Why are artists the most selfish people in the world? The petulant behavior of rock stars is legion. The solitary painter locked in his garret creating his masterpiece with uneaten meals piling up around him is a well-worn clich´┐Ż. Bad temper and tantrums are not only tolerated, but are often mistaken for a yardstick of talent.

The maestro throwing down his baton and walking off the rehearsal stage after reducing the fifteen-year-old Korean first violin to tears is a predictable scene in the life of many a symphony orchestra.

"Behaving like a prima donna" (literally, the "first lady" of the opera) has found its way into the vernacular indicating arrogance and high-handedness. Why can artists be so unbearably selfish? And why do we let them get away with it?

An artist can think he is God.

An artist starts off with a blank piece of paper and creates a universe. Being an artist is the closest thing there is to creatio ex nihilo - creation from nothing. The universe of the artist is entirely at the whim of its creator. He can draw and he can erase. He can form and he can fold. He can create worlds and he can destroy them. The sky can be blue - or gray. The next note can go up or down. And who says that all this has to be the way it is?


The artist.

If there's one nation in the world that symbolizes Art with a capital A, it's Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks quite literally wrote the book on aesthetics, poetry, drama - all the artistic disciplines. Why was it the Greeks who epitomized Art more than any other?

The fact that Greece is the wellspring of art is not a product of its geographical location nor its demographic or racial makeup; it comes from a verse in the Torah: "May God extend Yafet, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem" (Bereishit 9:27). Thus it was that Noach blessed Yafet, his eldest son. However, the blessing of beauty comes with a condition - that Yafet will "dwell in the tents of Shem." Why did Noach stipulate that Yafet would be blessed with beauty provided that "he will dwell in the tents of Shem"?

Yafet comes from the same root in Hebrew as yofi, "beauty." Yafet's fourth son was Yavan. Yavan is the Hebrew name for Greece. The Jewish people are the descendants of Shem. Shem means "name." In all other languages, meanings of words evolve so that society can operate. If I order a steak and the waiter brings me a screwdriver, the restaurant is not destined for great things. In all other languages, names are conventional - but they don't define essence. In the Holy Tongue, the name of something is essential, its connection to its spiritual root.

Yafet, beauty, art finds its correct place in the scheme of things when it "dwells in the tents of Shem" - when it expresses essence, when it reveals the truth of existence. Truth is Beauty, but Beauty may not be true. When Yafet leaves the tents of Torah, when he leaves the world of essence, of Shem, and focuses on himself, then art becomes narcissistic, corrupt, and corrupting.

Several key events that epitomize the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, between Shem and Yafet, take place in the months of Kislev and Tevet. The festival of Chanuka, which starts on the twenty-fifth of Kislev and finishes in the first days of Tevet, is the most conspicuous. However, a few days later there is a day of great sadness for the Jewish people, which reveals another side to the symbiotic relationship between Shem and Yafet.

On the eighth of Tevet, three days of spiritual darkness descended on the world when King Ptolemy took seventy-two great Torah sages, locked them in separate cubicles, and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek. The Torah, the blueprint of all existence, was caged in a foreign tongue. It became just another book on a shelf. Now the nations of the world could come and say, "Oh yes, we know your Torah. We have it on the shelves of our university library. It's over in the philosophy/religion/New Age section."

What was the symbolism of putting the sages into separate cubicles? A cubicle is like a tent. When Ptolemy the Greek took the sages of Israel and locked them into separate cubicles, it signified Shem being made to sit in the "tent" of Yafet. When the Torah was translated into Greek, it was made to sit in the halls of academia, the tent of Yafet, just like any other book. Essence was made to serve form. The internal world was made the servant of the external. The world was turned upside down.

There would be religious art from the Greeks and their ideological heirs. There would be a Donatello, a Michelangelo, a Bach, a Handel. But religion would only serve art - not the reverse. Religion would be the paymaster of the artist and even his raw material - but God would no longer be the focus of his striving. Man would not be serving God anymore. God would be "made" to serve man.

In the Greek view of the world, God is not the center of the world; man is the center. Man's intellect, his ability to perceive God, "defines" God's "limits." What I can't think doesn't exist.

The Jewish people, the descendants of Shem, proclaim to the world that the mind of man does not contain nor restrain God. God does not sit in the tent of man.

"Truth," with a capital T, is beyond the mind of man. When we look at the beauty of this world, it whispers to us that there is a transcendent existence - an ultimate Truth.

The greatest artist who ever lived was called Betzalel. It was Betzalel who was responsible for the building of the Mishkan and the fabricating of the clothes of the Kohanim. Betzalel knew how to combine the letters of the alef-bet, the DNA of creation, and create a place where the Divine Presence could dwell. The name Betzalel means "in the shadow of God." True art is making God's "shadow" visible in the world.

The true artist takes the awe of existence and turns it into notes, into paint, into words. Art is not a world where man may rule as a tyrant. Art is but the most moving reflection, a shadow, of the world beyond.

who says that
is nicer than blue.
i do.

More articles available at Ohr Somayach's website.