formed us, we need to develop the imagination to see the figure waiting to be carved out of the stone; to imagine who we might become if our teshuvah were truly successful.

The connection of creativity with teshuvah is there too in our liturgy, in a poem that we sing repeatedly at this time of year: Ki hinei kachomer.  As well as stone in the hands of the mason, this piyyut describes us as glass in the hands of the blower, as cloth in the hands of the weaver, and of course as clay in the hands of the potter.  While the piyyut describes the Divine power to shape us, Rabbi Louis Jacobs pointed out the creative nature of these metaphors with his observation that in all these images, what the artisan can produce relies on the quality of the raw materials.  To this, we might add that the resulting artwork comes not only from those materials, but also from the artisan’s ability to envisage the beautiful form into which those raw materials could be shaped; so if we are truly to be God’s hands in the world, starting with shaping ourselves, then we too need this power of creative imagination.

Rabbi Shapira found great encouragement in the spiritual potential of this creativity: the possibility of revealing the beautiful potential within us “is why the process of teshuvah, as painful and even humiliating as it can be, is in fact very joyous and hopeful.”  Sometimes we are like those manuscript illustrators, with enough imagination to build a working model from new combinations of what we already know, which may later require revision; sometimes we are like sculptors, able to envisage the perfect figure waiting to be chiselled out of the stone.  Whether permanent or temporary, may we all have the imagination to believe in our own potential and the creativity to embrace teshuvah as a joyful path towards recreating ourselves.

G’mar chatimah tovah!


Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.