Posts Tagged ‘blessing’

Eden’s Edible Blessings

July 1, 2014

BlessingForFruit+Vegetables8Although we are told in Genesis/Bereshit (1:29) that “God said {to Adam}, “Behold, I have given you every seedbearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit. It shall be to you for food,” no specific varieties of fruits or vegetables are named. Not even those on the Trees of Life and Knowledge whose fruit was off-limits for human consumption. Legend suggests that the Tree of Life bore every type of fruit necessary to maintain health and immortality but did not indicate whether these properties were the benefits of one type of fruit or many. Similarly, the mysterious fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was said to provide the sort of self-awareness that led to human mortality.

Legend* relates that Adam was named ‘Adamah’ (Hebrew for Earth) because he was made of the dust gathered from the four corners of the world. His naming seems ironic because if this proto-human was constructed to be welcomed at any place on Earth where his death would occur, did G-d know His creation better that we suspect and that expulsion from Eden was inevitable? These concepts are painted with an unimaginably broad brush opening the way to endless interpretation and speculation.

Nevertheless, Adam was considered the ‘crown’ of Creation and was appointed caretaker of the world, with a caveat; that he must be utterly dependent on it for his basic needs. So, as fruit trees and edible plants serve those needs, they become a metaphor of our relationship with our environment.

It is probably safe to venture that the fruits and vegetables we eat today are not wildly different from the those in the Garden of Eden with the the exception of our cleverly cultivated hybrids; the results of our scientific manipulation of those original species. We may have paid a terrible price for our knowledge, yet we have prevailed and, over the centuries, created taxonomies for naming them while making astonishing discoveries of both their nutritive and medicinal value for our bodies.

So what does this have to do blessings? Nothing if you are a strict evidence-based rationalist, believing that all life on earth evolved of its own unscripted volition and that we are so intelligent that we’ve figured out how to use it to our advantage. But if, by acknowledging the divine source of our intelligence behind the beautifully intricate design and purpose of each fruit of the tree or ground that we consume, then reciting a blessing for these creations is surely in order.** Particularly if we consider that such foods exercise our senses of sight, smell and taste, helping to provide our souls with healthy habitats.

As a child, I existed pretty much as a creature of instinct and need, unaware of the many ways by which we can acknowledge and understand our lives. Most of us, I suspect, still do so. Especially in a country such as ours, where religion has become a power tool, abundance is easily taken for granted, time represents money and we are deluded enough to imagine we will live forever.

But as I slowly realized all the ways we can choose to enhance and maintain ourselves even as we understand our physical limits, I now prefer to stop and think before taking that first bite of apple or tomato and murmur a little thanks to our Source for our partnership that makes it all possible.

These concepts and sentiments formed my decision to include the blessing for fruits of the tree and ground as #34 of 36 in An Illumination Of Blessings.

For this illustration, the choice from among the myriad fruits and vegetables available to us was quite difficult, especially knowing that I needed to include representatives of both tree and ground. As an artist, I limited my choices to those whose shapes and colors were visually harmonious or, as Eve/Chava put it, ‘pleasing to the eye’. These were designed and placed to form an intricate border around the blessings. Tiny versions of several of them serve to enhance the initial letters of each blessing. Finally, I’ve placed everything against a black background of ‘earth’ from which all originates and is renewed.

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards 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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* The Creation Of Adam from Legends of the Bible: Louis Ginzburg, p. 28

**For a tree-borne fruit to receive the ‘Ha-Etz’ blessing, it must come from a perennial tree that doesn’t renew its stem or grow too close to the ground, such as apples, figs, dates and plums. Fruits of the ground that receive the ‘Ha-Adamah’ blessing include all vegetables, legumes, pleanuts and any fruit that is not covered by the Ha-Etz blessing such as melons, bananas, pineapples and strawberries.

Beholding Beauty : A Blessing Of Appreciation

June 25, 2014

BlessingForBeautifulBirds+TreesRGBBeauty is in the eye of the beholder,” goes the old cliché, but it is a quick sound bite at best because it doesn’t attempt to define beauty nor does it offer insight into alternative, more subtle perspectives.

At first glance, this blessing recited upon seeing something beautiful in our world seems ‘sound-bit-ish’ and similar to the one recited on encountering a fragrant tree. Both are found in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot, 58b) and both express appreciation to our Creator for the gifts of Creation and of our five senses. The latter focuses exclusively on the sight and smell of certain trees while the former also recognizes trees, but includes the singular esthetic beauty of humans, birds and animals that we acknowledge with our senses of sound, touch and taste. Together, they serve to enhance perception of our environment and help us to connect with our divine origins.

The words of the blessing seem simple enough, however the concept of beauty in life is anything but. So how does an artist begin to choose which elements will represent the depths of meaning inherent in this blessing? I knew that I needed to portray some sort of tree along with a person, animal or bird, though I didn’t know which of these I would choose or why.

Of all my references, the Torah and its associated collections of commentary from across the  centuries have never failed me, even on quests that are secular in nature.

As I thought about what sort of tree to illustrate for this blessing on natural phenomena, I remembered a midrash on the Book of Genesis concerning the mysterious Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The former bore fruit which kept Adam and Eve healthy and immortal while the fruit of the latter was forbidden to the first couple for reasons not explained. Perhaps this was the model for the inscrutable mitzvot known as ‘chukkim’? These are a category of commandments which are to be followed without question as a test of our obedience and respect for our Creator.

Inevitably, mysteries invite speculation. This midrash suggests why no one knows what types of trees they were. Despite the arguments of medieval churchmen, scholars and artists that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree (which did not exist in the Middle East at that time), many other species have joined the fray with inventive justifications; wheat, pomegranate, quince, St. John’s Bread (carob) and date palms, even grapevines and fig trees. These justifications are too numerous to list here but can be found in B’reishit Rabbah, a book of commentary on Genesis*.

The commentary concluded that since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge against the prohibition and precipitated their disastrous expulsion from the Garden of Eden, its species would always remain unknown to honor its innocence in bringing death to the world and to prevent its extinction from Earth’s biosphere.

Although the nature of the Tree of Life also remains unknown (except as a metaphor of Torah wisdom), Rabbi Abba of Acre** offers the etrog (citrus medica) as a likely candidate. He suggests that Eve found the wood of the etrog tree edible (Genesis 3:6). Later authorities such as Rabbi Abahu*** translate the word etrog as ‘ha-dar’ or that which dwells, because its fruit, in both young and old phases remains on the tree through all seasons.**** The ‘pri etz hadar’ or fruit of the beautiful tree is described in the book of Leviticus (23:40) and though it originated in India, it has been cultivated in ancient Judea for more than 2000 years.

In common use, the word ‘ha-dar’ comes from the Aramaic language and means ‘beautiful’. Because an etrog is the only fruit that tastes like its tree, both are considered beautiful. The fruit is said to symbolize the human heart as it represents a person who is able to internalize scholarship and also perform good deeds (mitzvot). There was much more commentary on the etrog, but at this point, the etrog tree became my obvious choice for this illustration. In this interpretation, I’ve given my virtual Etz Chayim 22 etrogim, symbolizing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which, according to Kabbalah, are the building blocks of Creation.

For my representative choice of beautiful birds, the commentaries on this blessing offered the fine examples of peacocks and parrots because these species are unique  for their graceful forms and beautiful colors. I arbitrarily added the cockatoo, a distant cousin of the parrot once known as the crested parrot, for compositional balance and simply because I love to draw them! To complete my illustration, I’ve prefaced the blessings English and Hebrew calligraphy with initial caps constructed from macaw parrot and peacock feathers respectively.

If this blessing and my visual interpretation of it put you on the path of marveling daily at the world around us and expressing your appreciation of it’s myriad gifts, then perhaps I’ve begun to meet my own purpose in this effort. Thanks for staying with me; the book is becoming more of a reality with each post!

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards 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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*B’reishit Rabbah 15:7, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, ed., Hayim Nahman Bialik, Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) pp. 21–2


** Abba bar Acre was a 3rd century Palestinian ‘amora’ (commentator on the Oral Torah).

*** Rabbi Abahu was a 2nd generation ‘amora’ living in Caesarea, a major influence on ethics, philosophy and religion. http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/2443094/jewish/The-Singular-Tree.htm/mobile/false https://sites.google.com/site/rabbiabahu/stories-and-biographical-info

**** http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/746603/jewish/Why-cant-I-use-a-lemon.htm/mobile/false

A Rainbow Of Blessings

June 1, 2014

RainbowBlessingWhen the shadow of a rainstorm has passed and we are able to witness a rainbow illuminating our corner of the world, the most common association of this phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian tradition is with the legend of Noah’s Ark. Schoolchildren are routinely taught that a rainbow symbolizes divine forgiveness for human global corruption and the divine promise to never allow another cataclysmic flood to wipe out nearly all of the life on this planet.

Since that anti-diluvian era, every culture has created their own idea of the rainbow, endowing it with backstories and attributes that range from magical to mundane. Scholars, musicians, artists and poets have made much of those characteristics as have social activists, employing rainbow colors to promote their agendas of social change through racial, gender and sexual equality.

As I considered how to illustrate the idea of a rainbow for this blessing, I recalled a wonderful tertiary (triple) rainbow that I had seen over the east end of Pittsburgh in the late 1990’s. Its three overlapping arches stretched from Squirrel Hill to perhaps somewhere beyond the North Hills, but of course that endpoint remains a mystery. Regretfully, that was before the convenience of iPhone cameras that could easily record it. Nevertheless, I still remember that it appeared in a sky of an unusual grey-green color which made it seem so much brighter.

Suspended in the majesty of that moment, I didn’t care that science views the colors of the rainbow as wavelengths of light traveling at particular frequencies or that their visibility depends on our vantage point relative to the sun’s position and the presence of sufficient raindrops to refract and reflect its light. Even Sir Isaac Newton’s decision in 1672 to divide the spectrum into seven colors seemed frivolous, especially since it was based on the ancient Greek philosophy positing a connection between the colors, the musical notes, the days of the week and the seven planets in our solar system that were known at the time. From my perspective, that rainbow just seemed too magical for such mundane explanations. And so I began to look into the more subtle interpretations that have found their way into our collective understanding; which made thinking about rainbows in terms of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism more appealing.

Sifting through my reference collection, I listened to the voices of sages and scholars through the centuries absorbing their complex commentaries on Bereshit/Genesis. Among these were citations in the Talmud (Hagigah 16a) and in the Zohar (1:71b) which state that one who gazes too intently at the rainbow will compromise his eyesight. Though several opinions are given for this consequence, I found the rainbow’s connection with Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot (merkabah) most intriguing: ‘Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face…”*

I understood these comments as warnings to remain humble in the presence of holiness which further readings alluded to the presence of Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of the Divine. She is the accessible intermediary for Its sefirot** whose many symbolic attributes include their colors which correspond to our perception of the rainbow.

Then there were often fanciful folktales stemming from commentaries on the Book of Genesis whose narratives were both cautionary and poetic. Louis Ginsberg, in his Legends of the Bible, lists the rainbow as one of the ten extraordinary things*** that came into being in the twilight of Creation, although it was not meant to be seen until the time of Noah when the dual concepts of justice and mercy were introduced as the Divine remedy for transgression and repentance.

Such stories suggested to me that the Torah is in itself a rainbow whose colors reflect our spiritual character and mandate, and second, that we, as imaginative creatures, ever curious about who and why we are, can assign whatever significance we wish to any of the natural phenomena that occur on this planet.

On the tail of these thoughts, the image of a tallit flashed in my mind’s eye. I recalled from my studies that the tallit, worn during prayer is often compared to Divine wings which protect us via G-d’s love and commandments. Also, in Jewish tradition a bird is the metaphor of the Shekhinah who comforts and protects Israel during the centuries of exile. Though I do not yet wear one, I liked the idea of being wrapped in a tallit to evoke Shekhinah since it lends credence to the recognition of the sacred feminine.

I then began to wonder about the stripes of a tallit, or prayer shawl and whether they might serve as a rainbow metaphor, even though they are traditionally black in color. As an artist, I knew that theoretically, the color black contains all the colors, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. But then, I came upon a story that Rabbi Zalman Schacter- Shalomi tells in his book, My Life In Jewish Renewal (Rowman & Littlefield, September, 2012) when he explains the significance of his specially made rainbow tallit. His intention was to wear a physical meme as a reminder of Creation and complexity of our world in the light of G -d’s unity.

Eventually, these concepts and my memory of that tertiary rainbow crystallized in my imagination and led to the imagery which accompanies this blessing for the rainbow.

And so, I decided the Shekhinah would be the focus of my illustration. Although I have often interpreted her in my works, the potential iterations for doing so are limited only by imagination. Here she is wearing a crown of feathers (to mirror the bird metaphor) and is embraced by her rainbow tallit. Its colors symbolize the days of Creation. My Shekhinah also balances a crystal revealing the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) to represent the constant physical manifestations of Creation under divine auspices. Her cloven-hoofed ‘feet’ are a fanciful interpretation that is also drawn from Ezekiel’s vision.

If what we imagine gives us comfort, fosters doubt or amuses us, we can also learn how important it is to keep wondering and embellishing these ideas for generations to come.

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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 the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards 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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*Ezekiel 1:29

** divine energies that form and influence our fundamental reality and the spiritual state of our souls

***In the twilight, between the sixth day and the Sabbath, ten creations were, brought forth: the rainbow, invisible until Noah’s time; the manna; water springs, whence Israel drew water for his thirst in the desert; the writing upon the two tables of stone given at Sinai; the pen with which the writing was written; the two tables themselves; the mouth of Balaam’s she-ass; the grave of Moses; the cave in which Moses and Elijah dwelt; and the rod of Aaron, with its blossoms and its ripe almonds.” -Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible p.44

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

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

Breath, Bath & Beyond…

February 25, 2014

Image

 Although I had listened to tales of mikveh experiences from my mother and others, the idea of ritual immersion meant little to me until my first visit to Israel with my husband in 1974. On our tour of the 1st century CE fortress of Masada, we explored the once-luxurious remains of King Herod’s palace which included a mikveh, or ritual bath. Peering into its now dry depths, I imagined being in the footsteps of my ancient ancestors and hearing echoes of their struggles for spiritual cleansing, closeness with G-d and a measure of sanity in those stress-laden times. This grand complex was later taken over as the desert outpost by a community of Jewish zealots in their rebellion against the Roman rule of Jerusalem. Here is how the mikveh appears today:Image

The Masada tour motivated my curiosity to learn more about how the ritual was carried out and why. It also inspired an an aquatint etching called ‘Mikveh’ that was one of four images in my 1975 ‘The Rituals Of Atonement’ series:Image

But the opportunity for in-depth research into this subject did not assert itself until 2013 when I began An Illumination Of Blessings, this Kickstarter project. Even though my personal background to date did not include the religious or social impetus to actually visit a mikveh, I learned that the ritual of immersion (tevillah) is one of three essential (mitzvot) commandments reserved for women* and decided to include it in this collection.

In brief, the mikveh, which literally means a collection of water in Hebrew, is more than a pool of water. According to Tractate Mikva’ot in the Mishnah (the 2nd century CE codification of the Oral Torah), it must be a bath designed with specific dimensions and capacity to hold water that is stationary but which originates from a flowing natural source (a lake, ocean or rainwater) to permit ritual and spiritual purification. At the links below, there are a number of articles detailing the history of the mikveh and the legal (halakhic) requirements for its use.

Today, despite the long and often painful history of Judaism, immersion in a mikveh remains a viable practice among observant Jewish men and women. Many modern mikvaot, while adhering to those classic dimensions, also exhibit an awareness of the necessity for religious and spiritual continuity. These have been designed to resemble stylish, well-appointed spas such as the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh in Newton, MA.

The setting of my illustration, an early 20th century mikveh in Israel whose water can be seen flowing into it from the passageway beneath the stairs, was inspired by a beautifully made 1997 film called “Women” directed by Michal Bat Adam and Moshe Mizrahi. Here I have shown a young woman with two attendants who are required to observe her immersion and ensure that it is done properly. Three stars, seen through the tiny window in the background signal the onset of the Sabbath, a traditional time for this ritual. Usually a sign displaying the immersion blessings is posted near the pool but with a bit of artistic license, I incorporated the words into the water itself suggesting that like water, our history has been mercurial, yet the consequences and benefits of using it mindfully are eternal.

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*in addition to lighting the Sabbath candles and separating the challah. Today “challah” refers to the bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Originally “challah” referred to the small piece of dough that was set aside for the kohen (priest) when making bread (Numbers 15:20). Today Jewish women bless, separate and burn a small piece of dough when making bread in remembrance of the portion given to God (through the Temple priests) in ancient times. This ritual reminds us that sustenance ultimately comes from God and transforms baking bread into a spiritual act. 

Links: 

http://judaism.about.com/cs/women/ht/challah_sep.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/mikveh.html

A Blessing For A New Life

February 8, 2014

ImageThe arrival of a new baby universally inspires joyful celebrations for the parents and community with festivities unique to every ethnicity and religion. In addition to an array of rituals and special foods, these festivities are marked by prayers and blessings offered to The Source of Life for the divine protection, good health and honor of this child.

However, because the essence of these events is the wondrous fact of a new life; an entirely new world of hopes and dreams, in the form of a tiny human being, I wanted to illuminate this blessing for a new baby to emphasize this idea alone. This would mean limiting my choices of traditional Jewish iconography that normally characterize my work. Since this cultural iconography often contains wonderful folkloric themes such as fanciful astrological imagery to promote ‘mazal tov’ or good luck, this was quite a challenge for me as an illustrator; I am accustomed to crafting my images with much narrative detail.*

Nevertheless, I determined that in addition to the sleeping newborn child and colorful daffodils (which signify rebirth and new beginnings), I would limit my choice of iconography to the wimpel (or vimpel). This is a banner-like length of cloth that is wrapped and tied to secure the Torah scroll.

According to Philologos writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, “it is a tradition that began in late medieval times in the Rhineland city of Mainz, where the rabbi was then the renowned Ya’akov Segal (1360–1427). One Sabbath, so the story goes, a circumcision was under way in Mainz’s synagogue, when it was discovered that the mohel (an individual especially trained to perform this ritual)had forgotten to bring a diaper in which to wrap the newly circumcised child. Inasmuch as carrying was forbidden to pious Jews on the Sabbath, there could be no question of sending anyone to fetch one — and so the rabbi ordered the child swaddled in an avnet that was removed from a Torah scroll. Afterward, when asked if it could be laundered and used as an avnet again, he ruled that it could be, inasmuch as it had not been profaned but had merely gone from one sacred use to another. In memory of the event, the Jews of Mainz took to donating the swaddling cloths from their circumcisions for avnetim, which they called Wimpel (the German plural is the same as the singular).” Instead of the customary decorative imagery applied to wimpels by families who donate them to the synagogue, mine simply displays two Hebrew prayers, one traditional and one modern.

Independent of its ethnicity or religious identity, the birth of a child begins a new page in the story of humanity. With this child, we have a new window into the mind and heart of the One whose children we will always be and Who will always cherish us.

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*In my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), both the brit milah (circumcision for male children) and the pidyon-ha-ben (redemption of the firstborn son of descendants of the Tribe of Levi) were presented in detail. (I did not present the brit bat ceremony for the birth of a daughter in this context because these celebrations were developed in post-modern times, long after the writing of the Torah.)

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

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Last week, after completing the blessing for installing a mezuzah, I decided to follow it with the traditional blessing for the home, the Birkat HaBayit. This brief blessing is usually found on decorative plaques or hand-shaped hamsas (amulets) near the entrance to Jewish houses worldwide. It is meant to drive evil spirits (negative emotional projections) from the house and to protect the individuals residing in it. Such items are often given as gifts to one who has just moved into a new house.

Since the text of this blessing is commonly presented on a ceramic tile or other surface enhanced only by pleasant floral or geometric decorations, I wanted my interpretation to be something more; to reflect additional levels of meaning in the text.

In the initial research phase of my illustrations, I often leaf through my collections of aphorisms and quotations for my first clues in understanding the subject of my work and the direction I will take to develop it. These comments are never interpreted literally; they only serve as metaphorical touchstones, suggesting levels of meaning in that subject which invite visual interpretation.

So I turned to the Book of Proverbs which told me: “A house is built by wisdom and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things.” -24:3

Ok, I thought, that’s a powerful idea; but do these qualities also define a ‘home’? Generally speaking, yes. But having visited the homes of many friends and acquaintances around the world, each with its unique flavor and ambiance, I’ve learned that the difference between a house and a home is subtle, yet tangible.

Beyond its physical structure and plain or beautiful interior surroundings, a house that can be called a home glows with an aura of peace, laughter and love. These qualities color its walls, furnishings and inhabitants in a way no skilled decorator can truly emulate.

The desire for a home of one’s own is universal to all species on this planet from the ant to the elephant. It’s first cultural documentation among humanity quite likely originated in the tale of Adam and Eve whose first ‘home’ was the Garden of Eden, the womb of our world, so to speak. Even as the story relates their shock and fear upon exile from this holy place, the budding comprehension of their newly bestowed mortality soon becomes the powerful desire for shelter and stability in the chaotic world beyond Paradise.

Though the Torah offers many other examples of our developing survival instinct from Noah’s post-diluvian resettlement to the long quest for a Jewish homeland, one of the most picturesque appears in in the Book of Exodus (Shemot Parashat T’rumah 25:8-9). Here, G-d requests that Moses establish a sanctuary of a very specific design for the Divine Presence in the earthly realm so that “I may dwell among them (you).” It would seem that even the Source of all Life has need for a place to call ‘home’!

After much consideration, I decided to model the house in this illustration as an idealized amalgam of residential architecture drawn from several areas around Jerusalem because it is the spiritual home for so many of us.

The pomegranate and etrog (citron) trees flanking the doorway are metaphors of beauty, good health, fertility and mitzvot or good deeds that one would wish for the residents of the house. A midrash or commentary suggests that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, a number equivalent to the categories of mitzvot incumbent upon us to perform in our lifetimes. The etrog, one of the four species honored on the holiday of Sukkot, symbolizes our connection to G-d through our hearts.

The cypress trees and the doves are symbols of sacrifice, but rather than the sacrifice attributed to religious ritual, mourning or death, I included them because sacrifices must be made on many levels by all within a household to insure peace and stability.

The fish-shaped mezuzot on the doorpost and near the text symbolize blessing and abundance as drawn from the verse in Genesis (Bereshit 48:16), “And they shall multiply like fish in the midst of the earth.”

The Hebrew letter bet is included in this illustration for several reasons. First, its original form in the proto-Semitic languages of the Middle Bronze Age resembled a tent-like shelter or ‘house’. Second, it begins the Torah with the word B‘reshit (In the Beginning) and represents the dualities that define Creation (dark, light, good, evil, male, female, etc). Third, bet begins the word ‘baruch’ for blessing. I formed this letter from the leaves and fruit of the fruit trees for the same reasons the trees themselves were included, but also because in a sense, trees were the prototypes of shelter from weather and predators.

Finally, the antique bronze key is shown here because with it we enter the idea that when a house becomes a home, it also becomes a metaphor of memory; a repository of touchstones that connect us to ourselves, to each other and to the larger world beyond our doors.

Mezuzah: A Blessing Between Worlds

December 25, 2013

When we enter or leave a space through a doorway, most of us rarely wonder about the evanescent consequences of doing so. Yet, without considering that doorway as a bridge between worlds, we remain unaware of subtle changes in ourselves with relation to those worlds through the nature of our experiences on either side of it. In that sense, mezuzot (plural of mezuzah), those ubiquitous little boxes (attached to doorposts of traditional Jewish homes to guard them from harm) serve as memory tools for our awareness of these transitions and of the eternal unity of G-d. This tradition has defined the Jewish people since the early Israelites marked their doorways for protection from the tenth plague* during the first Passover in Egypt over three thousand years ago.

Mezuzot are made in various sizes of materials from clay to wood, metal or glass  and are often beautifully crafted works of art. Marked with either the single Hebrew letter shin or with the three Hebrew letters shin, dalet, yud that represent one G-d’s holy names, the box encloses a tiny rolled parchment (klaf) inscribed by a kosher scribe (sofer*) with two verses from the Torah; Deuteronomy (Devarim) 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. These verses are written in 22 equally spaced lines, as are the verses in Torah and tefillin**. This parchment must be placed upright under the Hebrew letters in the box so that the prayer will appear correctly.

When we occupy a new home, a mezuzah is installed on its doorpost. It is held in place at the upper right-hand side tilted toward the inside of the home. But before it is secured to the post, a special blessing is recited, as shown in the illustration above. This procedure is repeated when a mezuzah is installed at each doorway in the home except for the bathroom. Entering and leaving those spaces is then acknowledged with a touch to the mezuzah followed by a brief kiss to the hand that touched it, invoking G-d’s blessing and protection on our comings and goings. It is important to know that over time, the parchment (klaf) may become damaged and so should be periodically examined by a sofer who can repair any broken letters and preserve its effectiveness.

But the protective energies of the mezuzah have not always gone unchallenged in Jewish history. In Talmudic times, mezuzot were attributed with powers to ward off evil spirits, but by the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Kabbalah’s esoteric knowledge, names of various angels and magickal phrases (sometimes accompanied by mystical diagrams) were added to the Torah verses. This latter practice slowly lost momentum when the RamBam (an acronym for the 12th century French Rabbi and Talmudist Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon) asserted that no harm could come of writing Hebrew letters on the outside of the mezuzah case and the prescribed verses within, but those who wrote angelic names or other formulae on the inside would lose their share in The World To Come (Olam Ha-Ba).

So, for this 17th entry in my book An Illumination Of Blessings, the mezuzah in my illustration displays the Hebrew letter shin on the outside and only the Torah verses on the klaf within. For clarity and artistic intent the 22 klaf verses also appear in the background.  The tiny gold pomegranate suspended from the mezuzah signifies abundance and its seeds, said to number 613, represent the categories of mitzvot or the  commandments we are required to fulfill. For decorative purposes only, an equally tiny hand with an apotropaic eye crowns the mezuzah.  This is called a chamsa, inspired by those ancient devices employed to ward off evil throughout the Middle East.

On a personal note, though I’ve always had mezuzot in my home, it was only some years ago during and after a health crisis that I thought to have them checked for damage. Indeed, the sofer informed me, several critical letters had become damaged and the klaf needed to be repaired, a pronouncement that caused chills to run down my spine..

* Death of the Firstborn

*A sofer is a Jewish individual who is educated to transcribe Torah scrolls, **tefillin (two small leather boxes essential for prayer rituals per commandments in Deuteronomy (Devarim)  6:8 and mezuzot. More detailed information may be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofer and at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10774-mezuzah

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…