Posts Tagged ‘Ark of the Covenant’

The Mindfulness Of A New Endeavor

April 15, 2014

ImageOn the eve of the Pesach/Passover holiday, which begins a time of reflection and renewal of purpose, this blessing for a new endeavor completes the Journeys portion of An Illumination Of Blessings and seems appropriate for today’s Imaginarius post.

While the Passover holiday represents an epic physical and spiritual journey in the history of the Jewish people, I like to view each new endeavor that we undertake, regardless of magnitude, as a microcosm of it. As such, it can be seen as a journey of sorts, independent of whether we leave our homes, workplaces or travel outside of our comfort zones to accomplish something new to our experiences.

Whether we are creating a work of literature, art, music or science, I believe that we are not doing this solely of our own volition, but in a sort of partnership with a larger intelligence that requires it of us. Perhaps this ‘larger’ intelligence is a numinous, spiritual entity or the multifaceted imaginings of all of the ‘threads’ in the larger human tapestry. Either way, our endeavors in sum make each of us a significant thread in that tapestry; an entity alive with potential.

Illuminating this blessing is my representation of the artist/artisan Bezalel in the process of imagining the works he will design for the Mishkan/Tabernacle in the desert. According to the instructions of Moses, who received them at Mt. Sinai, he is to build a structure and ritual implements that will mirror their heavenly counterparts. I have shown him reaching towards the letters of a suspended, spinning pre-Canaanite Hebrew alphabet in a symbolic tribute to his relationship with the Creator in this endeavor and to their mystical role via the techniques of permutation in the creation of the world.

One of these ritual objects is the Ark of the Covenant which will reside within the Holy of Holies (the sacred sanctuary portion of the Tabernacle) that only the High Priest is permitted to enter on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It will support the two keruvim/cherubim to protect the Tablets of the Law, Aaron’s blossoming staff and a jar of manna. Bezalel’s plans for the Ark appear on the papyrus scroll in the foreground along with the Egyptian-influenced ink palettes and drawing tools that he might have used. Some of these tools are also seen in the pocket of the artisan’s work apron. On the vertical loom behind him is the tapestry with representations of the keruvim that will become the parochet or veil guarding the Ark. Although no one other than the High Priest is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the veil is meant to provide a virtual glimpse of its guardians to the congregation of worshippers.

This image of Bezalel is one of several I have developed as part of my ongoing exploration and understanding of the Second Commandment (the prohibition against creating graven images) as it affects creative artists. Other versions and essays may be found at:

Bezalel’s Vision: As Above, So Below?

With Divine Spirit: The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth

An Artist In The Shadow Of God.

As the sun sets and the Passover seders begin, there is much to consider about the holiness of even the most mundane aspects of this holiday, by each endeavor that we undertake and how these contribute to life’s larger experience for each of us. By understanding that what we create for our own needs and pleasure can enlighten and benefit others, we acknowledge and thank the One Who created us for the realities we continually create together.

Here’s to a healthy, happy and creative Passover holiday for all.

 

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Parashat T’rumah: Mirroring Heaven

February 15, 2013

Imaginarius-T'rumahAlthough each of the Torah’s fifty-four parashiyot contain stories and precepts that are meant to guide us in living and working towards our spiritual and cultural fullfilment, it is this week’s reading, Parashat T’rumah with its intricate, symbol-laden descriptions of the desert tabernacle that resonates with especial clarity for me as a visual artist.

In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), Parashat T’rumah is illustrated with a double page spread depicting the various implements and ritual objects prescribed for use in the sanctuary. The images shown here are selected details from that illustration which appears on pages 54-55. Entitled, ‘As Above, So Below’ it draws inspiration from the eponymous alchemical maxim referring to the dual concepts of the heavenly sanctuary shown to Moses on Mt. Sinai and the earthly sanctuary that the people were required to build so that God would have a place to ‘appear’ among them. A detailed description with footnoted references may be found in the AfterImages section of the book on pages 149-150.

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com or by email from: ilene@winnlederer.com. Allow up to one week for delivery in the US; if required sooner for a gift or special event, express services are available. For organizations, the author is available for on-site presentations of the book’s creative process and book signings.

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.

Between Choices And Chosenness

September 15, 2011

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.