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May 3, 2012 12:03 pm

Learning From Everything

avatar by Erica Brown /

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Author Jonah Lehrer. Photo:

Jonah Lehrer’s latest book, Imagination: How Creativity Works, challenges us to rethink our ideas about innovation and the limitations we so often place on ourselves.

We buy into the myth that creativity has to do with the arts rather than the way we solve problems or build relationships. But creativity is stamped all over the universe. It is our job to leverage it in ourselves and to create environments where ideas can run free and collide with other ideas to generate a world we could only once imagine. Lehrer believes that creativity is largely the product of collaboration, busting another myth that it is reserved for solitary geniuses.

On the one hand, this is not news for the Jews. Genesis One opens with God’s ultimate act of creation and the mandate that we act in God’s image. That means that we work for six days and rest for one. The work that we do is generative and filled with possibility. On the other hand, we come from an ancient tradition that values convention and ritual; these depend on consistency of practice and repetition. Where do we find ourselves between the mandate to create and the obligation to preserve?

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The Hasidic rabbi, Abraham Yaakov of Sadagora, died in 1883. He was a descendent of Dov Baer of Mezritch who was referred to as the Great Maggid or storyteller. Rabbi Avraham regarded the partnership between God and man as fundamental to the act of new creation. One of Rabbi Avraham’s teachings was on the saying “There is not a thing that does not have its place.” Humans, he believed also have an important place. Why, then, if we all have a place do people often feel crowded? Rabbi Avraham’s answer is simple and deep: “Because each wants to occupy the place of the other.”

In this vein, Martin Buber in Tales of the Hasidim tells a wonderful story about this special scholar. Rabbi Avraham once told his Hasidic disciples that they could learn something from everything: “Everything can teach us something, and not only everything God has created. What man has made has also something to teach us.”

“What can we learn from a train?” one Hasid asked dubiously

“That because of one second once can miss everything.”

“And from the telegraph?”

“That every word is counted and charged.”

“And the telephone?”

“That what we say here is heard there.”

In case you were wondering (because I was), the telephone was invented in 1876. If we really believe in the gifts of technology, then perhaps we can find spiritual value and holiness in all the new modalities of communication that we have, just like Rabbi Avraham learned about the importance of time from the train, the importance of measured words from the telegraph and the way words travel from the telephone. He admired the new and encased it in frameworks that were timeless. I invite you to be Rabbi Avraham’s disciple and fill in the blanks below and send it back:

What can we learn from Twitter?

What can we learn from a dishwasher?

What can we learn from e-mail?

What can we learn from a computer?

Or think of your own sacred teachings from other appliances and devices. I await your creativity!

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list here.

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