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The Masterpiece

Rosh Hashana 1994/5755

by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Once upon a time ... there was a king who built a great palace for himself. It was a magnificent edifice, each room and each hall greater and more impressive than the next. But there remained one hall in the palace that was still bare and undecorated. It was a long and narrow room with high walls. "How should it be decorated?" wondered the king.

He decided to hold a contest and he invited all the artists of the land to submit their works. Among the artists he picked two who had shown themselves well. He brought them to the great hall, and showed them its walls. "I propose to give you each a year." the king explained. "You may live here at the palace on my dole. You may have all the paints and materials you need. You may hire all the assistants you require."

"You will paint this wall," the king said to the first artist, pointing to the wall on the right, "And you will paint that wall," he said to the second artist motioning to the wall on the left. "I will return in one year," the king concluded, "And I will judge. Whichever one of you has done the better job decorating his wall, will I reward with riches, with honor and with fame."

The two artists accepted the challenge. The first artist set right to work. He gathered his ideas and thoughts and he began to sketch and to plan . He hired a crew of assistants and began to build a scaffold against the wall. By the end of the first month, he had his design and began to block it out on the wall. And the second artist... Each day he would come into the great hall and just stare up at his wall... just sit and stare with a strange look on his face.

By the end of the second month, the first artist was well into his work. The design was sketched out on the wall. Paints were mixed and fresh plaster prepared for the wall. And as the third month ended, the design was taking shape on the wall. Each day, the second artist would come in and just stare up at the wall.

The months went by and the first artist's genius was becoming evident on the wall. The inspired design, the bold figures and perspectives, the magnificent color and texture of the work, filled with artist with the confidence that this was, indeed, his masterpiece -- something unique, something never before seen on earth. It filled him with excitement and enthusiasm. And each day, the second artist would come in and just stare up at the wall.

The end of the year approached. The first artist was busy putting the very last finishing touches on his magnificent composition. His assistants were busy putting away the paints and materials, and breaking down the scaffold. On the last day of the last week of the last month of the year, the artist invited his assistants to a celebration. Only one task remained -- that of signing his name to the mural and admiring the magnificent work. He knew that he had created something special.

As the evening's celebration came to an end, and he prepared to leave the great hall, he turned one last time to look at the other wall. It remained as blank and empty as it had been on the very first day of the contest. And there was his colleague, the second artist, sitting and starring as he had done each day of the year.

The next morning, the first morning of the new year, the two artists were summoned to the palace. The king asked them to wait in the antechamber as he entered the hall for the first time in a year. The king looked upon the first artist's composition. His heart began to pound and tears came to his eyes. Never before had he seen a work of art so magnificent, so grand, so moving. Each figure, each design, executed with such care, such grace, such insight. He felt a distinct pride that he, the king, had sponsored and inspired so great a work of human creativity.

And then he turned and looked at the other wall. And there he saw something that shocked him. It was the exact same composition. Line for line, design for design, figure for figure, it was identical. Except, on that wall, he saw a king, just like himself, staring back at him. Suspecting what the artist had done, he walked over and ran his hand across the wall. It was cold, and hard, and smooth. Yes, the artist had installed mirrors the length and breadth of the wall. Mirrors. So that everything that appeared on one wall was reflected back on the other.

The king invited the two artists into the room. The first artist looked up at his work and felt his pride swell. But then he looked across at the other wall and was enraged. "Who won?" they asked the king. "Well, clearly both of you win!" the king replied, "Everything that appears on this wall, also appears on that wall. The designs are identical, so clearly both of you win!

I declare the contest a tie and you will each be rewarded accordingly." "But no!" protested the first artist,"how can you?" "Silence!" commanded the king, "you must accept my decree! Now return tomorrow, both of you, to receive your rewards."

The two artists left the room; each with his own feelings.

These two artists really fascinate me. I imagine there's quite a bit of each of them in each of us. Like them, we too come before the King, at this time of year, to show what we've done, to expose ourselves and our accomplishments and our failures to his examination. I'm sure there are some here tonight whose lives can truly be called a masterpiece. There are some here tonight who have filled this year with creativity and accomplishment. Like that first artist, they can present before the King, a year fully lived, talents fully developed, time well spent.

And then there is the rest of us.

Why have I no masterpiece to show? Why do I have this nagging sense that, like the second artist, I'm faking it so much of the time? Putting up mirrors to reflect back what others expect instead of really creating something unique and magnificent? What holds us back?

Perhaps, we're just too busy. Who has time for a masterpiece? Who has time for self-actualization? We're all busy. And because we're busy, there are things we put off. But what happens when we've put off life until tomorrow? How many people do we know who waited, waited for a promotion, waited for retirement, waited for the kids to grow up, or the parents to move into the home...waited and waited before beginning life...and then died just as life was to begin!

We call these High Holidays in English, but in the tradition, they are called Yamim Noraim -- Days of Awe, of Fear and Trembling. Because on these days we do something fearful and frightening, we confront death. A deeply morbid thought...and yet in confronting death, how much of our energies are liberated, how little time we waste, how concentrated each moment, how clear our priorities, our values, our sense of what's really important.

Why don't we create a masterpiece of life? Because there are so many other things to do....and then, it's too late.

Or maybe it's deeper. Maybe we don't create masterpieces because we are afraid -- afraid to fail, afraid to look foolish in our earnestness, afraid to lose, afraid to try.

Do you know how the Torah ends? Week after week we follow this man Moses in his struggle to lead his people to freedom. Week after week we join in his victories and we cry at the anguish of his defeats, and then at the very end...he doesn't make it. Just as he's about to lead his people to the Promised Land, his life ends. He never reaches the goal, he never sets foot in the land of his dreams. Why that story? Why do we put ourselves through the ordeal of reading it again and again, year after year? A man, so close to the fulfillment of his dreams, denied, a failure, a tragedy.

We never expect to fail. We never expect to find ourselves on the other side of the Jordan, just outside the Promised Land. We don't expect to fail, and when we do, we lose faith in ourselves. We sit paralyzed, unable to do the good that's within our power, because failure has convinced us that nothing we do is worth anything. And that's why the Torah ends as it does. Everyone faces failure, even Moses. And the greater you are, the greater your failures. But the question is: what do you do next? You roll the Torah back to Breshit, back to Genesis, and you begin again.

What is the most powerful message of this holiday season?
Salachti Kidvarecha -- God forgives. God in His divine perfection and completeness, forgives us. And if God can forgive you -- can you forgive? If God can find it in His heart to forgive you, can you find it in your heart to forgive yourself? Forgive yourself for your mistakes, your limitations, your failures? Can you forgive, and begin again?

Or perhaps it's deeper still. I imagine that second artist, sitting there day after day, rehearsing in his mind the words of the king: create for me a masterpiece. I imagine him sitting there, unable to move. Was it just too risky, too frightening, too daunting a charge: to create just one piece -- a masterpiece -- a piece that represents all his talents and abilities, all his insights and dreams, all his creativity and imagination -- to show the king through this one piece who he is and what he's about...to put his soul up on that wall.

Maybe I don't want to know who I am. Maybe I'm afraid of the truth. Better to put up mirrors. Let others see what they want, what they expect.

There's something beguiling, charming, even attractive about that strategy -- consider Woody Allen's Zelig, or Paddy Chayefsky's Chauncey Gardener, or Tom Hank's Forest Gump...the transparent human being as our hero...What happens when you look within and find nothing there... no truth, nothing firm, solid, real, permanent. Nothing worth living for, nothing worth dying for. Nothing there. Empty. We run away. Put up mirrors. Turn transparent.

What's the most important prayer in all of Judaism?

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Ehad. But this time, don't read it as a statement, a catechism of faith, read it as a question: Are you listening, Israel?
Do you have a God? Do you have One?
Is there something in your life that you love with all your heart and soul and might? Something that fills your thoughts? Something to pass along to children and grandchildren as the wisdom you lived for? Something that guides the work of your hands and the perceptions of your eyes? Something that fills your home, your heart, your life? Is there anything there, within? Are you listening?

Why do so many of us fail at life? Fail to live up to the potential we were gifted with? Fail to create of life the masterpiece that lays latent and dormant within us?

Because we don't have the time, or the courage, or the conviction to listen to the voice within. Because we can't or won't or are afraid to hear it speak our mission in this world, our purpose in life. And what happens to us...listen to the end of the story.

The two artists returned to the palace the next day. The first artist dejected and angry. The second elated and relieved. They were ushered into the great hall. And there in the middle of the hall was a mountain of gold. More gold than either man had ever seen or dreamed in his lifetime.

The king turned to the first artist: "You have created a masterpiece. Your work is profound and moving and so beautiful. Your gifts are truly from God. And I am proud that I could be a part of so magnificent a work of art. Because of this, you will receive the reward you deserve. This mountain of gold is yours. There is enough gold to support you for the rest of your life. Now go and spread your gifts -- bring beauty into the lives of others as you have into my own life."

The artist was surprised. He thanked the king again and again.

"Wait just a moment," the other artist interrupted. "You said we both won, and we would both get rewarded. Where is my reward?"
"Oh yes," the king responded, "I did promise that each of you would receive the reward due him. And I intend to keep my word."
"So, if he receives all this gold," the second artist asked, "where is my reward?"

"Why look there," said the king, motioning to the reflection in the mirror, "Do you see that mound of gold, there in the mirror? That is your reward. The reward that you deserve! Now take your reward and leave my kingdom!"

The second artist look up in shock at the king. And he slowly left the room.

At some moment in your life, whether it be now, at this Rosh Hashana, or years from now, whether it be in a public service, or in a quiet private moment -- in a hospital room, in your child's bedroom, or staring at a beautiful sunset -- the King is going to come back and ask to examine your life, to judge your accomplishments, to assess your failures, to savor your masterpiece. May each of us have something worthy to show Him.


* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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