Teshuvah: The Art of Return

When it comes to visual art, I’ve always believed in the power of restraint.  From an early age, I fell in love with Post-Impressionist art, and was very intrigued by the restricted palettes that such artists as Paul Klée, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso often imposed upon themselves, particularly in images that come from within.  When I tried working monochromatically myself, I found it to be paradoxically liberating.

“Intentions”, a monochromatic painting on burlap by Paul Klée, 1938

Yesterday I had an opportunity to try this concept out with children.  It was Yom Kippur, a day of self-denial and restraint.  For Jews everywhere, this is the holiest day of the year, when we seek to engage in תשובה – teshuvah, or return – defined by MyJewishLearning.com as “the process by which we recognize our sins, feel regret for having committed them, resolve not to do them again, and make restitution for any harm we may have caused.”  All the major prayers of Yom Kippur focus on these themes.  From sundown on Yom Kippur Eve until one hour after the following sundown, adults do not eat, drink, work, or spend money.  Many people also do a “technology fast”, refraining from driving cars, turning on computers and televisions or even talking on the phone.  Because Yom Kippur is a day on which we strive to achieve spiritual purity, there is a tradition to wear white clothes to synagogue services.

A “teshuvah” collage by a ten-year-old

What does it mean to be “pure”?  Purity, or the state of being pure, is defined as a substance that is unmixed, undiluted, and untainted; morally, it represents a state of mind that is without fault, or ritually clean.  On Yom Kippur, we strive for spiritual purity through fasting, prayer, and deep introspection.   For many Jews, that ritual purity is represented by wearing the color white.

Why does white represent purity?  For those of us who live in the north, the answer is obvious.  Anyone who has seen a winter storm blanket the world in fresh snow understands the transformative power of this color.  White is clean.  White is simple.  White is the color of life-sustaining milk, and clean, rushing water.  When it comes to man-made objects, it’s no accident that white is the color of everything from surgical gauze to bridal dresses, from the white stripes on the American flag to the shrouds in which the dead are buried.   

Yesterday, I led a children’s art activity at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in which we restricted ourselves to white.  Two tables of collage materials were laid out – all in white except for basic brown paper (recycled grocery bags) to serve as a contrasting base.

What does teshuvah mean to children who are too young to fast and too young to be morally responsible for their own behavior?  For a child to “return” to his or her original self – the pure soul that resides within each of us – is a short journey.  For very young children, it is sufficient to introduce the concept of an untainted self that dwells within, and to build positive associations with the day of atonement.

Children are naturally attracted to white.  They like to wear it, and they like to work with it.  Every girl who approached the collage table reached for the white lace and paper doilies that were laid out.  They also liked the heart shapes and stars of David that had been pre-cut for kids with short attention spans.  But as always, some of the children became so absorbed in their work that well over an hour flew by before they asked for a snack or abandoned the classroom for the playground.  I am proud to share their collages here.

As for my own collage – well, to me teshuvah is represented visually by a composition that is simple and harmonious, light and free like falling snow, full of movement and shape, yet uncluttered and clean.  It was refreshing to work with just one color – or rather, one color relationship – that of white and a background the color of earth, the basic mud from which the first human was mythically shaped.  It is said that a heavenly gate opens on Yom Kippur in which our heartfelt prayers and intentions are received and inscribed for the coming year.  The staircase-like shape in my collage represents this manmade concept, and contains an arched opening which gives way to the random flutterings of nature and time.

My Teshuvah collage.

What will flutter through my life in the coming year is yet to be seen.  May it be a year of fruitful creation for all of us – and may the restrictions in our lives be liberating.

L’Shana Tova U’Metukah (a good and sweet year) to all my readers!

D Yael

To find out more about school visits and arts-in-ed programs with Durga Yael Bernhard, click here.

(click on book covers for more info)

is a 2012 winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award.

GREEN BIBLE STORIES is available in both hardcover and paperback.  This unique collection retells classic Torah tales from an environmental perspective, and was an “honorable mention” book at the National Green Book Festival in San Francisco.

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