Posts Tagged ‘animals’

Beastly Blessings

June 18, 2014

Beastly BlessingsI’ve long been fascinated by medieval illuminated manuscripts and their history, but the tiny details in their margins and the
inventive illustrations that accompany the painstaking textual calligraphy are elaborate weavings of words and images that
continue to influence my illustrations for this current Kickstarter-funded project.

This week, for An Illumination Of Blessings, I present one that originates in Judaism but is universal in content. It acknowledges
the Creator by virtue of the unusual creatures that inhabit our world and can be recited upon seeing a rare or unusual animal.

As I considered how best to interpret this blessing yet reconcile it with my love of drawing all sorts of creatures both real and fanciful,
my imagination teemed with images, all begging to inhabit the page. It seemed to be a difficult choice until I came across references in
the Talmud (Berakhot 58b) and Shulchan Aruch (225:8) which offered some parameters for interpretation.

As one of two similar blessings for observing living phenomena, it recognizes and praises the Creator for the various
strange and extraordinary forms of animal and human life that are not conventionally beautiful. The other blessing is recited upon seeing exceptionally beautiful people or animals and praises the Creator for placing such beauty in the world. A commentary in the Gemara* specifies that the first blessing refers to the sighting of a monkey or an elephant. One rather strange explanation is offered; that humans were transmogrified into elephants and monkeys as punishment for their participation in the Tower of Babel débacle! Is this anti-evolutionary tale not a great plot for a horror flick? An idea with greater appeal to me was that monkeys and elephants are considered to resemble humans; the monkey for its body shape and manual dexterity and the elephant for its smooth, hairless skin and a trunk which it uses as though it were a hand.

While monkeys and elephants are common sights today at any zoo, in medieval times they were considered exotic and rare, inspiring the creation of special blessings. Since travel to foreign lands beyond Europe was undertaken primarily by nobility and merchants, these creatures were often represented in manuscripts by illustrations that interpreted word-of-mouth descriptions by such travelers.

Complicating the medieval artist’s task was the Second Commandment prohibition against creating ‘graven images’. However, because creativity is in itself a force of nature, these artists were not discouraged and gave free rein to their imaginations as they incorporated fantastical beasts and homunculi into their manuscripts.

One other reference finally clarified the concept of my illustration for this blessing; a discussion of the elephant as a metaphor of the Torah presented by Dr. Marc Michael Epstein in his classic book, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (Penn State University, 1997)**

After reading this enlightening chapter, I began to wonder why elephants were often shown saddled with ‘howdahs’ that sometimes resembled castle towers. Further reading revealed that the word ‘howdah’ is from the Hindi and Arabic languages referring to portable shelters used for travel but also for hunting and military battles. Carvings of elephants wearing howdahs are often seen as pieces in chess, the symbolic game of war.*** Taking this idea a step further, I imagined that a howdah could also represent a sort of portable synagogue; an ideological ‘castle’ as its own metaphor of Jewish history.

Accordingly, the first blessing for strange animals is illustrated here with a monkey riding an elephant whose ‘howdah’ or ‘turret’ recalls a medieval synagogue. It was inspired by an illustration in a 15th century volume of the Mishneh Torah written by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. A decorative border of fanciful flowers and dragons surrounds them in tribute to the master medieval illuminators
whose timeless work continues to inspire my own.
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Dear Backers: The Blessing For Rare and Extraordinary Animals is the 32nd of 36 blessings to be completed for An Illumination Of Blessings! We’re almost there!
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Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm   Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that your contribution of $500 to the top reward level of this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

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* rabbinic teachings compiled after the 70 C.E. destruction of the Second Temple
** The Elephant and the Law, pp. 39-69
***I remembered seeing this image as a sculpture in London near the Elephant & Castle Underground station.
   This image is part of my blog at Imaginarius: https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/the-tragic-beauty-of-ideas/

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

Kickstarter-Final Update #6: An Illumination Of Blessings: The Blessing Of Words

July 5, 2013

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Dear Backers and Backers-To-Be:

Well, we’re in the last stretch of this Kickstarter project at 72% funded with 22 hours to go. Not surprisingly, these are significant numbers. 72 represents twice’double chai’ or a very generous measure of good fortune, while 22 are the letters in the Hebrew alphabet/alephbet by which all Creation came into being. In the ancient system of Gematria or Hebrew numerology, interpreting numbers is seen as the key to our understanding of the Divine Will. Accordingly, every Hebrew letter is embedded with its numerical equivalent and spiritual significance. For example, the number 18 is the sum of the letters in the word ‘chai’ or ‘life’ while 36 doubles that value for a blessing of all good things to come.  So today, for my final update of this project, I present to you two new illustrated Hebrew alphabets, Rimmon (Pomegranate) and K’Shutiy (Ornamental). I will be employing these original calligraphic alphabets throughout the book and I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do when I create them.

If you have not yet pledged your support at this point, please do so at this link: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings

Throughout the development of exciting new work for this Kickstarter campaign, I’ve realized what a labor of love this book will be and truly hope that with your help, we can bring it to life as a significant portion of my artistic legacy for generations to come.

Wishing you Peace and Blessings,
Ilene

Illumination-RimmonimAlefbetRGB

On The Pragmatism Of Prayer…

April 19, 2013

TheFlightOfAPrayer

In light of the national media babbling 24/7 about the fear and trembling amidst heightened security measures that have overtaken the Boston environs in the wake of the Marathon bombing, I thought about all the prayers that go out both to comfort ourselves, each other and perhaps in attempt to stanch the rising panic over the still at-large bombing suspect. In doing so, I offer these questions for your comments:
 
1. Can prayers be understood as pleas for protection from evil, or for those more philosophically inclined, can they be seen as praise for a G-d whose will in all things is inscrutable?
2. What about the concept of prayers as a way to understand that the balance of good and evil must, however costly to life and property, be maintained for some larger cosmic purpose?
3. Could these prayers relate in some obscure way to the intent of sacrifices in ancient times? In other words, did we perform sacrifices and offer prayers as a tribute to the greatness of G-d, to assuage our fear of His/Her potential anger or a little of both?
 
In Acharey Mot, this week’s Torah reading, although the above questions are given no definitive answers, we learn how the qualities of good and evil inform a duality in our concept of G-d that inspires the custom of absolving communal sin by sacrificing two goats.
 
The illustrations below are details from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). We can see one animal lying trussed and wearing an inscribed boxwood lot dedicating it to G-d. The other, marked as an offering to ‘Azazel’ will be the scapegoat sent into the wilderness.  The term ‘Azazel’ has various connotations. Medieval commentators have referred to it as a desert cliff in the Sinai from which a goat was thrown on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of Israel. But In his commentary on Leviticus 16:8, the Spanish Talmudist Moses Ben Nachman Gerondi (Nachmanides) described Azazel as a goat-like desert god or demon. The image of a demon has long been associated in mythology with evil, sexual misdeeds and the fearsome forces of nature. Merging the two ideas produced the portrayal of Azazel as a winged demon pictured in a barren desert setting. The string tying the lot to Azazel’s goat is partly colored scarlet to recall a custom in the Temple. A red cord was hung in the Temple porch for all to know that a goat had been sent to Azazel. The amount of time needed for the goat and its escort to reach the cliff was calculated and when the sacrifice was deemed complete, the cord allegedly turned white.
 
Perhaps this elaborate, dramatic ritual, was in itself an answer to my questions? If the Torah had not told us that we were made in “…Our Image”, how else would it be possible for us to understand that God may inspire both joy and
heartbreak?
Imaginarius-AchareyMot

The Evolution Of Choice: Tattoo Or Not To?

August 16, 2012

This week, in our reading of Parashah Re’eh in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we discover a complex chapter that addresses the Israelites’ approaching settlement of Canaan. It is filled with cultural admonishments and exhortations designed to preserve the relatively fledging concept of monotheism. Because so much of the text recaps stories and strong points of the first four books of the Torah, I chose to focus on the brief section (14:1-14:3) that seemed pointedly relevant to contemporary life; the section that addresses choice in individual holiness.

As an illustrator and graphic designer, it is necessary to establish a unique brand identity within an extremely competitive market. This logo, or mark that represents our professional achievements and aspirations, though it may take the form of a simple graphic or phrase requires much thought. It becomes the face you present to the world. Though I have experimented with several designs over the years, a sun and moon motif remains my favorite, since it speaks to the timelessness of creative spirit.

A little story: Once, years ago at a neighborhood shop I purchased some stones and beads that I could fashion into a necklace. As I reached into my purse to pay for these items, one of my business cards inadvertently fell onto the counter. A young patron behind me caught a glimpse of it and immediately inquired if she might have one so that she could copy the design for a tattoo. For a moment I was flattered and somewhat amused, but my inner ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi‘ quietly nudged me. “This tattoo (K’tovet Ka’aka) would be so not kosher!” it seemed to say. I offered a crooked smile and told her, “It’s nice that you like my work; thanks. Maybe you are not Jewish, but I’m afraid my religion doesn’t permit tattoos and I would not feel good about letting my work be used for them.” The young woman stared at me. “Oh,” she said with a frown. “Too bad, it’s a great design.” Something about her narrowed eyes told me she would have some version of it made anyway. Oh well.

Though tattoos are as old as the history of many cultures (full body coverage is a fine art in Japan called horimono), they’ve become ubiquitous in our urban landscape with less clothing worn in public being the norm. I began to pay special attention to the numerous young people sporting a variety of tattoos and body piercings when I left the shop. At that time, I hadn’t seen any tattooed Jews, but maybe they weren’t as bold about them as they are today given the caché of magen-david studded tabloid celebrities who profess to be ‘into’ kabbalah.

Anyway, I found some of the wide array of designs interesting, even technically brilliant from an artistic perspective, but deeply disturbing otherwise. Perhaps it was their aura of permanence (though removal is easier these days), but in retrospect I think that my fickle artistic sensibilities would soon grow weary of any design I chose despite my passion for it at the time. Not to mention how age and wrinkles would distort it.

I was prompted to check out the Torah to verify this prohibition. Though the Torah views tattooing, body piercing and shaving portions of the head as evidence of ancient cultic death rituals and a form of idolatry (Avodah Zarah), other subtle issues around it such as cosmetic tattooing are addressed in rabbinic discourse. Rabbi Chaim Jachter, faculty advisor at The Torah Academy of Bergen County, NJ suggests that our bodies do not belong to us, but are loaned to us that we may perform mitzvot; not to do whatever we wish with them. There are some who scoff at the law barring Jews with tattoos from burial in a Jewish cemetery and by extension at that law requiring that only Jews of good conscience belong in such hallowed ground. No one is perfect, they say. Saints and liars may not be kosher fellow dirt-nappers but who’s going to argue after the funeral? I don’t know the technicalities, but that argument sounds pretty disingenuous to me while it attempts to sanction undesirable behavior.

The young Goth woman about to eat a scorpion kebab accompanies the quotation on the opposite page to demonstrate another important prohibition of this parashah; polluting our inner purity with forbidden foods. The grid below her displays a selection of animals that permitted (full color) and forbidden (mauve color). As world travelers  know, these foods (scorpion kebabs are a common street food in Beijing) are readily available and many find them appetizing. But again, eating such things raises the question of choice. Are she and the tattooed man with the skull Jews? Hard to tell, but for my purposes, they are, since they might easily reflect the growing trend among young Jews to adopt this form of body modification. Nevermind that we have always been a people apart; is it really necessary to blatantly remind the world of that fact? What Holocaust survivor still alive wouldn’t shudder at the sight of a young tattooed Jew? Even if said tattooed Jew loudly proclaims that he/she is proud of their Jewishness and wishes the rest of the world to know it?

That is why I’ve placed a Holocaust witness in the background; for perspective. He might be their ancestor observing their assimilation into our surrounding culture. Yet he seems to say that as much as we try to disguise our ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi’ or even to silence it with sheer rebellion, such choices may again become our undoing.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that being ‘cool’ is knowing you don’t need to be.

The illustrations above may be found along with additional footnotes in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html.

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.

A Passover Perspective: Of Sanctuary And Sacrifice

March 30, 2012


As we enter the week preceding the Passover holiday, mindful of the history it commemorates, it is always with some trepidation. Some of that anxiety centers around the shopping and intense household tasks involved in preparation for the seder meals, but for me, as I do so, there is always the nagging question of ‘how much is enough’? Of course, if one observes stringent, time-honored personal tradition, such a question is never asked; preparations are undertaken with a few eye-rolls but mostly with zealous pride.

However, in the years since my children were young, my own preparation has become less formal, more intuitive in terms of the symbolism underlying each ritual. Ironically, as my domestic rituals shifted, my wish to continue identifying as a Jew began to take shape as an interest in the holiday’s cultural rationale and its history. Indeed, these became germaine in producing the illustrations and commentary in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) It was as though all those years had been a sort of practice for what was to come.

The illustrations accompanying this week’s post are from The Book of Leviticus/Vayikra and address Parashat Tzav. While the book presents a slightly different arrangement of the images, on reflection I have added an element from Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy/Devarim) to cast them in a larger perspective. Though the figure from Parashat Re’eh speaks for itself, a full explanation of the other images may be read on pp. 155-156 in the AfterImages
portion of the book.

A wag for whom I’ve much affection once suggested that since the Israelites had so little time to prepare for their exodus and we are compelled to observe the holiday as though we too were about to leave Egypt, perhaps an appropriate symbolic ritual would be to forget all the Passover dishes and chametz-chasing. Instead, we should consider packing a few suitcases for basic survival and leaving them near the door as a reminder that on a moment’s notice, we may be compelled to leave our homes for a great unknown.

With Divine Spirit: The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth

March 23, 2012


Since 2012, corresponding to the Hebrew year 5773 is a leap year, several of the fifty-four Torah portions are read together so that the differences in these calendar systems may be reconciled. This week, we pair reading of the final two chapters of the Book of Exodus, VaYakhel and P’kudey. Commentary for the images in this post are from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

With Divine Spirit
, above, again shows us the master artisan Bezalel working to complete his design and construction of the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan). Here,he is holding one of the results of his ability to permute the letters of the alefbet. The object is the Choshen, the breastplate to be worn by Aaron, the High Priest for the services in the Tabernacle. It is described in one of the sections of a work called ‘Choshen Ha-Mishpat‘ (Breastplate of Judgment) and with some reservations is attributed to the 13th century rabbi and scholar Bahya Ben Asher. The Choshen‘s threads are of crimson red, purple and blue, the three signature colors of all fabrics used in construction of the Tabernacle and priestly garments. Woven into it are twelve stones set into gold frames, each engraved with one of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are arranged in the birth order of Jacob’s twelve sons and in four rows of three stones. Each row is in honor of the Four Mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
The Choshen and two carbuncle ‘shoham’ stones, also engraved with the tribal names, are attached to the shoulders of the Ephod portion of the High Priest’s garment. These appear in the illustration of Aaron for the Parashah T’Tzavveh. The twelve stones, listed on page 144 in the AfterImages section of the book, are:

Tribe of Reuven: Odem/Ruby
Tribe of Simeon: Pit’dah/Prase, or Chalcedony
Tribe of Levi: Bareket/Carbuncle
Tribe of Judah: Nofekh/Emerald
Tribe of Issachar: Sapir/Sapphire
Tribe of Zebulun: Yahalom/Beryl
Tribe of Dan: Leshem/Topaz
Tribe of Naphtali: Sh’vo/Turquoise
Tribe of Gad: Ahlamah/Crystal
Tribe of Asher: Tarshish/Chrysolite
Tribe of Joseph*: Shoham/Onyx
Tribe of Benjamin: Yashfeh/Jasper

*Tribe of Joseph incorporates the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh

According to Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Bible, Bezalel had the assistance of a special creature to construct these items. It was the tiny Shamir, (shown above Bezalel’s right arm) a worm-like creature that appeared in the evening of the sixth day of Creation. The Shamir was endowed with the unique ability to cut through impermeable materials like gemstones. Beneath the Shamir worm are two objects called the “Urim v’ Tmimim.” The appearance and function of these objects have generated much conjecture. Generally known as ‘oracle stones’ they were placed in the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate. Their alleged prophetic powers allowed him to focus on a specific problem or situation. He would then either obtain a vision or perceive combinations of letters with which he could determine the solution.

Behind Bezalel stands Oholiab, son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan, the co-worker assigned to him by God. The scales on his worktable symbolize his tribe and his honest artisanal skills. Oholiab is preparing the gold plate (reading “Holy To The Lord”) that will be attached by a blue cord to the High Priest’s helmet (on the table to his left). Finally, the ‘Parokhet’ or inner curtain for the front of the Ark of the Covenant is shown in the background. According to Parashah T’rumah, “You shall make a curtain of blue, crimson and purple yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of K’ruvim worked into it.” Though I have included the specified colors in the image, I have also taken artistic license with the background of the curtain by adding the apotropaic eye in the center.

In The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth, above, under the canopy of Heaven, the Shekhinah, God’s feminine aspect, lifts her hands to bless the people in this symbolic ‘marriage’ between God and Israel. The ‘Bridegroom’ in this union is the Ark of the Covenant. Shekhinah wears the Crown of Paradise with golden pomegranate trees. Her sephirah of Malkhut or earthly monarchy is prominent at the base of the crown. A tiny chuppah adorns the large ceremonial wedding ring held aloft by the K’ruvim on the Ark. Her ‘feet’ resemble the cloven hooves of a calf from the bizarre four-faced ‘Chariot’ creatures in the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision. The full description of this vision appears in the haftorah reading for the Festival of Shavuot.

Below, The Guardian Of The House of Israelimage concludes the Book of Exodus.

It depicts the completed Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert surrounded by the tents of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The color of each tent reflects its corresponding gemstone in the High Priest’s Choshen (Breastplate). Although the text of this Parashah initially seemed to require two illustrations, I imagined an enormous angel bearing both symbols of God’s Holy protection. He wears a head covering that resembles a medieval liripipe. Suspended from its ‘tail’ is an alchemical glyph representing two elements of Creation: air and fire. Finally, I have shown the Pillar of Fire in the form of a Ner Tamid or ‘Eternal Light. The burning bush within recalls the Covenant at Sinai while its chains incorporate the heads of korbanot (Temple offerings). The Ner Tamid has occupied a place of honor over the Ark in synagogues worldwide illuminating our memories of the original Tabernacle that guarded and inspired our ancestors three thousand years ago.

For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://bit.ly/g2D9Lm

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The Odds Of March

March 19, 2012

ate one night, near the end of February, the rooster-less weather vane spun madly atop the Inn Of The Four Winds. Perhaps it was anticipating the outcome of the wager within…

Beneath the iridescent glow of a crystal chandelier, March’s fate lay in the cards. Would the month begin with the icy breath of a roaring storm or with the gentle bleat of a spring breeze? Excitement ran high among those with stakes in this annual game, for the cards were to be held by those famous adversaries, the Lion and the Lamb. The game required a curious playing deck consisting of three hundred and sixty-five cards (with a wild card thrown in for leap years). Its four suits distinguished the deck, each representing one of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. On the cards within each suit, specific weather conditions such as thunderstorms or clear, blue skies were depicted. But these magical cards were more than just pretty pictures. As they were selected in the game, each image exuded its unique sounds, sensations and smells!

A dealer was appointed to divide this enormous deck into twelve stacks of cards, corresponding to the months of the year. From those stacks, he then dealt each player twelve cards. The remaining cards were tossed into a barrel and shuffled so they could be reassembled into one large stack at the center of the ornately carved table.
The rules of the game decreed that neither the Lion nor the Lamb were to see each other’s hand, but were to select cards in turn from the center stack, rejecting unwanted cards back into the barrel for next year’s game. Then, by means of dealing, trading and bluffing (if necessary), each player must build a complete hand of thirty-one cards (corresponding to March’s thirty-one days) whose suits and weather conditions matched their own meteorological vision.

If the Lion expected to win, his hand must consist of thirty-one cards depicting only fierce weather conditions; while the Lamb would need to collect thirty-one cards displaying only fair weather symbols for her victory. The first player to collect a complete hand would win the honor of deciding whether March came in like a Lion and went out like a Lamb, or vice versa! Although the weather was enigmatically commanded by the powers that be, ancient wisdom held that this annual match exerted its own mysterious influence…

The large hall of the Inn was crowded with spectators and speculators proclaiming their wagers and noisily debating the fate of March. Among these were the weather vanes’ Rooster, the Groundhog, the Dove and the Monkey. By virtue of their special interests in the resolution of the match, the four were permitted to surround the principal players.
The Rooster, having abandoned his weathervane for this event, anxiously hoped for an early spring in March. He was a proud fellow, but he was exhausted after a long winter of announcing early sunrises and taming temperamental winds. An early spring would allow him to do his tasks a wee bit later in the morning. And so he crowed enthusiastically for the Lamb.

The Dove cooed for the Lamb, too. As the messenger whose task was to let other birds know when the ice and snow would end, Dove’s sentiments were also personal; she dearly missed all of her friends who flew south for the winter.
The Groundhog, charged with predicting the fate of winter for humans, had grumpily crept out of his burrow for this game, grunting in favor of the Lion. He wished to enjoy his winter nap for just a little longer.

And the Monkey, gifted with a special knowledge of the language of plants and trees, was entrusted with bearing the tidings of spring to jungles and forests everywhere. In recognition of her intelligence, she was appointed to act as dealer. This obliged her to remain neutral, though she secretly hoped for an early spring. There was nothing she liked better than swinging lazily on a thick vine and munching an early crop of mangoes.

When the table was prepared and everyone had settled down, the Lion and the Lamb entered the room, greeted their audience, and took their seats. While the Monkey dealt their cards, the players exchanged menacing glances and crooked smiles, each determined to emerge victorious from the match.

As the game proceeded, the Lion could barely suppress his little rumbles of delight; for the majority of his cards depicted his signature storm symbols: lightning, thunder, snowy blizzards and hurricanes. Smugly, he glanced around the room and then at his opponent; a clear gesture that he held the winning cards. On the other hand, the Lamb, with her gentle features drooping, seemed to be down on her luck this year. Shivering from her handful of wet, cold, windy storm cards, she desperately wanted to declare an early spring, and hoped that some of her beautiful sunshine and flower symbols would turn up soon.

Suddenly, as if the powers that be had heard her wish, the stack of cards at the center of the table began to yield one springtime card after another! Growing more excited with each turn, the Lamb could nearly taste her victory as her fans cheered her on. The Lion began to growl in frustration, his whiskers wrinkling at the scent of the spring grass and crocus cards, which kept cropping up. Peeved by the waning encouragement of his supporters, the big cat was not a good loser. But he did have a flair for drama.

Narrowing his big green eyes, he stood up as if about to stretch, letting loose a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a roaring yawn. The startled Lamb gasped and dropped her cards, then bleated accusingly at her opponent for cheating. The Monkey, who had just reached out to straighten the center stack of cards, trembled, scattering the remainder of them all over the table and floor! To make matters worse, the crowd had begun to panic. What would become of the month of March?

After a few moments, the Lamb’s natural grace and charm returned, and she giggled as she regarded the mess on the table and floor. “Oh, well,” she shrugged philosophically, ” I was getting tired of this old game anyway!” The Lion, somewhat abashed by the Lamb’s swift recovery, felt a slow smile creeping across his chops. “So am I,” he agreed, nodding his shaggy head. “Besides,” he added slyly, ” I’ve heard there is a cheap flight to Paradise this weekend. Would you like to join me?” Fluffing the curly wool behind her delicate pink ear, the Lamb glanced flirtatiously at the Lion, and happily accepted his offer.

The crowd of spectators and speculators had finally regained their wits and were so busy arranging their wagers for next year’s game, that they never noticed the Lion and the Lamb waltzing out of the Inn’s doors locked in an embrace.

The powers that be rolled their collective eyes indulgently as they helped a very sleepy Rooster back to his weathervane perch atop The Inn Of The Four Winds.

This year, for a change, March would have to take care of itself.

An Artist In The Shadow Of God

March 9, 2012

Of all the fifty-four parashiyot in the Torah, Ki Thissa was the one that spoke most eloquently to me as an artist and illustrator, particularly as it relates how Moses transmitted instructions for building the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan) to the artist and craftsman Bezalel ben Uri. I was drawn to this story many years ago as I sought to understand the levels of meaning within the Second Commandment prohibiting the creation of graven images. In essence, it opened my eyes to the concept of hiddur mitzvah or the creation of beautiful objects to enhance the worship experience, rather than be worshipped as objects in themselves.

I have created several interpretive portraits of Bezalel, the first recorded Jewish artist, most recently the iteration shown here for my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). From the AfterImages section of the book on p. 151, here is an excerpt  from my commentary on the illustration shown above:

In The Shadow Of God is drawn from the Hebrew translation of the name Bezalel, given to him at birth by his father Uri, son of Hur from the tribe of Judah. (Note the image of the Lion below the text next to Bezalel; it symbolizes the tribe of Judah) His full name reads, ‘Bet-Zal-El Hayaita which means ‘you were in God’s Shadow’ explaining his extraordinary artistic skills and closeness to the Creator so that he could envision the Heavenly Temple and accurately follow the directions for the construction of its earthly counterpart. He was tasked with this mission by Moses who transmitted God’s request upon his return from Mt. Sinai. In the Mishnah,Bezalel is credited as the man who was able to comprehend and configure the letters from which Heaven and Earth were created for this holy task. According to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, “All things were created through the combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.” The open scroll that Bezalel is holding reveals a kabbalistic diagram, found in the Sefer Yetzirah, composed in 6th century Babylon, which connects letters in the Hebrew alefbet with the seven planets and twelve signs of the Zodiac. In the center of the diagram is a triangular form that contains the Tetragrammaton, an acronym for one of God’s Names. To avoid a disrespectful rendering of this name, a portion of one of the letters has been removed. At the corners of the triangle connecting it to the outer rings are the three Mother letters, alef, mem and shin that represent the elements air, fire and water. Although many graphic variations of these concepts can be found in the books of mysticism, I chose this particular diagram for Bezalel, as it seemed to invite creative interaction. Standing behind the craftsman with a model of the Mishkan on its back is a strange beast called the Tachash. The word ‘tachashim’ in parashah T’rumah, though translated as ‘dolphin skins’ finds a different interpretation in the Mishnah, which alludes to the creation and existence of this animal for the express purpose of providing materials for the construction of the Tabernacle. When its purpose was completed, it seems to have vanished. 

Since no one knows if it actually existed, could the tachash have been a word to describe a collection of materials taken from several existing species or could it have been an unusual mutation truly created only for its holy purpose? In any case, it will always remain an intriguing idea and so the tachash shown here is purely from my imagination. By the way, these questions occurred to me long after my book was published, which only verifies my philosophy that art is always a work in progress and matures from continuing interpretation. So, if any of my readers would like to posit their own version or questions, send me your links in the comment box; I look forward to continuing this conversation…

For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://www.magiceyegallery.com