Posts Tagged ‘Abraham’

Acts Of Kindness: States Of Grace?

March 30, 2014


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:


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

The Grudge Report: A Genesis Of Angst

October 27, 2012

After reading Lekh Lekha, this week’s Torah portion, I was of two minds regarding the outcomes of the story. On the one hand, I appreciated Abraham’s generosity towards his heavenly visitors and G-d’s miraculous blessings as evinced in Sarah’s late but welcome conception of Isaac. On the other, I was reacquainted with Hagar’s emotional dilemma and subservient travails in this dramatic power-play between two iconic women and the man they both depended upon for survival.  The genesis of toxic chin-wagging and posturing they established was a commonality that has defined and plagued human history. Simply stated, the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and the sons thereof, provides poignant illustrations of an ancient angst whose consequences shadow us today, 2,000+ years later. It encompasses the psychological agony of unquestioning obedience to an immaterial God, the bitterness of infertility coupled with tainted altruism, and the rivalry over an inheritance that would become a cultural grudge match of epic proportions, evidenced by the uprising and continuing effects of the Arab Spring in our generation. Closer to home, its echoes are currently characterizing our presidential election campaign as well as our efforts to maintain the quality of long vaunted living standards in the US.

From the AfterImages chapter in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary, here are my interpretations for the illustrations shown above (design of these images has been modified from the originals to accommodate this post):

In The Conversation, Abraham, alone with God and his knife (based on a Canaanite model from Hebron ca.1900BCE) cuts a frightened yet courageous figure. Challenged to circumcise himself in order to preserve life for future generations, Abraham seems to sense this demonstration is only the beginning of his obedience to God. As if portending the sacrifice of Isaac his future son, Abraham’s shadow extends beyond our view leaving behind long pagan traditions as he stands at the forefront of monotheism.

 In the Prophecy At Mamre, three angelic visitors are spectators to the results of the prophecy they delivered in the previous year to Abraham and Sarah. Despite legends that describe Sarah as eternally youthful, I’ve chosen to portray our ancient mother-to-be caressing her pregnancy, a secretive smile on her wrinkled old mouth. Is her smile one of satisfaction at having banished Hagar and Ishmael in favor of the son she will bear to Abraham, or could she be experiencing a twinge of guilt despite her blessed event? Either way, a young Ishmael who also casts a long shadow to the future, appears poised for his inevitable revenge.

In sum, Lekh Lekha can be seen as more than a Bible story or just another chapter in the playbook of partisan politics; it foreshadows the continuing global saga of the struggle for survival by the disenfranchised, for the rights of women to their own bodies and to the amoral actions of men with too much money, too much power lust and willful ignorance of social/biological facts. Whether or not we take these stories literally or as metaphors of human behavior, to continually ignore their lessons is to do so at our own peril and that of our descendants.

On Sacrifice: Choice Or Consequence?

November 12, 2011

This week’s Torah portion from the Book of Genesis is Parashah Va-Yera in which we hear of the prophesied birth of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. We are also introduced to the tales of Sodom & Gomorrah’s destruction and to the Akedah or Sacrifice of Isaac. Foremost among the dramatic chapters in the development of monotheism, these Biblical events illuminate the tests of faith given to Abraham, Sarah, their nephew Lot and Lot’s wife by a God whose presence was a terrifying mystery in contrast to those familiar deities of their native pagan culture.

As the story opens on the heels of last week’s Parasha Lekh Lekha, Sarah, long past her childbearing years, has already given her husband Abraham her handmaiden Hagar with whom to bear a son in her place. When Sarah is told by angels that she herself would give birth to a son she refuses to be awed and laughs with the cynicism of age and dashed hopes for children. After Isaac’s birth, the events that follow her earlier show of arrogance still provide much material for scholars and novelists to scrutinize.

On this note, the story setting moves to the nearby cities of Sodom & Gomorrah, widely known for their immoral, if not perverted cultural practices. Here, through the angelic warnings to Lot and his family, Parashah Va-Yera illustrates how individual choices affect the outcome of events for the larger populace of that era. The words of the parashah are frightening enough, yet the images they evoke have burnt themselves into our collective memories for all time.

Some years later, Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac, his ‘only’ (acknowledged) son as a demonstration of his belief in God. The pain of a father’s inner conflict, (compounded with his complicit dismissal of Hagar and his firstborn son Ishmael at Sarah’s behest) in the face of such a terrible choice must have been unbearable. Yet, how much more so for the brotherless Isaac whose presence out of trust in his father did not include true informed consent? To be fair, Abraham may not have fully grasped the consequences of his choices either. Nevertheless, the overwhelming body of interpretations of the Akedah posit many justifications for the details and implications of this core theme of Judaism. Among them, the age of Isaac at that time remains unclear. Was he a young boy on the threshold of manhood or was he a young man in his prime of life? Portraying Isaac as a child would certainly have aroused universal sympathy for this seemingly unjust event, but I chose to show him as a young man bound by the emotional and spiritual ties that acknowledge both his filial loyalties and the consequences of his role for future generations of his people. Either way, these cautionary tales and Isaac’s legacy speak for all of us when we make choices that affect the the present and may color the shape of our future.

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: or from Amazon, where you will find several reviews.