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Letter to a Depressed Artist

Letter to a Depressed Artist

''In Mourning'' by Chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman. Pencil, 1950's
"In Mourning" by Chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman. Pencil, 1950's

By the Grace of G‑d
24 Adar II, 5711 [March 8, 1951]
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Greeting and Blessing:

... I was extremely happy to read that you are working with your artistic talents, are preparing to hold an exhibition, and that you have already received favorable reviews in the press. Surely you will progress in the utilization of the talent that G‑d has granted you toward the strengthening of Yiddishkeit and G‑d-fearing behavior.

As to the main point of your letter, in which you complain about your circumstances, your depression, your despair, etc., and express the wish that we should meet, so that we could discuss the matter face to face.

For two good friends to get together is always a positive thing and a spiritual pleasure for them both. But to put off [the resolution of your problem] until then, and in the meantime to remain in a state of despair, G‑d forbid—who can allow himself such a thing?

You do not write of the causes which bring you to this state of mind, so I cannot go into their details to show you how these "causes" are but imaginary and stem from the evil inclination—that is, that even if there is some substance to them, the fact that they lead to despair and depression is folly...

I must therefore confine myself to a general comment with which I hope to illuminate your particular situation. My comment is based on the saying by the Baal Shem Tov—which my father-in-law, the Rebbe, would often repeat—that a person can derive a lesson in the service of G‑d from everything he sees or hears about.

As you are surely aware, the primary talent of an artist is his ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this in his painting. Thus the object is revealed as it has never before been seen, since its inner content was obscured by secondary things. The artist exposes the essence of the thing he portrays, causing the one who looks at the painting to perceive it in another, truer light, and to realize that his prior perception was deficient.

And this is one of the foundations of man's service of his Creator.

As we know from the Torah—and particularly from the teaching of Chassidism—the entirety of creation stems from the word of G‑d,1 and the word of G‑d is what brings it into existence and sustains it in every moment of time. It is only that the divine power of tzimtzum (constriction) holds the divine life-force in a state of concealment and obscurity, and we perceive only its outer form (i.e., the physical reality).

Our mission in life—based on the simple faith that "there is none else beside Him"2 —is that we should approach everything in life from this perspective. That we should each strive to reveal, as much as possible, the divine essence in every thing, and minimize, to the extent that we are able, its concealment by the externalities of creation...

So one must take great care that secondary and external matters should not obscure the essentials of life and its ultimate purpose.

A person might experience difficulties, trials and challenges in separating the good from the bad. But these are but the means by which to achieve the purpose of life—that his soul should elevate itself through its positive deeds in this world... So one must never allow the difficulties in overcoming one's trials, or even the fact that one might occasionally fail and stumble, to overwhelm the joy that one must feel as a child of G‑d...

(A freely-translated excerpt from a letter)3

I.e., the words with which G‑d created the world--"Let there be light," "Let the earth sprout forth vegetation," etc. See Tanya, part II, chapter 1.
Igrot Kodesh, vol. IV, pp. 222-224.
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arthur yanoff November 23, 2017

the yiddishe artist This is a very complicated subject. Most artist lives are quite difficult . But for those of us who are yids, we carry the Second Commandment in our neshumahs. It is no accident that we yids have been in the fore front of abstract painting. I remember reading that the BESHT commented on the inner integrity of a hand made piece of furniture. Our Rebbe, alava shulim, makes an insightful point about the necessity of exploring the underlying equivalents of that which we perceive. Reply

Joy Krauthammer Northridge, CA June 28, 2006

Conveyed innermost essence "..A person can derive a lesson in the service of G-d from everything he sees or hears about." "..The primary talent of an artist is his ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this in his painting." The Rebbe
Yes, I am an artist, but anyone could see Marcel's z"l soul-his tears and convey their compassion past his silent voice. While my beloved husband, Menachem Elimelech ben Shulim lay on artificial life-support for six months at the end of his life five months ago, I could mostly see his soul shining through his eyes until diminished within his paralyzed, tormented body. This was my lesson during our ordeal until he could not as warrior fight the battle any longer. I don't know what my husband's lesson was but he showed us what perseverance/netzach and faith/emunah and trust/bitachon can do.
May my nightmares of the physical be erased. Reply

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