As the Hebrew year turns towards its own renewal and the High Holiday cycle begins, we are given yet another opportunity to reflect on personal and public events that have transpired and on our reactions to them. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is approaching as our political system and economy continue to decay. Collective tides of anger become chaotic outbursts that loudly and messily continue to replace intelligent discourse and the media is a glutton at this smorgasbord. The environment, like the skin on our bodies tells its own tale of woe as it hosts one natural disaster after another. Our religious liturgies conveniently offer lengthy poetic formulae and intricate acrostics with which we can communally express our feelings, but I often wonder how mouthing these familiar verses composed so long ago relates to who I am now and how I have lived this year? Have my choices largely demonstrated mindfulness, indifference or willfulness? Have I tried to express myself creatively or have I automatically repeated clichéd pleasantries in response to casual encounters? Have I listened well and learned anything? Moreover, is God listening and to what extent are we being observed and judged? Will my name remain listed in that legendary Book of Life? These and other sober concerns lend gravitas to this time of year. Perhaps that is why Parashah Shoftim is read early in the month of Elul, for it gives us some historical, legal and spiritual perspective on who and why we are.
In the calendar, Elul precedes the month of Tishrei when judgment for our deeds of the previous year is rendered. Traditionally, we express our wishes to retain life in good health that we may continue to perform mitzvot or good deeds. Though many powerful ideas are presented in this parashah, I purposely chose the quotation pertaining to justice for this visual interpretation.
‘The Mirror Of Heaven & Earth‘, shown above reflects a commentary in the Talmud and a further interpretation by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) in the Tanya (the foundational work of Hasidic philosophy) regarding how a negative event can be rendered positive upon consideration. I like to think that as we are partners with God in Creation, so are we empowered to collectively change our world for the better. This drawing features a celestial looking-glass, the metaphor of a window to our world through which God may view the consequences of His/Her Creation and we may imagine glimpsing the duality of justice that exists in both dimensions. This may be the basis for repeating the words, “Justice, Justice”. Although the parashah emphasizes the appointment of authorities to administer the laws and specifies the consequences of disobedience, I am drawn to the philosophical interpretation that applies these laws to our physical bodies as microcosmic versions of Creation and Torah.
In ‘A Balance Of Powers‘, shown below, one of the key players in the process of judgment is the prophet, standing to the right of the Shekhinah, or feminine aspect of God.
He is included because his divinely inspired words are associated with world events, both present and future. He and the artifact shadowed behind him are modeled after the prophet Ezekiel and the mystical vision he experienced during the Babylonian Exile in 593 BCE.
The Kohen Gadol or High Priest standing to the prophet’s right holds a small model of a Levitical city of refuge. These properties were given to the tribe of Levi instead of farmland so that their designated roles as Torah scholars and teachers to the Israelites could be performed without domestic distractions. The Shekhinah is shown with a set of scales that represent the qualities of justice and mercy. The fire in the left pan surrounds the Hebrew letter ‘tzadee’ that begins the word ‘tzedek’ for justice. In the right pan rests the Hebrew letter ‘resh‘ for ‘rachamim’ or mercy with a dove holding a lily. The dove, although it is the familiar symbol of peace also addresses the quietude needed for objective decisions. The lily was chosen for its association with purity and for its six petals shaped in the form of a six-pointed star. In Hebrew the flower is called ‘shoshan‘, from the root word ‘shesh’ or the number six. And on the sixth day of Creation, we came to be; for better or for worse, but somehow gifted with hope that always shows us the potential of ‘better’.
These images are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher: http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon, amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will find several reviews.