Lifting the Veil: To Live the Incomplete Life

Yoni A. Dahlen
January 22, 2013
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The most brilliant of artists are never satisfied.  Their brushes stay wet, their chisels continually being sharpened until their work is pried from their clenched grasps.  The tears of the poet, the sculptor, the dancer speak to the seemingly unjust nature of art.  They cry, “no, not now” or “if I only could add one more stroke.”  This is the creator’s delusion.  The date of true completion simply would never come.  Like a parent sending their children off on their own, the creator is invariably forced with the severe pain of spiritual and emotional amputation.

While this imperative separation is inherently violent, its essence is wholly constructive.  To the Jew, the foundations of law, text, and tradition rest primarily on this delicate edifice of division. She is equally created and creator, a partner in the magnificent work of Life.  She is separated from the earth – she is destined to return to it.

David Gelernter, in his 2003 Commentary article, “Judaism: Beyond Words,” describes Jewish life as a “veil,” a living asymmetry.[1] To Gelernter, Judaism is a system of being, of striving, and of painful incompletion – a religion sui generis to human history.  Indeed the sustenance of Judaism is found in the unattainable, in the magic that exists somewhere between heaven and earth.  A Jew struggles through a life detached.  She survives in the world knowing that she cannot touch the sky.  Yet it is the sky that she longs for – a glimpse behind the veil.

Through her awful throwness into the chaos of uncertainty, she is promised moments of the ineffable.  The lighting of the Shabbat candles, the drinking of Kiddush wine, study of sacred texts – this is the grace of covenant.  Engaged to a source beyond herself, she is given tastes of the divine.  This transcendence is the renewal of life, the replenishing of body and soul.  In these moments she is given the tools to stay sane in the chaos behind the veil.  Bravely embracing this torn existence, she is both painter and painting.  Given the hues to create the world, she trembles in awe at the impossible task.  Though her brush is unsteady, her strokes often sloppy, her life becomes a masterpiece.

To be a Jew is to be a work in progress.  Sustained by division, she is always beautifully incomplete.  The day is short and the task impossible.  Though it is not incumbent upon her to complete her work, she is also forbidden to desist from it.[2] As the artist longs to reclaim his work, so too does his work desire return.  The barrier between them is vast, the longing unbearable, yet both cannot live without the certainty that the veil will someday be lifted.  It is the hope of reunion that makes the art truly great.  With each painful step towards the infinite, hands are raised, fingers extended, and in the moment of completion, the earth touches the sky.

[1] David Gelernter. “Judaism: Beyond Words.” Commentary, July 2003

[2] Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, 2:20-21

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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