Between Choices And Chosenness

Human sentience and survival may be characterized by our ability to perceive choices, act upon them and experience the consequences. This is amply demonstated in Ki Tavo, this weeks’ Torah portion. The image above is comprised of details from the full illustration that accompanies the parashah in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate 2009). The AfterImages portion of the book offers my interpretation of these images:

Ki Tavo, meaning ‘when you enter’, instructs the fledgling ‘chosen’ people regarding their physical and moral behavior as they enter and settle the land  that has been divinely promised to them. In doing so, it clearly defines the concepts of good and evil through the mnemonic device of blessings and curses. Here are a man and woman each wearing a prayer shawl (tallit) that can be seen as a mnemonic device for remembering the commandments. Through the use of gematria, the Hebrew system for number interpretation, the medieval French Rabbi, Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi), suggests that a tallit’s ‘tzitzit’ or fringes descending from its four corners represent the 613 commandments or mitzvot. In this system, the Hebrew letters for the word ‘tzitzit’ (as spelled in the Mishnah) accrue to a value of 600, to which 8 and 5 (representing the strings and knots respectively) are added for a total of 613. Two of the major sefirot are represented on the man’s tallit; black for Gevurah or strength and white for Chesed or lovingkindness. The shadowy wings within the woman’s tallit are meant to symbolize her spiritual connection to the Shekhinah, or the feminine aspect of God. Behind the woman and man stand representatives of each of the twelve tribes who have been instructed to position themselves- six representatives from each, on two facing mountains (Mts. Ebal and Gerizim) separated by a valley. The color of each figure is based on their associated gem set into the choshen (breastplate) of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). From the valley, with Ark of the Covenant in full view, they are able to hear Moses and the priests call out to them, alternating between blessings and curses to reinforce their understanding of good and evil and to ensure that the boundaries between them are never breached. This understanding is a major prerequisite for settlement in the Promised Land.

The two keruvim (cherubim), each holding a tree, hover above this tableaux. Unlike their position on the Ark of the Covenant, they are facing away from each other to emphasize the discord that ensues when good and evil actions become indistinct from one another. The left keruv’s luxuriant tree represents blessings or fertility when the Laws are properly implemented while the right keruv’s barren tree signifies the curses that will come to pass when the Laws are disobeyed. Finally, the word ‘Amen’ is seen above the priests because when we say ‘Amen’ after a blessing, we are binding ourselves in the light of that blessing and strengthening the bridge between the Upper and Lower worlds. The word ‘Amen’, calligraphically depicted in its positive and negative aspects emphasizes the tribes’ clear understanding and acceptance of both blessings and curses.

It is only when we make those choices that are equally cognizant of our faith in God’s beneficence, of our own needs and those of our compatriots that we deserve to be not the ‘chosen people’ per se, but the people who understand how to live with the consequences of each choice.

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