Posts Tagged ‘altar’

Of Mitzvot, Mezuzot And Morality

September 10, 2012

Many of us, feeling under the current stormy political weather, find ourselves facing uneasy choices regarding the future of society and the freedoms of the country that we have long taken for granted. But don’t worry; I’m not about to launch into a pretentious little rant here. Rather, I’ve prefaced this blog entry with the above statement to demonstrate that while our technically enhanced, media-driven political and social conflicts may often seem new to us, this week’s Torah reading, Parashah Ki Tavo, relates how very old they are; for they only serve as new disguises for those ancient energies of good and evil. Through mnemonic devices that include blessings and curses, we find a clear explanation of how our ancestors were given an understanding of these energies and an opportunity to choose between them in every decision and action.

The illustration above, Of Mitzvot & Mezuzot precedes this choice. Here, a man and woman are each wearing a prayer shawl (tallit), a mnemonic device for remembering the commandments. Through the use of gematria, the Hebrew system for number interpretation, the medieval French rabbi, Shlomo Yitzhaki (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 a value of 600, to which 8 and 5 (representing the strings and knots respectively) are added for a total of 613.

In a nod to Kabbalistic philosophy, the colors of the man’s tallit, black for Gevurah or strength and white for Chesed or lovingkindness refer to those sephirotic valences. The shadowy wings within the woman’s tallit are meant to symbolize her spiritual connection to the Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of G-d.

Parashah Ki Tavo aptly translates as ‘when you enter’, because just after crossing Jordan, before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, Moses and the Levite priests instruct them to set up a series of large stones, or stelae, coat them with lime or plaster and inscribe on them ‘every word of this Teaching most distinctly‘. The inscription on the stelae is a portion of the parashah quotation written in paleo-Hebrew and based on the Moabite stela of King Mesha dated from 850 BC.

Though this method may have preserved the inscriptions better than carving them directly into the stones, preservation did not appear to be of prime importance. According to 15th century Spanish bible commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, Moses may have been concerned that like pagan conquerors, the Israelites might choose to erect a monument to their conquest without acknowledging G-d’s role in it. So he made it plain that these stelae, or massive mezuzot, if you will, were to commemorate their commitment to God and His Commandments. It is not clear whether the writing was to include all of Torah, or only the final book. Neither, concludes Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon, the eighth century rabbi and philosopher. He posits that only the 613 mitzvot were written on the stones because while all of Torah is important, the mitzvot are commandments related to blessings and curses that are connected to direct action. Within the inscribed stele at the lower right of this page is an image of the altar that the Israelites were required to build on Mt. Ebal using similar stones. Because the altar would serve a holy purpose, iron tools, normally used for weapons were prohibited in its construction.

The small decorative mezuzah, seen behind the woman, suggests a modern parallel to those original monuments. Traditionally, a mezuzah is a sort of amulet attached to the doorway of a Jewish home that contains a tiny specially prepared sheet of parchment called a  ‘klaf”. Portions of the Shema (the core prayer in Judaism) are written on it in Hebrew.

In The Consequences Of Choice, shown below, are representatives of  Israel’s twelve tribes, six from each. After raising the stelae, these leaders were then instructed to position themselves  on two facing mountains 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 between Mts. Ebal and Gerizim, with Ark of the Covenant in full view, Moses and the priests called out to the tribes, alternating between blessings and curses to reinforce their understanding of good and evil and to ensure that the boundaries between them would never be breached. This understanding was a major prerequisite for settlement in the Promised Land.

Hovering above this tableau, two keruvim (cherubim), each holding a tree are facing away from each other in contrast to their position atop The Ark Of The Covenant 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.

Though I have only one vote in this approaching election, I can only hope that we, as citizens of this unique land, will vote together to ensure that its outcome benefits the physical and spiritual needs of us all; rich, poor and in the middle; for it will define us as standard bearers of the balance of good and evil for future generations.

The Challenge Of Change

June 21, 2012

Though  I am not fluent in French, the classic aphorism, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they remain the same) seems particularly relevant with regards to Korah, the Torah portion from the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) that will be read this Sabbath. This particular parashah is memorable to me personally, as it marks the Bar Mitzvah of my eldest son in 1988 and the beginning of the thought process and research that would become my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). As the story recounts the challenge made by the Levite Korah to the divinely ordained authority of his cousins Moses and Aaron, it reminds us that the often smarmy dynamics that characterize ‘modern’ politics has barely changed in 2.000+ years. From the AfterImages section of this book which also includes footnotes for the sources, here is an excerpt of the interpretation for the illustrations shown above and below:

“In The Price Of Power, we see the blue-robed Korah ben Izhar, a wealthy, prominent Levite. Despite his influence as cousin to Moses and Aaron, he craved more power and determined to challenge the authority assigned to them over the Israelites. He gathered 250 men with ambitious agendas of their own, and outfitted them in luxurious tallitot (prayer shawls) made entirely of blue wool. In a mockery of the ‘one-cord of blue’ commandment (Shelakh-Lekha), Korah, exhibits a serpents’ forked tongue as he and his party arrogantly confront Moses and Aaron with a cunning argument for the equal holiness of all the Israelites.

Yet, for such a clever man, he seemed unaware that challenging God’s wisdom would have dire consequences. The Mishnah  describes the violent ‘earthquake’ that swallowed Korah and his men as the ‘mouth of earth’, one of ten mystical things created before the first Sabbath of the world. The copper firepans (upper left) had once held incense offerings. These were obligatory when Korah requested the meeting with Moses and Aaron. They were all that remained of Korah’s party. The firepans were later gathered by Eleazar, Aaron’s son to be melted into plating for the sacrificial altar– a legacy of this tragic event. Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Bible suggested the disgruntled sun and moon. They, too, challenged God and refused to voluntarily perform their duties if He levied punishment on Korah and his men. Ever after, sun and moon must be prodded into their daily cycles. With linguistic irony, the three Hebrew consonants in Korah’s name translate as ‘kereach’ or’ice’ and also as ‘bald’, both meaningful descriptions of his nature. The ‘ice’ refers to his cold, logical approach to spiritual matters while the ‘bald’ recalls the ‘bald spot’ he left among the Israelites when the earth swallowed his followers. 

When Korah challenged the right of Aaron to be High Priest, The Ark Of Judgment was employed to provide a test of faith in response. One of its k’ruvim sits on top of the Ark holding eleven barren staffs, each carved with the name of a tribe. The other keruv holds the staff of the tribe of Levi, which has put forth almond blossoms and fruit, confirming the choice of Aaron as High Priest of Israel. Aptly characterizing this tale is an unusual feature of Aaron’s staff: its dual fruits of bitter and sweet almonds. One variety begins sweet and turns bitter, like most disputes while the variety that begins bitter, but yields sweet fruit is akin to the achievement of peace. The motif on the shekel coin below commemorates the miracle of Aaron’s staff. The almonds in the hands below Aaron’s crown demonstrate that their name in Hebrew, ‘shaked’ is a permutation of ‘kodesh’ meaning ‘holy’: proof that God had chosen Aaron to bring holiness to the world.”

So where does that leave us now? In a metaphorical desert, I suppose; forced to define our own sense of morality in the face of our own media-driven misinformation campaigns. Then, as now, personal wealth and smarmy charm were exploited to secure a position of leadership with intentions that were far more self-centric than concerned with the spiritual and physical well-being of those who would be led. The major difference between now and then is the absence of a Divine Presence to dramatically balance the scales of justice, unless you naively believe that those who would rule us have a hot-line to Heaven.

An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence

April 19, 2012


A favorite trope of philosophers and religious scholars from ancient times to ours has been the concept of free choice. Does it exist as a vague tenet of traditional religious entitlement so we may feel free to question our ‘destiny’? Or is it merely a glib, convenient dodge for questionable behavior? Either way, acting upon it is never without consequences for the present or the future, both of which we like to think we can influence even if that influence may be illusory in itself. One of the stronger arguments for the consequence of interpreting the concept of free choice is found in Parashat Shemini, this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

In the illustration above, called Choice & Consequence, a scale is suspended from a mystical winged yad (Torah pointer). One pan holds the sephirah of Chesed (lovingkindness) that has been damaged and unbalanced by the sephirah Gevurah, (strength and power) in the other pan. The status of these qualities lies beneath the many vivid examples of victory and tragedy in the Torah narrative. One of most heartbreaking events was the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, High Priest of Israel. The young men were also godsons of Moses, Aaron’s brother. The Talmud and Kabbalah offer multiple interpretations of this incident. The most familiar is the brother’s unauthorized offering of incense or ‘strange fire though not requested to do so. According to Louis Ginzburg’s Legends of the Bible 1, they were killed upon their offering by two filaments of fire that flashed from the Ark in the Tabernacle. These split into four flames, pierced the nostrils of the young men and incinerated their souls. The bodies are shown intact for the legend also claims that after the event, no external injuries were visible. My imagination rode this story back to an earlier example of an unacceptable sacrifice; that of Adam’s son Cain, his rejected harvest offering and subsequent murder of his brother Abel. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering makes this tale equally tragic despite God’s vague attempt to justify his action to an angry and vengeful Cain. Though the later sacrificial system was designed to short-circuit the expression of these emotions, the loss of these young lives remains a scar on our history. One of the stranger postscripts to Cain’s murder of his brother is that God chose not to destroy Cain for his misdeed. Instead, he was condemned to live with his crime for an extraordinarily long lifetime while bearing an enigmatic stigma. Rashi, the medieval French Torah commentator asserts that this ‘mark of Cain’ was a horn that protruded from his forehead eventually causing his death by a hunter who mistook him for an animal. Another interpretation in the Zohar(Book of Splendor) associates this mark with the Hebrew letter ‘vav‘ because the name Cain or ‘qayin‘ in Hebrew, means ‘hook’.2 Was this ‘vav‘ or ‘hook’ meant to connect Cain to God during his journey towards spiritual redemption? Since both of these assertions intrigued me, I decided to combine them in one image showing Cain’s horn emerging from the ancient Hebrew letter ‘vav‘. The design of his horn was suggested by the ‘horns’ of the mizbeach or sacrificial altar.

I often marvel at how everything is connected in strange and subtle ways. Though created as a stand-alone post, last week’s drawing, ‘Innovasion'(detail shown above) whimsically explored the theme of unusual eating utensils. Coincidentally, the other important theme in Parashat Shemini, happens to be the laws of kashrut (kosher eating practices)regarding animals; laws that clarify which animals may and may not be eaten with any utensils. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the illustration for this section of Parashat Shemini, called Sanction & Censure was my final choice for the book. Yet, I thought it might be interesting to show an alternative option I considered at the time.

By way of explanation, the diverse array of creatures categorized in Parashah Shemini as kosher and unkosher provided an intense artistic challenge. As I began to draw these creatures, I was as delighted as a child to be depicting representatives of the vast array of life forms inhabiting our planet. Digging further into the laws of kashrut, however, these restrictions seemed way too complex to be arbitrary. I wondered about their true meaning for us beyond straightforward obedience. Though I personally understand and observe the basic tenets of kashrus, my imagination is simultaneously attracted to the esoteric. So, upon closer examination, if the animals I have drawn seem to have unique personalities, they do. Their ‘personalities’ were suggested by the Hasidic idea that each creature deemed ‘kosher’ contains ‘sparks of holiness’ and that when properly blessed and eaten, those ‘sparks’ are released, inviting the Divine Presence into our material world. Accordingly the creatures appearing fully colored underscore this idea. Those appearing in neutral grey tones within the black chessboard grid are considered inappropriate to be eaten and for the performance of commandments (mitzvot). Surrounding the ‘chessboard’ are emblems representing four of the spiritual worlds (atzilus,beriyah,yetzirah,asiyah) and elements associated with them (air, water, earth, fire). I thought these should remind us that free choice may not exist merely to reassure our need for independent thinking, but rather we should understand it as a way to reaffirm our connection to creation and to each other.