On the morning of Sept. 15, 2021, members of Barrington’s Temple Habonim gathered together to celebrate Yom Kippur, 5782. All of us, having recently tested negative for COVID, and wearing approved masks, and in greatly reduced numbers, felt fortunate to be in one another’s presence, to form at last a physical in-person community.
We were cautiously hopeful that the worst of the COVID pandemic was behind us.
When Dr. Ivan Wolfson, at that time president of the synagogue, came up to the bimah to address the congregation, he said, “No one could have imagined what our lives would be like 18 months into a pandemic.” Then he went on to encourage us by saying, “Yes, things are getting better – the fact that I’m not speaking to an empty room is evidence of that.”
Wolfson then transitioned into the world of art, displaying on an easel on the bimah two poster-board prints of two highly abstract 20th-century paintings by Mark Rothko (1903-1970). According to Wolfson, Rothko refused to comment on his canvases; instead, he encouraged viewers to “interpret each painting on their own, seeing in them what they wanted or, perhaps, needed to see.”
Moving from the work of a single artist, Wolfson went on to make a more general point: “Just like the need for social connection, the need for art and beauty … is as integral a part of the human condition as the need for food and water.
“Not because art allows us a temporary distraction from the sometimes harsh realities of our lives, though it may. But, at its best, art can be a tonic that gives us perspective and insight into the human condition and can be a powerful force in healing a broken soul.”
As he concluded his remarks on the power of art to heal the broken soul, Wolfson moved from the art of painting to the art of poetry. He read a lengthy poem written by a close friend of his from Columbus, Ohio, Beth Weinstock, a practicing physician who also teaches poetry and creative writing.
It has been frequently noted that art can alter our perspective, can help us experience the world with renewed intensity. In her poem, “First Poet on the International Space Station,” Weinstock achieves this radical change in perspective; she imagines herself to have been selected to be the first human being to write a poem in outer space and send it home to Mother Earth.
At first, she chooses to celebrate what she sees from the “windowed cupola” of the space station: while “the scientists tinker and turn their dials,” the poet places herself “between rainbows rocketing off solar arrays, / and I’ve gasped as angels of light rushed at me / as if they were flushed like doves from the black thickets / of untrimmed air.”
But, ultimately, the poet’s focus shifts from what she sees in the world surrounding the space station to how she sees Mother Earth with new eyes. She marvels at our planet’s “blue orb collared in uneven lace / her land mass swallowed by the oceans .…” And she feels in the depth of her being the cold sterility of outer space in contrast to the warm living complexity of her earthly home: “Out here, we have no rain, / no tilt of plane’s wings over Manhattan, / no whine of a missing dog by the back door.”
As is appropriate for a poem read during the course of Yom Kippur worship, Weinstock’s words carry with them both some pain and an abundance of gratitude.
The British Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) concludes his widely acclaimed “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with the words, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”
While Keats’ words chime their own beauty, they represent but a partial truth – certainly not the whole truth. Parallel to our human search for beauty, we strive for moral goodness and for intellectual integrity.
As a man who sees himself as fundamentally religious, my personal searches for beauty and for goodness and for scientific truth each contributes to my ongoing quest for the ever-elusive God, whose self-definition is ehyeh asher ehyeh, I shall be Who I shall be. (Exodus 3.14).
During that Yom Kippur service back in September of 2021, Ivan Wolfson, along with the poetic voice of his friend, Beth Weinstock, brought to all of us who had the privilege of being in that place at that time a powerful lesson on the healing power of beauty, a power that is essential – but a power that is only partial – in our ongoing quest for God.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.