Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
As I write these words, the memorial service for Michael Jackson is taking place a mere 10 miles away, and is being simultaneously broadcast all over the world. I will begin by confessing that I’ve never been a Michael Jackson fan. I haven’t followed his career, and I can only name a handful of his songs. Yet I found myself strongly moved by his death. And I quickly discovered that this was also true for many others in my immediate circle – people who can more easily identify Maimonides’ greatest hits than Michael’s, who can readily rattle off the names of the Tzlafchad sisters, but not those of the Jackson brothers.
When I asked friends why they were moved by Michael Jackson’s death, they invariably began talking about his creativity, and his talent. Being on the planet these last few decades is the only prerequisite for knowing that he was uniquely gifted – for knowing that he was the kind of artist who comes around once in a century, and redefines his art form. In the poem she wrote for his memorial service, Maya Angelou referred to Jackson’s “creativity that came from the Creator”. As I reflected on these words, I thought about Rav Kook’s perspective on the gift of creativity.
Commenting on the phrase “over the works of Your hands I rejoice”, Rav Kook wrote (in my translation that doesn’t do it justice), “Song is generated by the soul, and is designed to delight the human being with spiritual delight, to increase his joy and well-being. And one who sees the world with a “good eye” will see the goodness in music. He will see goodness in the fact that the human soul has the capacity to enjoy music. And he will thank God for His kindness in having created the human being in this way.” (From Rav Kook’s commentary to Brachot 58). Unusual creativity in music and dance ultimately derive form God’s design of the universe, Rav Kook is asserting. It is part of God’s blessing to humanity. We can actually sense this Divine influence when we behold breathtaking artistic creativity. And when this kind of special gift leaves the world, we can feel bereft, even if we were never fans.
But only, as Rav Kook says, if we see the world with a “good eye”, an עין טוב . I am certain that there are many people who are thinking only about the very odd and disturbing dimensions of Jackson’s life and behavior. And they were odd and disturbing indeed. And some may only be remembering the lyrics to one of his songs that contained words that are offensive to Jews. (He quickly apologized and changed the lyrics.) But as Rav Kook continues, these reactions are the result of seeing the world with “bad eyes” (עין הרע ) , eyes through which “that which is worthy of being loved and honored, is not seen. Only the evil is seen when one looks at humanity [through these eyes], and people always appear suspicious.” Rav Kook doesn’t recommend seeing the world this way.
His argument is, that not only is it more pleasant to see the world through “good eyes”, it is more religiously faithful to do so. It’s only in this way that we can perceive the blessings with which God has filled the earth on our behalf. Our sages of old recognized this too. They enjoined us to judge all people favorably, and to recite brachot over virtually every natural phenomenon, for they are all, we believe, manifestations of God’s good creation. Yes, it takes overt effort to see the world and all its inhabitants this way, but it is apparently the path toward knowing God.
Whatever else there may have been in Michael Jackson’s life, there was an enormous amount of God’s love for humanity that found expression in his talent – talent which he generously shared. With his loss, something important, unique and Divine has left the world. And whether you thrilled to his music or not, you can be sad, and you can mourn his loss.