Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

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/

An Illumination Of Blessings Update: On Moonlight And Memory

May 16, 2014

RoshHodesh-MoonBlessing50%Science and religion have always been strange bedfellows, each occupying neighboring compartments in our minds, yet ever distrustful of each other.

A quotation attributed to Albert Einstein offers some insight: “A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Nevertheless, they remain eternal antagonists, each perhaps seeking an impossible validation from the other.

This observation is far from new, but it came to me as I considered how to approach this blessing for the moon, an ancient source of wonder until July of 1969, when American astronauts walked on the moon. They became at once part of its history and its future in human perception.

Although they seemed to prove that the moon was physically no more than a rather large, cratered and lifeless asteroid, unworthy of the age-old mysteries attributed to it, still, they changed little for most of us earth-bound creatures in terms of our romantic, spiritual or prophetic predilections. We still love to invest the moon with human qualities in our arts and culture or laugh at the idea that it is made of green cheese.

Yet, whether we are romantic or pragmatic, we can safely admit there is a certain subtle beauty in the presence of the moon; it’s there to light our paths at night and in a numinous way, to remind us that we are not alone or without purpose in the dark.

These ideas might be part of the foundation underlying religious rituals created around the moon. In Rabbinic tradition, the newly minted Israelites were commanded to sanctify the new moon upon their delivery from Egypt. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-2)

This practice directly conflicted with Egypt’s officially sanctioned sun worship. It also ensured that the moon would not become an object of worship; instead, its cycles became the basis of the Jewish calendar, a valuable tool for timekeeping and agricultural foresight.

In this system, each month defines one lunar cycle as the moon completes one orbit of earth. One hallmark of the lunar calendar, the Rosh Hodesh* holiday is observed with prayers and blessings at the point in the moon’s orbit when it is suspended directly between earth and the sun so that a thin crescent of it is visible to all, marking the beginning of a new month and/or season.

Metaphorically, the appearance of the moon as it progresses through its phases, illustrates our ‘deliverance’ from spiritual darkness to light. It would seem that such ‘enlightenment’ included recognizing the importance of women in early Israelite culture, yet I wonder, does it also tell us that the story of human existence would always be written in alternating chapters of darkness and light?

It is interesting to note that the monthly cycles of both women and the moon figured in the establishment of Rosh Hodesh as a holiday. Perhaps this reflects the idea that both women and the moon are capable of rebirth or renewal and must be honored as such. But two references in the Babylonian Talmud perceive it as a special one for women in particular while an 8th century midrash provides the backstory.

The first reference, in Tractate Megillah (22b) states that women must be exempt from work** on this day. The midrash, Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer*** suggests that after the incident of the Golden Calf, women were given a work-free holy day as a reward for their refusal to contribute their jewelry to the construction of the idol. Later, the French medieval Torah commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) specified that the exempt work included spinning, weaving and sewing since these were the skills that women freely contributed to the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) following the Exodus from Egypt.

The second reference points to a related monthly prayer called Kiddush Levanah****, or The Sanctification of the Moon in which we express our appreciation for G-d’s celestial gifts. It is traditionally performed outdoors in the moonlight (preferably under a cloudless sky) at the end of the Sabbath from 3-7 days after the new moon is visible. So, in Sanhedrin (42a) Rabbi Yochanan teaches that one who blesses the new moon in its proper time is regarded as one who greets the Shechinah (female aspect of the Divine Presence).

Although Rosh Hodesh celebrations have an ancient history, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that such celebrations became popular. They were one of the ways in which Jewish women could explore and express their own spirituality while enhancing their communal roles. These events gave birth to support groups for various lifecycle issues and forums for women’s studies.

In my illustration for The Blessing of the Moon, I have visually addressed both the Rosh Hodesh and Kiddush Levanah rituals. The sun has just set beyond the distant mountains and on a hillside above the sea. A woman wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl is dancing to the rhythm of her tambourine as she raises a cup of water in tribute to Moses’ sister Miriam and to all women among the Israelites who crossed the Red (Reed) Sea after the Exodus from Egypt. It was the first performance of a song-prayer, Shirat HaYam (Song Of The Sea) that is now part of the morning prayer services worldwide. The letterforms on the cup spell ‘Miriam’ in paleo-Hebrew, an early form of modern Hebrew.

I’ve shown four phases of the moon as it turns from new to full, from darkness to light, tracing its path along the ethereal form of a nocturnal quadrant, used in medieval times for astronomical navigation, perhaps on a ship like the caravel that is arriving with the tide. The ship and quadrant represent the human curiosity and ingenuity at the core of both science and religion while the woman on the hill knows deep within that love, peace and gratitude will mitigate their conflict if only we pay attention to the gifts we have been given.

* head of the new (month)
** except for work which cannot be left over for the following day, (ex.child care)
*** Chapter 45 in this collection of Torah exegesis and folklore
     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirke_De-Rabbi_Eliezer
**** More information on Kiddush Levanah may be found at these links:

http://www.chabad.org/library/  article_cdo/aid/1904288/jewish/The-Sanctification-of-the-Moon.htm

and http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/607391/jewish/Thank-G-d-for-the-Moon.htm

Sunrise, Sunset, So What?

May 6, 2014

ImageOn average, we spare little daily thought for the sun other than to its perceived influence on the esthetics of the next twenty-four hours. It is, therefore, we are. End of story.

But since the sun’s first appearance in the skies on the fourth day of Creation, according to the Torah (Book of Bereshis/Genesis), this story is not one with an ending; it is punctuated with the myths and folklore of every human culture from the beginning of recorded time and perpetuated across generations in forms apropos to each telling.

These tales comprise a portion of the collective effort to comprehend our origins amidst our mercurial environment, the relentless cycle of the seasons and our place in the cosmos. They are an amalgam of sincere theological speculation, intriguing scientific discovery with some millennial fear-mongering thrown in for spice.

In tribute to this timeless portrait of human curiosity, I’ve chosen to include a rare Jewish blessing for witnessing natural phenomena in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

The Birkat Ha-Chamah or Blessing of the Sun is rare because it is recited only once every twenty-eight years, most recently in April of 2009. It is not to be found in standard prayer books; rather, it is distributed to participants at each recitation ceremony. The blessing dates back to Talmudic times (first century AD) when the rabbis, wishing to acknowledge the sun’s importance to life on Earth without inviting idolatry, addressed the star theologically without attributing divinity to it.

According to rabbinical opinion in the Babylonian Talmud, the blessing is to be recited every twenty-eight years on the vernal equinox* to commemorate the sun’s return to its original position (relative to the Earth) on the fourth day of Creation when it is fully visible above the horizon at dawn. They taught: “One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…recites: ‘Blessed is the One Who made the Creation’.” (Tractate Berachot 59b)

My illustration for this blessing is set in medieval Europe when rabbi-scholars like Maimonides (the Rambam) and Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon engaged in lively discussions of Torah and Talmud, codifying their opinions for future generations.

On a grassy hillside against the backdrop of a castle fortress-town, a prayer shawl (tallit) clad man and his son are awaiting the full sunrise as they imagine a vignette of the fourth day of Creation framed within an astrolabe. The hand-shaped (hamsa) device from which the astrolabe is suspended is meant to represent the idea that its five fingers remind us to use our five senses to praise G-d. The hamsa is also referred to as the Hand of Miriam in remembrance of her as sister to Moses and Aaron.** The boy holds a ram’s horn (shofar), which will be sounded when the sun has risen.

This image was suggested by the Birkat Ha-Chamah ceremony of April 8, 1981, led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York and sounded the shofar amidst a crowd of 300 participants.

I think, perhaps, this is how we might understand our place in the cosmos. As witnesses to the wonders of created life, that is a dance of chaos and order, we are privileged to question it, but are never to know all the answers or the end of the story; at least, not yet.

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* Why every twenty-eight years? Although the sun rises and sets in the east and west respectively, its position shifts seasonally, moving to the north in summer and to the south in winter. The midpoints of this movement are the equinoxes which mark the autumn and spring seasons. To complete this cycle requires one solar year, the length of which varies by slightly more than a day in our calendar. So the rabbis calculated that when the equinoxes have moved forward exactly thirty-five days, they will occur on the same day and hour as on the first hour of the fourth day of Creation.

** Some of you may wonder why I have not included a woman in this ceremony. This is because the Birkat Ha-Chamah is a time-based mitzvah (commandment) which women are exempt from observing. You can read more about this tradition here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/woman_commandments.html Nevertheless, the Hand of Miriam attached to the astrolabe represents their spiritual presence.

Modeh Ani: An Appreciation Of Miracles

November 25, 2013

 

ImageThis week, the rare confluence of the Thanksgiving and Hanukkah holidays, each a unique tale of struggle, survival and miracles, has inspired me to present the Modeh Ani next for An Illumination Of Blessings. Here’s why: I’ve been thinking about the nature of miracles, how our perception of them has changed over time and the subtle reference to them in this blessing.

When we think of miracles, the big, cinema-worthy Biblical ones such as Noah’s postdiluvian rainbow, the parting of the Red (Reed) Sea in Exodus or the appearance of manna in the desert usually come to mind. Biblical history tells us that such phenomena  mysteriously appeared to precipitate a great crisis or in the wake of one and were meant to induce our fear, obedience, humility and faith in G-d. But in the absence of such grand miracles since post-Biblical times and the influence of our scientific understanding of nature’s laws, it’s easy to imagine those reactions fading into memory. And as we live our mundane day-to-day lives, it’s easy to blink past the one ubiquitous miracle we cannot afford to take for granted; waking up each morning.

We’ve often heard of friends, family or celebrities going to bed one night and waking up dead. News of such a passing is especially unsettling when, like me, you are a contemporary of some one lately deceased in this manner, leaving no opportunity for closure either with loved ones or with unfinished tasks.

Of course, we can’t know the extent of our own timelines, nor would most of us wish to. Nevertheless, beginning each morning with a certain mindfulness can enable us to meet each day’s challenges with the physical and emotional strength needed to recognize and accomplish our goals. Certainly, there’s nothing new about this idea; such philosophies generously pepper myriad self-help books and motivational speaker’s scripts. Yet, a simple blessing like the Modeh Ani has both the spiritual and scientific chops to make it worthwhile learning and remembering.

The Modeh Ani was first composed as a Kabbalistic (mystical) invocation among the Sephardic Jewish community in the Seder Avodas Hayom attributed to the 16th century Rav Moshe ben Makhir of Tzfat (Safed), a contemporary of Rav Yosef Karo, the compiler of the code of Jewish law, The Shulchan Aruch (The Set Table). Soon after, the blessing appeared in a 1687 Ashkenazic prayerbook (siddur) called the Derech Yeshara. Uniquely, it makes no mention of G-d’s Name allowing its recitation immediately on awakening before relieving ourselves and washing our hands. According to halakhah (Jewish law), it is not permitted to pray with G-d’s Name before washing, so the prayer was composed as a compromise alluding to G-d’s Name but not actually saying it. 

Recited each morning, the Modeh provides an opportunity to express our gratitude for the return of our soul to our bodies. Rationally, it can be said that we haven’t gone anywhere; that sleep is merely a restorative, physiological process, but that only begs the question: why were we given the ability to sleep in the first place?

The late Lubavitcher Rabbi succinctly commented on the process of soul (neshama) renewal as we sleep and its return to us when we wake (found @ chabad.org): “If we didn’t sleep, there would be no tomorrow. Life would be a single, seamless today. Our every thought and deed would be an outgrowth of all our previous thoughts and deeds. There would be no new beginnings in our lives, for the very concept of a new beginning would be alien to us. Sleep means that we have the capacity to not only improve but also transcend ourselves. To open a new chapter in life that is neither predicted nor enabled by what we did and{what we}were, up until now. {Sleep is necessary} to free ourselves of yesterday’s constraints and build a new, recreated self.”

I’ll close here with an apocryphal tale that you can take for what it’s worth. It addresses both the spiritual and physiological rationales of sleep. At an alleged 2008 international conference of neurologists, the main topic was the phenomenon of fainting when arising from sleep. A British professor presented a paper on her investigation of this issue, concluding that fainting is due to the rapid motion occurring between laying down and standing up. She pointed out that it takes twelve seconds for blood to reach the brain from our feet and when we stand up too quickly, that process is compromised causing one to faint. The professor suggested that one should sit up slowly, counting to twelve to avoid dizziness or fainting.

Her presentation was being received amidst much enthusiasm when another professor, an observant Jew, requested permission to speak. “Among Jews,” he began, “there is a traditional prayer called the Modeh Ani with which we express our thanks to the Creator of the World for permitting us to wake from sleep healthy and whole. It is recited while seated in bed immediately upon awakening. This prayer contains twelve words which takes exactly twelve seconds to say when done slowly and with sincerity.” The time, the audience’s enthusiastic response was quite likely directed at the Creator of the World…

 

Between The Lines: A Conversation Both Holy And Profane

February 11, 2013

Imaginarius-2013-Mishpatim

When we are told a story, whether true or fictional, we hear and feel it in the words and body language of the speaker.  Yet even as the experience provokes a direct reaction, we may be thinking of how we can share it with others. Except for people with eidetic memory skills, a story is rarely remembered verbatim. Rather, it is verbally and physically paraphrased to fit the recipient and the circumstances of its retelling.

Whenever I read last week’s Parashah Yitro and the current Parashah Mispatim, in which Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, it is difficult not to picture these scenes as portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1954 film of The Ten Commandments. Having seen the film’s premiere as an impressionable child, I barely appreciated the enormous implications of that divine event beyond the ‘silver screen’ until many years later. When the heavenly fireworks that accompany the giving of the Torah terrifies everyone gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai and Moses ascends to the summit to accept it as an intermediary for his people, the idea that Moses was to make this vast trove of information accessible to them in a language and form they could comprehend was stunning.

There has been much speculation as to the form of that divine transmission, from questions concerning the original ‘language’ to the method of delivery to the mental and physical qualities that distinguished Moses for this task. Popular writers and university scholars have collaborated and done well promoting the idea of ‘bible codes’, prophetic information encoded in strings of letters. Yet, scintillating as this notion is, solid proof remains elusive. And perhaps it should be, if faith is to flourish in the face of scientific scrutiny.

Considering Moses’ pivotal role in this dramatic narrative, a few questions arise. Was Moses chosen for this task because of a natural ability for opening his mind and heart to this divine body of knowledge, or were these qualities acquired from his early experience as a prince of Egypt and subsequent discovery of his true identity as an adult? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but until someone invents time travel, these arguments remain philosophical conjecture. From a slightly different perspective, I like to imagine that Moses’ ability to receive G-d’s transmission is a metaphor of ‘tzimtzum’, G-d’s contraction of His Essence, permitting Creation to occur from the dark void. My logic may be fuzzy, but when Moses becomes instrumental in the creation of the nation of Israel out of a nation of slaves, he seems to mirror that ‘tzimtzum’ on a micro-level.

Designing the illustrations to embody these ideas for my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), brought me to a major contextual impasse. Representing G-d in any form is prohibited in the second commandment, but I intended no offense when I drew upon the kabbalistic idea that Hidden One may only be perceived behind an ethereal mask. I imagined Him emerging from between veils of light and darkness with the intention of letting Himself be known to us, but shielding us from a force that we, in our frail forms could not endure ‘face to face’. Consequently, in the illustration above, I have portrayed Moses as a sofer, a Torah scribe in an intimate conversation with G-d through His Mask*. Wielding a reed pen, Moses is writing the word ‘Amalek’ a great enemy of Israel, then crossing it out three times. This part of the transcription process has since become the traditional first step a Torah scribe takes when beginning to write a new scroll. In this way we are meant to understand our history; to do good and not evil.

And now we understand that Moses is also more than just an ‘envelope’, so to speak, for the divine message. As ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’, Moses our teacher, he has becomes a timeless example of how the we and the Torah must become one in both spirit and practice.

*A more detailed explanation of the four-pronged letter ‘shin’ is found in the AfterImages section of my book on pp. 148-149

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com

Parashat Bo: The Masks Of Light And Darkness

January 24, 2013

Exodus-Bo1AS I reflected on Bo, this past week’s parashah in The Book of Exodus, its lurid descriptions of the final three plagues inflicted on the Egyptians (locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians) caused me to wonder about our perception of the nature of good and evil. When we blithely attribute occurrences of good or evil to forces beyond ourselves and therefore beyond our control, are we forgetting our innate capability to influence them from our miniscule place in the tapestry of humanity?

The creation stories of each major religion maintain that we are modeled after One Who ’embodies’ good and evil among myriad other attributes and has called us into existence. If so, then we too are creatures that embody these attributes to some lesser degree. And if we accept this idea, then we must shoulder our part of this great responsibility. We cannot entirely shifted it onto our Creator without denying the autonomy of free choice, a trope hotly debated, but never resolved over the centuries by religious scholars.

When I first read the phrase in which G-d tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount to your sons and to your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”, I was cynically inclined to see the players in this epic drama as pathetic puppets whose human frailties were being manipulated by unseen forces as an end to their own means. Was this part of some vast cosmic game played by said entity (ies) for their own amusement? If so, then who was playing whom’? Could the players in the epic drama of the Exodus be archetypes meant to teach us that we and the ‘One’ mirror each other?

Or, were these events but a series of horrific natural phenomena occurring within the Earth’s evolving biosphere as scientific researchers have attempted to demonstrate? Are the scientific and religious interpretations (as cause and effect punishments for human misbehavior) of these natural phenomena mutually exclusive? What a classic illustration of  ‘right brain vs. left brain’ thinking!

Given our distant remove from these events and the effects of diaspora living, perhaps the above questions are clues to their own answers. If we believe that ‘the devil made me do it’ excuses evil behavior or if we insist that we are but victims of natural disasters, then our human frailties can become excuses for despair and inaction. In which case, we are denying our true capabilities as the ‘crown of creation’ and stewards of this planet as evidenced by the plethora of blogs out there.

In sum, I prefer to think that both sides are a kind of duality; dependent on their discrete functions to validate each other. In the way that we wouldn’t understand the properties of good and evil if they didn’t exist to define each other.  So, I’m inclined to believe that if the story of Moses’ righteous deeds and Pharaoh’s intractable stubbornness was intended to inform the metaphorical book of our spiritual and cultural development, then we ought not stop at any of these interpretations. The mystery of it all is too vast to comprehend in thousands of lifetimes, but each lifetime grants us more clues to its solution.

Our sages agree that Torah is to be viewed as the blueprint of creation, its stories as instructions for living with each other on this planet. And as we continue to interpret the dualities (multiplicities) embedded in its intricate diagrams, we will comprehend more of how they apply to us individually and as a nation. And in this evolving understanding of our humanity and spiritual mandate will the true nature of our power be made clear.

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.

“A Cord Of Blue…”

June 15, 2012

Though Parashah Shelakh-Lekha in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) is memorable for its dramatic account of Joshua, Caleb and the group of ‘spies’ sent to scope out the land of Canaan, its final verse (16:37) is the take-away message that will inform the identity of the Jewish people for generations to come. The message appears in the quotation within the illustration above, titled A Foundation Of Faith. It and the interpretation that follows have been adapted from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)*

The title refers to the Even ha-Shetiyyah, or the mythical Foundation Stone upon which the world was created. Diverse legends describe this immense stone and its origins. There is an eye at its center to indicate the presence of God within every aspect of Creation. Poised on the stone is man wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin engaged in prayer. The tallit prominently features the knotted fringes at the four corners of the garment, which the man has gathered together. Each fringe contains a cord of blue as a daily reminder of the bondage in Egypt and the instructions to observe all of God’s commandments. The tefillin are two small black lacquered boxes containing passages of Torah with black straps attached to them. One box, worn on the head bears a four-pronged letter shin. The other is placed on the left arm, near the heart. The straps are wrapped around the left arm and hand so as to form the Name of God. Suspended above the man’s hands is the letter aleph, whose description by the magic realist writer Jorge Luis Borges  inspired its inclusion here. “ In the Kabbala, that letter stands for the Eyn Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher world…”

 Above the figure is a tiny Murex trunculus snail, the origin of the famed blue dye called techeilet. Known as the chilazon in Hebrew this boneless invertebrate was found on the coast of Northern Israel and ancient Phoenicia and its secretions processed at dyeworks in Tyre. Behind the figure is a compass motif inspired by a medallion that illuminates the Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides’ classic work, Guide To The Perplexed. As the Foundation Stone supports the ‘four corners’ of the world, the cardinal points on the compass guide the two figures representing Jews around the world towards the observances of their faith. Though the Sabbath occurs each week, its potential to remind us of what we’ve forgotten while offering us new understanding are timeless.

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

For Shavuot: An Antidote For Apathy

May 25, 2012

Despite my conviction that works of art and literature, always contain the potential to become a work in progress, I am invariably surprised to find proof of this continual process of awakening and learning. Tomorrow, as we begin the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar), it is nearly three years after the publication of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). Though I created illustrations for Parashat BaMidbar based on narrative with some artistic license, I recently wondered why Parashah BaMidbar (In The Desert) was designated as the Torah reading on the festival of Shavuot when it opens on the census of Israel, and focuses on tribal positions around the Tabernacle along with the rules regarding service of the Levite priestly class rather than the actual receiving of the Law from Mt. Sinai.

The parashah states, “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai” (BaMidbar 1:1),for which the Midrash (BaMidbar Rabba 1:7)offered this metaphorical explanation: “Our Sages have inferred… that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and desert” (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7). Though I am aware of the concept of mystical, elemental underpinnings within the desert sojourn, a 2010 commentary by Rabbi David Pinto, ShLIT”A provided some further clarification:”It may be that by this teaching, the Sages wanted to show man that he can only safeguard his learning and resist the evil inclination, which seeks to control him every day, by means of the Torah which possesses these three characteristics. As our Sages have said, “I created the evil inclination, but I created the Torah as its antidote.” (Kiddushin 30b). “Since the evil inclination is made of fire,…a person can only resist
it by the power of Torah, which is compared to fire… The evil inclination is like a small fire that anything can extinguish, and the Torah is a blazing fire that never goes out…thus the fire of the evil inclination is consumed by the fire of the Torah…In order for a person not to grow proud on account of the fire of the Torah, he must humble himself and resemble water. (Ruth Zutah 1). This is why the Sages instituted the reading of Parsha Bamidbar prior to Shavuot. It is in order to remind us that the Torah only endures in us when we metaphorically transform into a desert (perhaps a receptacle) for G-d’s will.”

Wow. I guess that’s about as close as we’ll come to a ‘user’s manual’ for the Torah, whose full meaning and that of the events surrounding its debut will (hopefully) continue to be interpreted for many generations to come. Whether or not you agree with these ideas, apathy is not an option…

On Hanukkah: Miracles Big & Small

December 19, 2011

I was recently honored by an invitation from Pomegranate Communications, the publisher of my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary(2009) to contribute a post on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which begins tomorrow evening , December 20/24 Kislev, 5772 at sundown. I’ve re-posted it here:

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 On Hanukkah: Miracles Big and Small

Friday, December 16, 2011

We are pleased to welcome guest blogger Ilene Winn-Lederer, artist, illustrator, and author of Between Heaven and Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary. In today’s post she provides a brief history of Hanukkah and explains the symbolism of the menorah. Hanukkah begins this year at sunset on December 20.

The holiday of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, commemorates the historical events that showed the Jewish people’s resilience during the enforced prohibition of their faith and religious culture.

In the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the story begins in 175 BC, when Judea, then part of the Syrian Seleucid Empire under the benevolent rule of King Antiochus III, was invaded by the armies of his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, goaded by special interests dedicated to imposing Greek culture on the Jews.

After the invasion that resulted in the looting and desecration of the Second Temple at Jerusalem, all practices associated with Judaism were outlawed.

One legend relates how children of that era, forbidden to study Torah, would go out to the gardens or fields with their study materials and toy dreidels, or wooden spinning tops. If they were confronted by soldiers who accused them of religious study, they innocently spun their dreidels as a decoy. Below is an illustration of this legend:

In 167 BC, when Antiochus IV installed an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the Temple, he provoked the bloody Maccabean revolt for Jewish independence. The leaders of this rebellion were Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah, who later became known as Judah the Hammer (Judah Maccabee). After the death of his father in 166 BC, Judah inherited the mantle of leadership and under his watch, in 165 BC, the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was completed.

The Temple was then rededicated with a new altar, a restored menorah (candelabrum), and new holy vessels required for proper religious observance. According to Jewish law, the lights of the menorah must be tended for continuous illumination. The Talmud (a core text of Judaism) explains that after the Temple was desecrated, only enough pure (undesecrated) olive oil remained to keep the menorah’s eternal flame burning for one day.

Miraculously, however, the oil continued to burn for eight days, allowing sufficient time for a new supply to be obtained. The holiday is observed by lighting an additional candle on each of eight nights, recalling the time the oil remained alight in the Temple. Outside of Israel, this miracle is recalled by four Hebrew letters traditionally written or carved on the dreidels we use today. The letters nes, gadol, hayah, and sham stand for “A great miracle was there.” Inside Israel, the dreidels carry the letter po instead of sham, meaning, “A great miracle was here.”

The Talmud also states (in Menachot 28b) that the Jerusalem menorah, which has seven branches, may not be used outside the Temple.

So the menorahs used for Hanukkah observance are called hanukiya. They have eight branches plus a ninth (called the shamash or servant), set off from the others, that is used for lighting them.

In Between Heaven and Earth, Ilene Winn-Lederer illustrates the Torah reading preceding Hanukkah, Parashah VaYeishev from the Book of Genesis. Her commentary in the AfterImages portion of the book about this illustration provides further insight into the structure of the menorah and its symbolism.

The steadfast spirit of Hanukkah is also reflected in the preceding weekly Torah portion, Parashah VaYeishev, found in the Book of Genesis. It recounts the story of Joseph and his brothers, sons of the patriarch Jacob, his two wives Leah and Rachel and their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah. Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son, was the offspring of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. He flaunted his intelligence and prophetic abilities, and his father prized him above all of his other children. Great dislike and jealousy festered among Joseph’s brothers, who plotted to kidnap Joseph and murder him. Whether or not they wished to claim his portion of their father’s inheritance is not clear. Though he was cast into a pit full of snakes and scorpions, the young man survived, setting into motion the story of his journey to Egypt. Initially sold into slavery by unscrupulous captors passing the pit, Joseph was able to use his skill at dream interpretation to rise from servant of the palace guard captain Potiphar to become Pharaoh’s grand vizier, credited with saving Egypt from dire famine. The story continues on the Sabbath of Hanukkah when parashat Miketz is read.

Joseph’s subsequent reunion with his father and brothers, detailed next week in parashat VaYiggash dramatically illustrates the workings of divine providence. I will post an illustration next Monday for that reading.

Finally, if we posit a common thread tying the stories of Hanukkah and these parashiyot together, it might be the dual natures of blessings and adversity, where each occurrence is seeded with the other so that the outcome often manifests as a miracle, teaching us to appreciate the importance of both.