I knew Sam since he was a little kid. By the time he was in high school he was getting up by five so he could get in a couple of more hours practice on the flute. He breathed music through his pores as though they were tiny flute holes. Like a few other artists I know, I suspect, if a tissue sample were placed in the microscope, instead of cells, eighth notes, clef signs, sharps and flats would come into view, of a person entirely made of music. Sam has talent and we are in love with the arts, and talent has always been one of those deep mysteries. Where does come from? Is it inspiration from on high, or just the passion that makes someone work till art oozes out of them? Gould and Prokofiev claimed not to have practiced, though! So mystery it remains!
A story from our tradition is tells of a king who built a new palace. Not knowing how to decorate it, he announced a contest. Artists and sculptors came from far and wide displaying their work, and the king chose the two whose work spoke most to him. “I give you each a wall of my palace, materials and craftsmen to do with as you wish. The one whose work is best in one year’s time will be well rewarded. The first artist’s name was Tuvia, and he went to work immediately, drawing plans, hiring craftsmen, buying materials. He decided that the way the sun shone on the wall in the afternoon would be perfect for a scene of nature and flowing water, and he followed this insight. He worked many days each hour perfecting texture, color, perspective. The work in progress filled him with joy. The second artist, Golde, was stumped. She would sit and stare at her empty wall day after day, just hoping that the inspiration would come, but it never did. As the contest time neared its conclusion, Tuvia began to dismantle his scaffold, clean up paint and fabric. He proudly signed and veiled his work, while Golde’s wall was just as empty as ever. But, as the day of the judging dawns, surprisingly, Golde had some work to present. The King eagerly approached two contest walls and commanded them to be unveiled. As Tuvia saw his finished work, his heart swelled with pride. But as his eyes turn toward the other wall, his mouth fell open, and blood of anger rushed to his face. There on Golde’s wall is an exact replica of his own, line for line, exactly the same colors, down to the brushstroke. Every leaf, every dewdrop, the same! The King was surprised indeed, but as he felt the cold, smooth texture of Golde’s wall, insight dawned on him.”Who has won?” they asked the King. “I have declared this contest a draw,” he proclaimed. “You shall each return tomorrow to receive the reward you deserve.” Golde breathed a sign of relief. “But your majesty, this is unjust!”, began Tuvia. “Silence! It shall be as I have decreed!” bellowed the King, “return tomorrow!”
When the artists returned to the palace the next day, Tuvia, who had been downhearted, was delighted to see a pile of gold beyond his imaginings near the king. “Your dedication and inspiration honors my home, and I have gifted you enough gold for you to work to your heart’s content all your life!” declared the King. Deeply honored, Tuvia bowed and thanked the King. “But your majesty, what of my reward?”, protested Golde. “I have promised you the reward you deserve, and here is yours,” boomed the king. Golde looked where the king was pointing, and there shone a reflection of the mountain of gold in a mirror. “Take it and leave my kingdom, never to return.” Spoke the king. Golde looked sadly at the King, and slowly left the palace.
This week in the Torah, the portion is named “Vayakhel” – which can translate “and he made them into a community” The portion later names the artisans that God has chosen to create the portable Mishkan, a sanctuary and dwelling for God in the Israelite’s midst. The first is B’tzalel, who is gifted with “Spirit of God in wisdom, understanding, knowledge in all his work” I love this! B’tzalel is an artist, but artistry is not defined as an ability to make “pretty pictures”, but rather as true insight and wisdom and truth -turned to the works of art. And B’tzalel’s name means in God’s shadow! But for me the best is yet to come, because B’tzalel’s assistant is Oholiav, and his God-given, gift of the heart is the ability to teach! Teaching, visual arts, music -all are precious communications, one heart to another, about the beauty and truth we see in the world. An ability to connect, both to the universe and to other souls is the talent we may receive. It is also how we can create community. Perhaps our life’s work is our painting on the palace wall of God’s universe. IF we create an original works, never just reflections. Sam paints gorgeous pictures of sunlight and water and more with his inspiration, his talent and of course, his flute. I can learn from him, be inspired by artists, and also recognize the art and the gift which is my own life’s work: teaching.