Art and soul

I am of two minds tonight. On the one hand, there is so much to say about this program and my visceral reactions to it, and on the other, there are some deeper mullings I want to share based on a brief reading and a piece of art I saw yesterday. Since I think the former merits a bit more time, reflection and conversation with folks here, tonight, I want to focus in on some warm and cuddly reflections: some lessons and musings about love from a Jewish perspective.

Yesterday, as we roamed the ancient city of Tzfat, amidst the expected street vendors and trinkets, we had the chance to peruse a section of town that featured many local Israeli artists. Towards the end of these wanderings, a book caught my eye on a shelf outside of a cafe. Though I don’t recall exactly, the title was something like “True love and happy marriage – perspectives from Rabbi _____.” Interested to know how the Jewish faith looked at such things, I opened up the book, and was surprised to find chapter one titled “Soul Mates.”

To be honest, I figured that a book about marriage and love from a religious perspective would have begun with something a bit more practical, and perhaps, religious (if that makes any sense)? But as I took a quick dive into the initial pages, it became clearer to me how the idea of soul mates could connect to the deeper truths one might derive from religious exploration.

Personally, romantic that I am, I still find the concept of soul mates to be scary, and difficult for the rational part of me to swallow. Only one person? Really? What if you miss them, or find them and don’t realize it, or life otherwise dictates that your love be placed elsewhere? And really, with all the facets of relationships and compatibility, is there really one person who is meant to or who can satisfy them all, or at least can do so better than anyone else? Or is there something more that sets this person apart – something beyond reason that occurs in conjunction with compatibility? If so, what might this thing be, and how important is it in relation to these other things?

Lots of questions, I know, and it seems there is a process of answering rather than answers. This said, there were two major ideas that stuck out from the pages I read yesterday which resonated a great deal with some of my own thoughts: one – that the notion of “finding” one’s soul mate in Hebrew can be translated simultaneously in the past and present tense (i.e. to “be found” and “to find”); and two – the notion that a soul mate can be at least partially defined as someone who inspires true selflessness: someone whose life, dreams, hopes and happiness you come to value and desire as much as or more than your own.

First, on the notion of a soul mate “found” and the one we “find”. To me, this convergence of tenses suggests that there is something immediate that may be “found” in the meeting of a soul mate – i.e. a powerful feeling, an instinct, a gut-reaction – while to be (or remain?) soul mates over time is the product of an ongoing desire to “find”: to continue uncovering the mysteries of this connection, to renew, and to continue sharing the joy, meaning, and sense of depth that this connection brings. In this way, the daunting concept of a soul mate is much more accessible to me. It may indeed be that there are those who bring an undefinable spark into our lives, but that connection is only as powerful as it is tended to, nurtured, and grown. A soul mate in this sense may be someone who possesses many great qualifications – i.e. compatibility, friendship, attraction and spark – and ultimately, is also someone with whom we desire and choose to grow these things, and to grow into partnership with.

Second, my reading yesterday really brought me to feel the counter-intuitive truth of a selfless love as a means towards self-fulfillment and discovery. As it was expressed in the book, this selfless love – the one that produces a desire to bring to another all they could wish to achieve, see and experience – is one that can help lead to a true sense of self. I’ve spoken recently with folks who have pointed out that one marker of a healthy relationship is that it brings out the best in both people (in some sense – that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts). I think that this makes a lot of sense, and is a wonderful way to determine what a relationship is contributing to two individuals, and by extension, the world around them. What struck me in conjunction with this is the extent to which this “bringing out the best” might be directly tied to, and indeed, perhaps the direct result of a selfless desire to give oneself entirely to another: that their dreams might come true, or further, that their dreams might become your dreams (so close that your hand on my chest is my hand; so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep – you know, that good stuff Neruda talks about ;).

Neither of these ideas was wholly new to me, but the connection between the self-bettering and selfless love was something I hadn’t necessarily considered explicitly before. Again, it’s that slight counter-intuitiveness that to me, seems to hint at something truthful. I think it’s important that a relationship bring out the best in two people, and I believe that this is a wonderful measure of compatibility. And yet, to pursue this course directly – i.e. to pursue a relationship in order that it bring out the best in you – seems to me like it might be chasing something just beyond reach; a process that might undermine itself, unless done truly out of love for another. There is something about that desire to see another’s life and purpose fulfilled, about placing another before yourself, that makes sense to me as a way to discover one’s own best self, and to counter-intuitively help find one’s own true path and joy.

I think we often idealize and individualize love in America – painting it as something that exists between two individuals, and that in and of itself is meant to provide individual purpose and happiness. What I think gets left out in the romantic endings of our movies and stories, though, is the work it takes to find this purpose and happiness, and the selflessness and friendship required to make this work fulfilling, and perhaps to some degree, possible and sustainable over time.

Now where this selflessness comes from and how it sustains itself, I don’t know (Judaism I gather, would seem to offer “God”), and perhaps that is the true mystery of a “soul mate”. To bring things full circle, I would again connect this idea back to the notion of “found” and “find” – that a soul mate found may be one who seems to inherently or easily inspire this sense of selfless love and desire, while the one we find is the one we choose and/or feel compelled to continue to work on selflessness with, that together, two better selves might be found.

As all these thoughts were unfolding, I couldn’t help but feel that this painting I had seen from an Israeli artist somehow captured a lot of these ideas:

Walking hand in hand

There is something in this painting that seems to me to suggest that somehow, the simple act of walking together not only makes finding and walking the path easier and more enjoyable, but such a connection brings greater illumination to the world, making it burn more brightly. I wish this picture could have picked up the full brightness and color of this scene, but suffice to say, it reminded me of all the brilliance of an autumn day that such a feeling could inspire.

I don’t think the answers to any of these are meant to be entirely clear, but I find that books and art remain delightful tools to chip away at these things with (as is the heart). Soul mate, like any other word or name, is a beautiful frame for an idea and a feeling that ultimately goes beyond any attempt to frame it. As always, there is more to come, on this, and other fronts, as these days in Israel continue to roll forth. For now – some guitar to welcome in the Sabbath 😉

My love goes with you,

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One Response to Art and soul

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