The Mindfulness Of A New Endeavor

April 15, 2014

ImageOn the eve of the Pesach/Passover holiday, which begins a time of reflection and renewal of purpose, this blessing for a new endeavor completes the Journeys portion of An Illumination Of Blessings and seems appropriate for today’s Imaginarius post.

While the Passover holiday represents an epic physical and spiritual journey in the history of the Jewish people, I like to view each new endeavor that we undertake, regardless of magnitude, as a microcosm of it. As such, it can be seen as a journey of sorts, independent of whether we leave our homes, workplaces or travel outside of our comfort zones to accomplish something new to our experiences.

Whether we are creating a work of literature, art, music or science, I believe that we are not doing this solely of our own volition, but in a sort of partnership with a larger intelligence that requires it of us. Perhaps this ‘larger’ intelligence is a numinous, spiritual entity or the multifaceted imaginings of all of the ‘threads’ in the larger human tapestry. Either way, our endeavors in sum make each of us a significant thread in that tapestry; an entity alive with potential.

Illuminating this blessing is my representation of the artist/artisan Bezalel in the process of imagining the works he will design for the Mishkan/Tabernacle in the desert. According to the instructions of Moses, who received them at Mt. Sinai, he is to build a structure and ritual implements that will mirror their heavenly counterparts. I have shown him reaching towards the letters of a suspended, spinning pre-Canaanite Hebrew alphabet in a symbolic tribute to his relationship with the Creator in this endeavor and to their mystical role via the techniques of permutation in the creation of the world.

One of these ritual objects is the Ark of the Covenant which will reside within the Holy of Holies (the sacred sanctuary portion of the Tabernacle) that only the High Priest is permitted to enter on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It will support the two keruvim/cherubim to protect the Tablets of the Law, Aaron’s blossoming staff and a jar of manna. Bezalel’s plans for the Ark appear on the papyrus scroll in the foreground along with the Egyptian-influenced ink palettes and drawing tools that he might have used. Some of these tools are also seen in the pocket of the artisan’s work apron. On the vertical loom behind him is the tapestry with representations of the keruvim that will become the parochet or veil guarding the Ark. Although no one other than the High Priest is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the veil is meant to provide a virtual glimpse of its guardians to the congregation of worshippers.

This image of Bezalel is one of several I have developed as part of my ongoing exploration and understanding of the Second Commandment (the prohibition against creating graven images) as it affects creative artists. Other versions and essays may be found at:

Bezalel’s Vision: As Above, So Below?

With Divine Spirit: The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth

An Artist In The Shadow Of God.

As the sun sets and the Passover seders begin, there is much to consider about the holiness of even the most mundane aspects of this holiday, by each endeavor that we undertake and how these contribute to life’s larger experience for each of us. By understanding that what we create for our own needs and pleasure can enlighten and benefit others, we acknowledge and thank the One Who created us for the realities we continually create together.

Here’s to a healthy, happy and creative Passover holiday for all.

 

Acts Of Kindness: States Of Grace?

March 30, 2014

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In our visual media-oriented world, we often encounter posters, bumper stickers or heartwarming newspaper columns that urge us to ‘Perform Random Acts Of Kindness’. When these first began to appear around 1982, it might have been in reaction to the pervasive emphasis on individual needs and rights that characterized the ‘Me Generation’. Even today, with so much news of domestic and political strife reported in that same media, it seems we still haven’t learned how to do so easily.

Isn’t it strange and sad that we should need to be reminded? But given the complex duality of human nature, the need to be reminded is nothing new. Morality stories dominate the Old and New Testaments with the patriarch Abraham most commonly cited as the archetype of kindness for his hospitality to three Angels in human disguise. For this next page in An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially thought to present his story for this blessing, but for the reasons explained below, decided that the tiny tent above the Hebrew text would suffice as a meme for it.

The concept of kindness was later refined and codified in the Book Of Ruth (Megillat Ruth).* Upon being told to return to her people after being widowed, Ruth, a Moabite woman insists on remaining with her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Her statement, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” became the takeaway message that defined love, loyalty and the sincere concern for another human being’s welfare. It also painted Naomi as possibly the best mother-in-law in history!

I decided to illustrate this story not only because it exemplifies our capacity for personal empathy, but because it also references the concept of ‘gleaning’; a mandated** act of kindness towards the entire community of impoverished men, widows and orphans. Gleaning is the practice of allowing these individuals to reap the corners of one’s fields and orchards following the initial harvest. The stone wall (which represents the parameters of a field) behind Ruth and Naomi, the sprigs of barley, olives, figs and grapes are memes for this idea, as are the sheaf of wheat and pomegranate branch in Ruth’s hand. I included the pomegranate here for two reasons. First, because of its association with fertility. In the story, Ruth will enable the continuation of Naomi’s line, becoming great-grandmother of King David. Second, because of its decorative presence throughout Judaic art and history. With its alleged 613 seeds, it serves as a metaphor of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that we are expected to perform throughout our lifetimes. Through performing these mitzvot, often referred to as ‘sparks’ (nitzotzot) we collectively ‘lift them up to light and repair the world’ (tikkun olam).

The additional significant image in my illustration is the small Hebrew letter ‘chet’ (pronounced gutturally) formed by three sheaves of wheat that hovers above and between the two women. This letter is from one of the Hebrew alphabets that I designed in 2012 called ‘Shefa’(abundance) shown below:

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The letter chet begins the words ‘chittah’ (wheat) and chesed which means kindness or benevolence. It suggests the limitless loving-kindness that characterizes G-d and which, by extension, suffuses all of creation. The verse from Pirke Avot 1:2 (Ethics of the Fathers) attributed to the Second century High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon The Righteous) makes this clear: “The world exists through three things: Torah, Avodah (Temple service) and acts of loving kindness.” No matter how small or insignificant these may seem when they occur, each one is ultimately a part of the larger purpose for which we were created.

I am reminded here of the phrase ‘a state of grace’, which in Christian theology denotes an absence of sin in an individual. From my perspective, while Judaism dwells less on sin and redemption than on ‘kavanah’ or intention, this phrase can also describe the ideal, altruistic state of mind surrounding the performance of a mitzvah, an act of loving kindness.

May you be blessed with abundant mindful opportunities to fulfill and receive acts of loving kindness and, if you’ll permit me a bit of wordplay, a ‘taste of grace’.

* found in Ketuvim or the Writings volume of Torah.
** “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus/Vayikra 14:9-10

A Blessing For Dressing: Are You What You Wear?

March 21, 2014

ImageJust as our skin conceals our interior systems, its visible condition is designed to describe their functional state. Likewise, our clothes in their myriad styles and colors both conceal and reveal our psychological states even when our thoughts, speech and actions might proclaim otherwise.

But in a perfect world, the clothes we choose to wear would project not merely the public image we present (depending on our socioeconomic status), but would instead serve as ‘soul garments’ to reflect our inner character from the dynamic facets of our souls. In a superficial sense, they do so, but only if those who see us care to interpret our choices.

I decided to interpret this blessing for getting dressed as a commentary to our ongoing obsession with fashion and the messages we believe it broadcasts for us. Perhaps this blessing, which is one of fifteen blessings recited in Shacharit (the morning service) was designed to help us clarify our understanding of why and how we clothe ourselves. It can also be recited when donning a new article of clothing. In his essay,“Putting On Soul Garments”*, Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter at The Ascent of Safed organization explains why:

“Through its recitation we thank G-d daily for enclothing us with the potential to do mitzvot, i.e. the ability to utilize the garments of the divine soul in a constructive and Jewish way. Each day we weave a finer and more exquisite garment of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, each person according to his capacity. When the soul leaves this world to reunite with its Source, it “wears” a garment woven from all of the positive thought, speech and action a person engaged in while alive. This blessing verbalizes our commitment to transform our mundane actions into a stepping-stone to our Creator by choosing to clothe ourselves in the garments of our Divine soul. Thus, “…who clothes the naked” can also be rendered: “…He that gives purpose to the purposeless,” and by saying this blessing, we thank G-d for investing our lives with meaning and direction.” This was all very interesting, but in order to create proper visuals for this blessing, I needed to know more about how these ideas evolved.

Verse 3:20 in Bereshit/Genesis relates that our primeval ancestors had worn only their ‘birthday suits’ during their time in the Garden of Eden but when this phase in human development ended with their consuming fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, it also brought them realization of two truths; their own mortality and the ability to perceive their bodies and souls as separate entities where they were previously oblivious to such an idea.

Although we are told poetically that Adam and Eve were then provided with a ‘garment of skins’ for protection from the mercurial elements beyond that ideal environment, no specific description of these garments is given until rabbinic commentaries (Midrash) to the Torah were composed in later centuries.

Until beginning my research for this blessing, I had presumed with some distaste that ‘skins’ meant animal skins which would have required the death of another living creature. However, in a midrash called Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer The Great), I read an intriguing explanation.

It seems that when Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, the serpent who provoked their illicit behavior did not go unpunished. Knowing that Sammael, for that was the serpent’s name, could not die, he was painfully confined to boogie-ing on his belly and was made to shed his skin every seven years. It was from this ‘skin’ that garments were made to replace the fig leaves which Eve had hastily sewn together to wear as a sort of apron.

Though I have not included a literal image of the serpent in my illustration, you might see a shadow of Sammael in the sinuous length of linen that frames it. As I drew this undulating form, I wondered whether his devious actions might have actually liberated Adam and Eve’s intelligence and enabled them to fashion their clothing from the skins of animals and natural plant fibers in their environment? This question led me to include a fig leaf image symbolizing Eve’s ingenious response to her newly mortal predicament.

I’ve dressed the couple shown here in medieval European style garments and shoes derived from both plants and animals; their shoes are made from leather and their clothing from the plant fibers of either flax, hemp, cotton or wool. Note that the sheep and cotton bough are depicted together beneath and separate from the flax and hemp plants. This was done to illustrate the prohibition against combining wool and linen (which is a product of flax or hemp) in a piece of clothing. This commandment is called ‘Shaatnez’ and is one of four ‘chukkim’ in the Torah (laws that seem inscrutable to us yet are to be obeyed without question).*

Though medieval art, architecture and fashion history color many of the illustrations in this book, the fashion aspect is especially relevant in this blessing because it visually epitomizes the tenets of tznius, or modesty in appearance. This custom of dressing encourages us to look past one’s clothes in order to appreciate the character and soul of the one wearing them.

To illustrate this concept, I’ve placed a metaphorical object in the man’s hand. It is a construction of the Ten Sefirot (Divine Energies) in which the Hebrew letter ‘vav’, corresponding to the ‘vav’ in G -d’s name, hosts the other nine letters. It was inspired by my reading of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh’s complex essay,‘The Kabbalah of Nutrition’** in which he explains that while clothing protects us from the elements, it also represents our character traits making it a ‘prescription’ for a healthy body and soul that enables connection to our Creator.

Finally, it is worth noting that in our contemporary scientific attempts to reconcile the significance of clothing with the message it projects, we have developed technologies to create ‘smart clothes’ that measure some of our vital signs to keep us informed of our physical condition. Still, this does not address the spiritual purpose of clothing; it is just a tiny beginning. We have a very long way to go if we are to understand how our clothing can teach us more about who and what we are, technology notwithstanding. Nevertheless, maintaining a certain mindfulness regarding Who provides for us and how we cover our bodies may one day inspire us to understand and perhaps re-experience the perfect world in which we were conceived.

* http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380607/jewish/Putting-On-Soul-Garments.htm
**The other ‘chukkim’ are explained on pp. 171 and 176 of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).
***http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/690373/jewish/The-Kabbalah-of-Nutrition.htm

From Day Into Night: The Wisdom Of Perception

March 9, 2014

ImageOrdinarily, I like to deny subscribing to coincidence, but I must stand corrected on account of this week’s installment from An Illumination Of Blessings.

Anyone of middle-age and beyond will readily admit that as we age, time seems to pass more quickly, yet we only recognize that deceptive phenomenon in retrospect.

Last week, when I chose to begin work on this blessing for the wisdom to distinguish day from night it did not immediately occur to me that coincidentally, we were about to begin the ‘spring ahead and fall behind’ cycle for one hour semi-annually in the parlance of daylight saving time.

Today, it began around 2AM this morning and though I can always feel the transition instinctually, the fact of it never fails to take me by surprise.

This tradition began centuries ago as an informal observance of the Earth’s rotation in relation to the effects of the sun and moon cycles on agriculture, lifestyle and human productivity. It became progressively codified and enforced well into the twentieth century but today, there are groups advocating for its eradication in the interest of simplifying travel, scheduling, commerce and environmental conservation. The latter justification is ironic considering that daylight saving time was initially instituted as an energy saving measure!

However, since daylight saving time may have derived from our ability to distinguish and contemplate the differences between day and night, it is only marginally related to today’s blessing essay. So to learn more about it, you can find a detailed history of daylight saving time and the arguments against it at: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time and at: http://www.standardtime.com/proposal.html.

As for the blessing itself, you might notice a tiny rooster perched on the roof of the medieval-style house in my illustration. This refers to the blessing’s original title, ‘The Wisdom of the Rooster’. It is unique among the many we have for expressing appreciation for our physical, mental and environmental gifts. Why? Because instead of thanking our Creator for our own ability to distinguish between day and night, we offer praise for “giving the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.” Rabbi Michael Gourarie* explains:

“Although a rooster crows at the beginning of each day it actually happens some time before it gets light. When it senses that dawn will break soon, and light is on the way to substitute for the darkness, he emits the crowing noise that became the ancient alarm clock.

In every day there are periods of light – clarity, blessing, peace of mind and prosperity; but there are also sometimes patches of darkness – challenge, confusion and difficulty. It takes special strength not to be caught up in the moments of challenge. It takes maturity to look beyond the darkness and see the light that awaits us. A wise person learns from the rooster. He/she knows that the darkness is only temporary and that light is on the way. The rooster is symbolic of an attitude filled with optimism, hope and belief. The rooster teaches us to envisage and celebrate blessing even before it comes.”

In addition to the rooster, the other elements in my illustration are arranged around a sort of cosmic hourglass. Suspended within their separate spheres, our sun and moon are poised to reverse their positions in a dance designed at the time of Creation. I wanted to symbolize our understanding of these celestial bodies with regard to our environment and our lives (trees and houses) by placing them within a man-made timekeeping device. The sprinkle of stars that inspired the signs of the Zodiac on the hourglass are there to remind us that while our acquired knowledge is of great value, the light of that value darkens without the wonder and faith that guide it.

*http://shiratdevorah.blogspot.com/2011/08/wisdom-of- rooster.html

Breath, Bath & Beyond…

February 25, 2014

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 Although I had listened to tales of mikveh experiences from my mother and others, the idea of ritual immersion meant little to me until my first visit to Israel with my husband in 1974. On our tour of the 1st century CE fortress of Masada, we explored the once-luxurious remains of King Herod’s palace which included a mikveh, or ritual bath. Peering into its now dry depths, I imagined being in the footsteps of my ancient ancestors and hearing echoes of their struggles for spiritual cleansing, closeness with G-d and a measure of sanity in those stress-laden times. This grand complex was later taken over as the desert outpost by a community of Jewish zealots in their rebellion against the Roman rule of Jerusalem. Here is how the mikveh appears today:Image

The Masada tour motivated my curiosity to learn more about how the ritual was carried out and why. It also inspired an an aquatint etching called ‘Mikveh’ that was one of four images in my 1975 ‘The Rituals Of Atonement’ series:Image

But the opportunity for in-depth research into this subject did not assert itself until 2013 when I began An Illumination Of Blessings, this Kickstarter project. Even though my personal background to date did not include the religious or social impetus to actually visit a mikveh, I learned that the ritual of immersion (tevillah) is one of three essential (mitzvot) commandments reserved for women* and decided to include it in this collection.

In brief, the mikveh, which literally means a collection of water in Hebrew, is more than a pool of water. According to Tractate Mikva’ot in the Mishnah (the 2nd century CE codification of the Oral Torah), it must be a bath designed with specific dimensions and capacity to hold water that is stationary but which originates from a flowing natural source (a lake, ocean or rainwater) to permit ritual and spiritual purification. At the links below, there are a number of articles detailing the history of the mikveh and the legal (halakhic) requirements for its use.

Today, despite the long and often painful history of Judaism, immersion in a mikveh remains a viable practice among observant Jewish men and women. Many modern mikvaot, while adhering to those classic dimensions, also exhibit an awareness of the necessity for religious and spiritual continuity. These have been designed to resemble stylish, well-appointed spas such as the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh in Newton, MA.

The setting of my illustration, an early 20th century mikveh in Israel whose water can be seen flowing into it from the passageway beneath the stairs, was inspired by a beautifully made 1997 film called “Women” directed by Michal Bat Adam and Moshe Mizrahi. Here I have shown a young woman with two attendants who are required to observe her immersion and ensure that it is done properly. Three stars, seen through the tiny window in the background signal the onset of the Sabbath, a traditional time for this ritual. Usually a sign displaying the immersion blessings is posted near the pool but with a bit of artistic license, I incorporated the words into the water itself suggesting that like water, our history has been mercurial, yet the consequences and benefits of using it mindfully are eternal.

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*in addition to lighting the Sabbath candles and separating the challah. Today “challah” refers to the bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Originally “challah” referred to the small piece of dough that was set aside for the kohen (priest) when making bread (Numbers 15:20). Today Jewish women bless, separate and burn a small piece of dough when making bread in remembrance of the portion given to God (through the Temple priests) in ancient times. This ritual reminds us that sustenance ultimately comes from God and transforms baking bread into a spiritual act. 

Links: 

http://judaism.about.com/cs/women/ht/challah_sep.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/mikveh.html

A Blessing For Peace & Protection

February 16, 2014

This week, I present to you The Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Blessing for my Kickstarter book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

ImageFans of the Star Trek television series and its inscrutable Vulcan Mr. Spock like to reference their admiration by raising their hand in the strange configuration shown in my illustration. Since the actor, Leonard Nimoy is Jewish, it’s no small wonder that he affected this gesture from his own ethnic background, basing it on an ancient Hebrew blessing, the Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing.
Inspired by the biblical verse: “They shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them,” the verses of the Birkat Kohanim come from BaMidbar (Numbers) 6:23-27 in which the Levite Aaron, the first High Priest and his sons bless the nascent Israelites. Since then, this oldest of known biblical texts was adapted by individuals for personal use and has been found inscribed on amulets that date to the First Temple period beginning in 957 BCE, some of which are currently in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

According to David Abudirham, a 13th century Spanish Torah scholar focusing on synagogue liturgy, although the unconventional Birkat Kohanim doesn’t begin with “Blessed Are You…”, it is, nevertheless a prayer for peace and protection. It was and is traditionally recited in a synagogue during the major festivals to express the joy and good will of these celebrations. This blessing differs from others because it is not to be recited by an individual but by one or more Kohanim, or descendants of Aaron from the priestly Tribe of Levi. Later interpretations extended its use to rabbis for blessing children at their bar or bat mitzvot and to parents who wish to bless their children before the Sabbath meal. On these occasions, it is usually introduced with a phrase requesting G-d to endow these children with the admirable qualities of Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph or the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

The Birkat Kohanim is also replete with arcane symbols, two of which compelled me to include it in An Illumination Of Blessings.

First is the unusual configuration of the hands; held spread out beneath a prayer shawl over the congregation with fingers and thumbs positioned to create five apertures. The apertures refer to the verses in the Song of Songs (2:8-9) which posit that although G-d remains hidden, He peers through the cracks in the wall, watching over and protecting Israel. Second is the idea that the Birkat contains fifteen words corresponding to the fourteen joints of the fingers and to the palms of the hands to represent the word ‘shalom’ or peace. Accordingly, I’ve taken artistic license to mark the joints of the hands with letters of the Hebrew alephbet signifying the numbers 1 to 15.
Since the Birkat Kohanim speaks to us from the tribal era of Jewish history, the decorative element at the base of the blessing is my fanciful interpretation of the choshen, or breastplate worn by the high priest during Temple services. Within the elaborate golden frame are twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The significance of the twelve stones is explained in more detail in the AfterImages chapter of my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) on pages 144, 152 and 166. The choshen itself was said to contain a hidden pocket which held the Urim and Tmimim, two ‘oracular’ stones used only by the priests to determine answers to various questions brought by the people. The actual functionality of these stones is the stuff of legend.

Thinking back on my own fondness for Star Trek, I realized that Spock’s ubiquitous salute introduced me to a facet of Judaism that would infuse my artwork with mystical speculation for the rest of my creative life. And that turns out to be an inadvertent blessing, indeed.

Note: Additional details about the ceremonial procedure and its history may be found at these links:  http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/894569/jewish/The-Priestly-Blessing.htm and  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priestly_Blessing

A Blessing For A New Life

February 8, 2014

ImageThe arrival of a new baby universally inspires joyful celebrations for the parents and community with festivities unique to every ethnicity and religion. In addition to an array of rituals and special foods, these festivities are marked by prayers and blessings offered to The Source of Life for the divine protection, good health and honor of this child.

However, because the essence of these events is the wondrous fact of a new life; an entirely new world of hopes and dreams, in the form of a tiny human being, I wanted to illuminate this blessing for a new baby to emphasize this idea alone. This would mean limiting my choices of traditional Jewish iconography that normally characterize my work. Since this cultural iconography often contains wonderful folkloric themes such as fanciful astrological imagery to promote ‘mazal tov’ or good luck, this was quite a challenge for me as an illustrator; I am accustomed to crafting my images with much narrative detail.*

Nevertheless, I determined that in addition to the sleeping newborn child and colorful daffodils (which signify rebirth and new beginnings), I would limit my choice of iconography to the wimpel (or vimpel). This is a banner-like length of cloth that is wrapped and tied to secure the Torah scroll.

According to Philologos writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, “it is a tradition that began in late medieval times in the Rhineland city of Mainz, where the rabbi was then the renowned Ya’akov Segal (1360–1427). One Sabbath, so the story goes, a circumcision was under way in Mainz’s synagogue, when it was discovered that the mohel (an individual especially trained to perform this ritual)had forgotten to bring a diaper in which to wrap the newly circumcised child. Inasmuch as carrying was forbidden to pious Jews on the Sabbath, there could be no question of sending anyone to fetch one — and so the rabbi ordered the child swaddled in an avnet that was removed from a Torah scroll. Afterward, when asked if it could be laundered and used as an avnet again, he ruled that it could be, inasmuch as it had not been profaned but had merely gone from one sacred use to another. In memory of the event, the Jews of Mainz took to donating the swaddling cloths from their circumcisions for avnetim, which they called Wimpel (the German plural is the same as the singular).” Instead of the customary decorative imagery applied to wimpels by families who donate them to the synagogue, mine simply displays two Hebrew prayers, one traditional and one modern.

Independent of its ethnicity or religious identity, the birth of a child begins a new page in the story of humanity. With this child, we have a new window into the mind and heart of the One whose children we will always be and Who will always cherish us.

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*In my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), both the brit milah (circumcision for male children) and the pidyon-ha-ben (redemption of the firstborn son of descendants of the Tribe of Levi) were presented in detail. (I did not present the brit bat ceremony for the birth of a daughter in this context because these celebrations were developed in post-modern times, long after the writing of the Torah.)

A Blessing For Trees: Poems Upon The Skies

January 25, 2014

BlessingOfTheTreesModel3ALike the universal languages of music and art, trees speak to us without words, inspiring us to describe them with our own words and visual expressions. In Deuteronomy (Devarim) 20:19-20, we learn that even in wartime is life precious and that trees are essential to our continued existence: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy its trees by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayst eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by thee?…” Equally eloquent are the words of the late Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in his collection of aphorisms, Sand And Foam: “Trees are poems the Earth writes upon the sky…”.


I was reminded of these ideas during our recent observance of Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat on the Jewish calendar), the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates the renewal of trees (particularly in Israel) and the abundant gifts they provide for us. This year on January 16th, as I enjoyed some dates, figs and pomegranate seeds from among the fruit significant to Israel, I decided that I would illustrate the Blessing Of The Trees (Birkat Ha’Ilanot) for my next page in An Illumination Of Blessings. Although trees are spoken of in the blessing for certain fruits, I chose to work with a blessing for trees that also delight our sense of smell with their beautiful fragrance.


The tree shown here is an imaginary one that integrates both qualities, bearing several varieties of fragrant fruit and their corresponding flowers. Nesting at the apex of the tree is an ornate golden Torah crown and in place of its trunk is a yad (Torah pointer). Unlike the traditional single-handed instrument used for reading Torah, this one has two hands. Together, these images remind us of our stewardship of this planet. In this, we are partners with the Source of Life Who has given us trees not only for our sustenance but as a model and source for the ‘etz chaim’ or Torah staves that support our ‘Book of Life’, an eternal symbol of Earth’s partnership with Heaven.

 

 

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

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Last week, after completing the blessing for installing a mezuzah, I decided to follow it with the traditional blessing for the home, the Birkat HaBayit. This brief blessing is usually found on decorative plaques or hand-shaped hamsas (amulets) near the entrance to Jewish houses worldwide. It is meant to drive evil spirits (negative emotional projections) from the house and to protect the individuals residing in it. Such items are often given as gifts to one who has just moved into a new house.

Since the text of this blessing is commonly presented on a ceramic tile or other surface enhanced only by pleasant floral or geometric decorations, I wanted my interpretation to be something more; to reflect additional levels of meaning in the text.

In the initial research phase of my illustrations, I often leaf through my collections of aphorisms and quotations for my first clues in understanding the subject of my work and the direction I will take to develop it. These comments are never interpreted literally; they only serve as metaphorical touchstones, suggesting levels of meaning in that subject which invite visual interpretation.

So I turned to the Book of Proverbs which told me: “A house is built by wisdom and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things.” -24:3

Ok, I thought, that’s a powerful idea; but do these qualities also define a ‘home’? Generally speaking, yes. But having visited the homes of many friends and acquaintances around the world, each with its unique flavor and ambiance, I’ve learned that the difference between a house and a home is subtle, yet tangible.

Beyond its physical structure and plain or beautiful interior surroundings, a house that can be called a home glows with an aura of peace, laughter and love. These qualities color its walls, furnishings and inhabitants in a way no skilled decorator can truly emulate.

The desire for a home of one’s own is universal to all species on this planet from the ant to the elephant. It’s first cultural documentation among humanity quite likely originated in the tale of Adam and Eve whose first ‘home’ was the Garden of Eden, the womb of our world, so to speak. Even as the story relates their shock and fear upon exile from this holy place, the budding comprehension of their newly bestowed mortality soon becomes the powerful desire for shelter and stability in the chaotic world beyond Paradise.

Though the Torah offers many other examples of our developing survival instinct from Noah’s post-diluvian resettlement to the long quest for a Jewish homeland, one of the most picturesque appears in in the Book of Exodus (Shemot Parashat T’rumah 25:8-9). Here, G-d requests that Moses establish a sanctuary of a very specific design for the Divine Presence in the earthly realm so that “I may dwell among them (you).” It would seem that even the Source of all Life has need for a place to call ‘home’!

After much consideration, I decided to model the house in this illustration as an idealized amalgam of residential architecture drawn from several areas around Jerusalem because it is the spiritual home for so many of us.

The pomegranate and etrog (citron) trees flanking the doorway are metaphors of beauty, good health, fertility and mitzvot or good deeds that one would wish for the residents of the house. A midrash or commentary suggests that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, a number equivalent to the categories of mitzvot incumbent upon us to perform in our lifetimes. The etrog, one of the four species honored on the holiday of Sukkot, symbolizes our connection to G-d through our hearts.

The cypress trees and the doves are symbols of sacrifice, but rather than the sacrifice attributed to religious ritual, mourning or death, I included them because sacrifices must be made on many levels by all within a household to insure peace and stability.

The fish-shaped mezuzot on the doorpost and near the text symbolize blessing and abundance as drawn from the verse in Genesis (Bereshit 48:16), “And they shall multiply like fish in the midst of the earth.”

The Hebrew letter bet is included in this illustration for several reasons. First, its original form in the proto-Semitic languages of the Middle Bronze Age resembled a tent-like shelter or ‘house’. Second, it begins the Torah with the word B‘reshit (In the Beginning) and represents the dualities that define Creation (dark, light, good, evil, male, female, etc). Third, bet begins the word ‘baruch’ for blessing. I formed this letter from the leaves and fruit of the fruit trees for the same reasons the trees themselves were included, but also because in a sense, trees were the prototypes of shelter from weather and predators.

Finally, the antique bronze key is shown here because with it we enter the idea that when a house becomes a home, it also becomes a metaphor of memory; a repository of touchstones that connect us to ourselves, to each other and to the larger world beyond our doors.

Mezuzah: A Blessing Between Worlds

December 25, 2013

When we enter or leave a space through a doorway, most of us rarely wonder about the evanescent consequences of doing so. Yet, without considering that doorway as a bridge between worlds, we remain unaware of subtle changes in ourselves with relation to those worlds through the nature of our experiences on either side of it. In that sense, mezuzot (plural of mezuzah), those ubiquitous little boxes (attached to doorposts of traditional Jewish homes to guard them from harm) serve as memory tools for our awareness of these transitions and of the eternal unity of G-d. This tradition has defined the Jewish people since the early Israelites marked their doorways for protection from the tenth plague* during the first Passover in Egypt over three thousand years ago.

Mezuzot are made in various sizes of materials from clay to wood, metal or glass  and are often beautifully crafted works of art. Marked with either the single Hebrew letter shin or with the three Hebrew letters shin, dalet, yud that represent one G-d’s holy names, the box encloses a tiny rolled parchment (klaf) inscribed by a kosher scribe (sofer*) with two verses from the Torah; Deuteronomy (Devarim) 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. These verses are written in 22 equally spaced lines, as are the verses in Torah and tefillin**. This parchment must be placed upright under the Hebrew letters in the box so that the prayer will appear correctly.

When we occupy a new home, a mezuzah is installed on its doorpost. It is held in place at the upper right-hand side tilted toward the inside of the home. But before it is secured to the post, a special blessing is recited, as shown in the illustration above. This procedure is repeated when a mezuzah is installed at each doorway in the home except for the bathroom. Entering and leaving those spaces is then acknowledged with a touch to the mezuzah followed by a brief kiss to the hand that touched it, invoking G-d’s blessing and protection on our comings and goings. It is important to know that over time, the parchment (klaf) may become damaged and so should be periodically examined by a sofer who can repair any broken letters and preserve its effectiveness.

But the protective energies of the mezuzah have not always gone unchallenged in Jewish history. In Talmudic times, mezuzot were attributed with powers to ward off evil spirits, but by the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Kabbalah’s esoteric knowledge, names of various angels and magickal phrases (sometimes accompanied by mystical diagrams) were added to the Torah verses. This latter practice slowly lost momentum when the RamBam (an acronym for the 12th century French Rabbi and Talmudist Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon) asserted that no harm could come of writing Hebrew letters on the outside of the mezuzah case and the prescribed verses within, but those who wrote angelic names or other formulae on the inside would lose their share in The World To Come (Olam Ha-Ba).

So, for this 17th entry in my book An Illumination Of Blessings, the mezuzah in my illustration displays the Hebrew letter shin on the outside and only the Torah verses on the klaf within. For clarity and artistic intent the 22 klaf verses also appear in the background.  The tiny gold pomegranate suspended from the mezuzah signifies abundance and its seeds, said to number 613, represent the categories of mitzvot or the  commandments we are required to fulfill. For decorative purposes only, an equally tiny hand with an apotropaic eye crowns the mezuzah.  This is called a chamsa, inspired by those ancient devices employed to ward off evil throughout the Middle East.

On a personal note, though I’ve always had mezuzot in my home, it was only some years ago during and after a health crisis that I thought to have them checked for damage. Indeed, the sofer informed me, several critical letters had become damaged and the klaf needed to be repaired, a pronouncement that caused chills to run down my spine..

* Death of the Firstborn

*A sofer is a Jewish individual who is educated to transcribe Torah scrolls, **tefillin (two small leather boxes essential for prayer rituals per commandments in Deuteronomy (Devarim)  6:8 and mezuzot. More detailed information may be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofer and at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10774-mezuzah


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