Have you ever strolled alone or had a moment to stop and observe the world? Too often we categorize these experiences as “vacations” or “breaks”, meaning that we consider them to be aberrations from our usual drone of business. And yet, it is in these moments that wonderful, soul-freeing epiphany can occur.
Have you ever woken up from a vivid, wildly beautiful dream with a sense of peace? It’s as if you’ve realized something (“slept on it”), but you tell yourself that dreams are silly, because they only reflect your everyday explicit or implicit thoughts (which you also presume to be silly). You remember those dreams that were especially real or meaningful to you, and maybe you even wrote them down, but only in your closest confidantes would you dare confide their existence or content.
Have you ever imagined something, only to shred your internal creation to bits because you see maturity as necessarily restrictive?
There is no person in this world without some form of imagination. In children, the imagination is fed and nurtured, seen as a necessarily element of intellectual growth and general happiness. We raise our children to be creative, artistic, to build mental worlds in their purity and eagerness of spirit. This, however, does not withstand the stormwinds of adulthood, which are designed (partially by culture, partially by education) to turn that intellectual stimulation into something productive. And so, year after year, curriculum upon curriculum, the modern American student is desiccated, his imagination used exclusively as a transition into dry intellectualism. This is not to say that society doesn’t appreciate innovation. It sure does. But it likes it better when it doesn’t have to cultivate that innovation. New inventions and ideas will only be cool as long as they aren’t mainstream. Something about creativity makes boards of trustees squirm (and mostly everyone, honestly).
So why should we care? Let those college dropout geniuses frolick in the proverbial meadows of Silicon Valley, merrily sharing their downy wool with us, and let mass-market fantasy novels continue to accompany plastic candy in our supermarkets! What use does a Jew have with his/her imagination? Whatever we already know from yeshiva will be our imagination, we’ll do what we need to, live inside our [admittedly] nice bubble where anarchic individuality can’t harm us, and the world can take their airy-fairy pixie dust with them to Ge-hinom. Allow me a moment to convince you otherwise.
There’s only HaShem, folks. He proverbially breathes you into existence constantly, everything from your very individual self to your physical encasement. In between the two is your imaginative faculties. In p’nimiyusdik terms, your Neshama, Ruach, and Nefesh. Overly simplified, Neshama is your essential consciousness, Nefesh is your biological life (including your neurobiology), and Ruach (more precisely translated as a “wind of change” or dynamic motion) bridges the gap with emotions and expressions. You can also visualize this spectrum experientially. At the bottom lie your sensory experiences, at the top are your cognitive and metacognitive awarenesses, and your emotional/psychological realities transcend sensory input but do not reach the rigor of the intellect. (There are of course levels of consciousness that transcend these, but this isn’t the place.)
With that in mind, let us examine a few things. First of all, ever noticed how Divine Inspiration is generally called “Ruach HaKodesh”? Well, that’s how prophecy works: the reality being conveyed to the navi must be filtered through human faculties to be grasped. The result is the product of the navi’s imagination, albeit in a much clearer, more real way than what we imagine today. The revelation is commensurate with the receptibility of the participant, since, after all, lack of revelation stems from the limited nature of the receiver.
If you look in Sefer HaMaspik L’Ovdei HaShem, Rabi Avraham ben HaRambam’s book of machshava, he has an entire section about the faculty of imagination, and this relates to another section about solitude/meditation. He defines what constitutes productive imaginative retreat, and gives specific examples. He mentions mythological creatures (impossibilities with no particular purpose) as non-productive. Before everybody starts yelling about sentimental childhood nostalgia, I think the point is that these creations are mere compounds of other images. Whatever is redeeming about them can be found in their reduced forms. Anyway, a footnote in that section notes a Rambam where he calls imagined stuff העולה על רוחכם (borrowing a pasuk from somewhere) as opposed to דעת. He’s not bashing creativity; he’s classifying it as psychological as opposed to intellectual. Your imagination is made of metaphorized ideas. (Please, please see Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7 and Moreh Nevuchim II:36, 37 and relevant surrounding chapters. All of this is also explained carefully in Derech HaShem, Daas Tevunos, and probably some other places. All based on Torah and Chazal.)
Finally, it is worth noting that the Torah (and Chazal and their successors) assume that you think like a normal human being. No medieval commentator would get away with explaining too much without being the subject of a whole slew of later commentaries who are trying to figure out why there’s so much background information. It’s an anomaly. So, think. Imagine. Feel. You’re already pining for the Infinite. Let Him expand you. Let yourself escape in the Ruach. Just make sure your sails are secure.