Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
In the popular imagination there are two kinds of robots: One of them is the synthetic super-functionary of post-industrial life in the familiar metal-plastic-and-microcircuitry getup. The other kind of robot is an old-fashioned monotheist in flesh-and-blood getup, but likewise wired into a set of commandments, positive and negative, that govern his life.
The truth is, that although it can happen to the best of us, robot-like performance of mitzvos in Judaism is not at all what we are supposed to be doing. There should be only one kind of robot---the first kind.
In the Torah, G-d is sometimes referred to as tsur, which usually means rock, because of His steadfast strength. In Hebrew, the word tsayar, artist, is derived from the same root, as the similarity in spelling indicates. This is because, as Creator of the universe, the Almighty is the ultimate creative artist. (Talmud Brochos 10a.) Since we are commanded to emulate Him---and you shall go in His ways---it follows that we should also strive to be creative in our own lives.
This creativity may take the form of what is usually thought of as creative work: music, writing, painting, wrapping large architectural forms in shiny material, or the innovative use of elephant dung. Sticking to the more traditional creative modes, though, there has been an outpouring of creativity on the part of religious Jews throughout history. From the poetry of King David's Psalms to the thousands of volumes of Torah commentary and Halachic responsa down to the renaissance in translation and exegesis in English in our own day, the literary genius of the Jewish people is manifest. Architecture and the building crafts were essential in the Temple; and music was a requisite element in the Temple service, as well as an aid to prophetic inspiration (Talmud Pesachim 117a).
Creativity may also take on a personal or spiritual dimension. ...And you shall go in His ways. The Talmud says that just as G-d is merciful, so should you be; just as G-d is forgiving, so should you be...An individual who trains himself to be a kinder person is undoubtedly creating something new and greater out of his own being. It was said of Rabbi Yitzchak Blaser (1837-1907), that at a certain stage of life he made the decision to become the kind of person who would, by the very beauty of his character traits, attract other Jews to a Torah way of life. He had, in other words, decided to create himself anew in the service of G-d.
Moreover, it is a central precept of Judaism that the human being has free will. True, we are given the guidelines for right conduct, but in the final analysis, we are the ones who must choose to follow those guidelines or not. That free will choice is a creative act.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, one of Jerusalem's great ethicists, derives this kind of moral creativity from Genesis, Chapter 19. When Avraham's nephew Lot was rescued by Divine decree from the destruction of Sodom, the Sages tell us that it was in the merit of having once kept a vital secret. For when he travelled with Avraham and Sarah into Egypt, Avraham told the Egyptians that Sarah was not his wife, but his sister, for fear that if he told them the truth, they would kill him and take her. Lot, who could have curried favor with their wealthy and powerful hosts by disclosing the truth, refrained from doing so, and in the end Avraham and Sarah left Egypt unharmed.
Rabbi Wolbe asks: Surely Lot had an even greater merit---namely, the hospitality he offered to the wayfarers in Sodom, at the risk of his own life. He answers that Lot learned hospitality from Avraham (who, by the way, came before Ishmael and his hospitable Arab descendants); whereas his conduct in Egypt was his own idea. Nor was it easy for Lot not to betray Avraham. The Sages tell us that Lot was an avaricious person (which is why he settled in the ultra-materialistic city of Sodom), and so for him this was an act of moral transcendence. It was the creative, not the imitative act which earned Lot a new lease on life, for this is what life is truly all about.
The Talmud in Brochos observes that human creativity is trivial in comparison with that of the Creator---for what are an artist's lifeless images compared to the creation of an infinite living universe? But when, through his free will choices, man breathes life into the empty vessel of his own physical self, then his creativity is of a different order entirely; then his work is the crown of creation.
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