Cultivating Creativity

Each of us has a heart that moves us and can create glorious new worlds. Let’s reclaim that creative part of ourselves.

In a TED Talk, education expert Sir Ken Robinson shares his fear that schools are killing creativity.  For Robinson, creativity is a key aspect of our humanity. The ability to innovate and be original allows the world to progress and each of us to flourish as individuals. Robinson’s critique of our education system is that it stigmatizes mistakes as the worst thing you can do. You score lower and are not tracked for success. Instead Robinson urges educational reform that emphasizes taking chances rewards mistakes as the building blocks of innovation and originality. He worries that we prioritize math, language and the humanities over arts, dance, music and drama, and that creativity is stifled.

In many ways Robinson’s thinking reflects lessons connected to constructing the tabernacle described in this morning’s Torah portion. The lesson of the tabernacle is that part of our human condition is a yearning to create.  The language of creating the Tabernacle echoes the Creation story in Genesis. Phrases and words are exactly the same. Commentary finds even more parallels.  Why is the original Creation echoed in this story? The story of constructing the Tabernacle shifts the focus of who creates.  In Genesis, God creates the world – “and it was good.”  In our story, it is the people who create.  We create a house worthy of containing all that is – a home for God. Like God, we are meant to create with purpose and intention.  We too can craft worlds and in so doing connect with something larger than ourselves. The focus of creation shifts to humans to teach us that we contribute to the continuation and evolution of the universe.

In his book, Yearnings, Irwin Kula writes:

We are all world builders. When we write a poem, give birth to a child, build a home, or help launch a company, we are acting from the same Godlike impulse.  We are answering that overwhelming, wondrous yearning to be creative, to contribute something of value, to make a difference.

The lesson of the tabernacle is that part of our human condition is a yearning to create. The language of creating the Tabernacle echoes the Creation story in Genesis.

Creativity is our birthright – yet somehow we do not connect it to our Judaism.  Like Ken Robinson’s critique of modern education, we have lost the creative spark. A couple weeks ago, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article in the New York Times called, “How to Raise a Creative Child.” The article sounded similar themes to Ken Robinson’s TED Talk – lamenting that in our relentless pursuit of achievement – we have lost creativity and originality.  We may teach our gifted children to play the right notes of a magnificent Mozart melody, but in pursuing the achievement and the approval that accompanies it, very few learn the creativity necessary to compose their own original scores. Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. We need to foster creativity

So what does it take to raise a creative child? In many ways, Adam Grant’s answers reflect lessons that emerge as we study building of the Tabernacle.  Grant brings a study that compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. He found that the parents of creative kids had far fewer rules than parents of ordinary children –  1 or 2, as opposed to 6 or 7.  Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. For all that the tabernacle seems to be a set of very detailed instructions – when you read the section carefully, you see that there is lots of room for individual expression.  One commentary describes a tapestry with different scenes on each side.  Imagine the different people designing the art in their heart to building this home where God would dwell.

Another piece of creativity is nurturing joy in your work. Grant writes of a study of creative people that found that people who grew up to be creative adults had freedom to discover their own interests as children. Think about how over-programmed we, and our children, are. The people who built the tabernacle are called “inspired artisans, carvers, designers, weavers”. Each person found their own passion. Some spun blue, purple, and crimson yarns, other built the grand tent in specific dimensions.

We need to learn to watch for, cultivate and support the intrinsic motivations of ourselves and our children. Mozart was interested in music before taking lessons, not the other way around, and Yitzchak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.

Listen to Irwin Kula’s description of building the tabernacle:

Moses told Betzalel to make the tabernacle according to God’s instructions, but he made it according to his vision of his own time and place. The tabernacle is an improvisation. But you can only improvise after you’ve been inspired and gone through all the preparation and incubation. Then you can integrate and leap into the future. The commentators say that when Betzalel was praised, he said none of it had anything to do with him. As many artists describe it, he became a channel for creativity itself. The text describes Betzalel, as “endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge.

He nurtured and responded to those gifts.

Another aspect of creativity that Adam Grant notes is that creativity flourishes when people have a breadth of interests, not just depth of knowledge and experience.  In fashion, the most original collections come from designers who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.  Creativity comes from curiosity and passion – it can’t be programmed. Clearly at the time of the tabernacle, we were weavers, builders, singers, poets, teachers. Hundreds of new materials were used that had never been used before. We innovated and experimented and the result was that we became creators of God’s home.

There is another connection between the creation of the Tabernacle and nurturing creativity.  The tabernacle takes six chapters to build.  Before that there are six chapters of instructions about how to build and what it should contain.  We gathered information.  We listened and learned. Ideas incubated. We prepared and developed our skills and craft. This is not just about sudden inspiration – there was time for reflection, maybe even boredom, drudgery and fear.  And then we built – creating a safe place for creativity to continue and for God to dwell.

Dr. Leah Dickstein teaches a class to the medical students at the University of Louisville on self-care.  She gave them a seemingly odd assignment.  She asked them to do a project engaging in something creative.  It could be anything – finishing a table, making a meal, knitting a cap.  The students did the project – having no idea how it connected to being a doctor or self-care.  Then she had them talk about what they did and everyone noticed how excited the fellow students were to describe their project.  Their tone changed. They became more animated, and opened up. The clinical, analytical persona many of them had unconsciously adopted, suddenly dropped.  She told them to take two things away from the lesson – remember what it felt like to be creative and allow time in their busy lives to nurture the creative spark inside themselves.  She also instructed them to use the experience of creativity to build relationships with patients.  One of the most difficult things for a doctor to do is a medical intake that elicits the patient’s full story.  Dr. Dickstein said, “Share your creativity and use it as a way to help your patient open up.  Say something like, ‘I love to knit, what do you love to do?’  Talking about creativity will open the door to pieces of medical history and story that would not have otherwise been revealed.”

We may not realize how creative we actually are and can be – because we expect creativity to look and feel a certain way. But each of us is Betzalel. Each of us has a heart that moves us and can create glorious new worlds.  Let’s reclaim that creative part of ourselves.  Let’s nurture it in our children. Let’s embrace the richness of creative capacity and celebrate the gift of human imagination. Let’s allow Jewish community and learning to make room for creativity and innovation.  The result will be a home where God can dwell.