Posts Tagged ‘commandments’

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

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Acts Of Kindness: States Of Grace?

March 30, 2014

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In our visual media-oriented world, we often encounter posters, bumper stickers or heartwarming newspaper columns that urge us to ‘Perform Random Acts Of Kindness’. When these first began to appear around 1982, it might have been in reaction to the pervasive emphasis on individual needs and rights that characterized the ‘Me Generation’. Even today, with so much news of domestic and political strife reported in that same media, it seems we still haven’t learned how to do so easily.

Isn’t it strange and sad that we should need to be reminded? But given the complex duality of human nature, the need to be reminded is nothing new. Morality stories dominate the Old and New Testaments with the patriarch Abraham most commonly cited as the archetype of kindness for his hospitality to three Angels in human disguise. For this next page in An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially thought to present his story for this blessing, but for the reasons explained below, decided that the tiny tent above the Hebrew text would suffice as a meme for it.

The concept of kindness was later refined and codified in the Book Of Ruth (Megillat Ruth).* Upon being told to return to her people after being widowed, Ruth, a Moabite woman insists on remaining with her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Her statement, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” became the takeaway message that defined love, loyalty and the sincere concern for another human being’s welfare. It also painted Naomi as possibly the best mother-in-law in history!

I decided to illustrate this story not only because it exemplifies our capacity for personal empathy, but because it also references the concept of ‘gleaning’; a mandated** act of kindness towards the entire community of impoverished men, widows and orphans. Gleaning is the practice of allowing these individuals to reap the corners of one’s fields and orchards following the initial harvest. The stone wall (which represents the parameters of a field) behind Ruth and Naomi, the sprigs of barley, olives, figs and grapes are memes for this idea, as are the sheaf of wheat and pomegranate branch in Ruth’s hand. I included the pomegranate here for two reasons. First, because of its association with fertility. In the story, Ruth will enable the continuation of Naomi’s line, becoming great-grandmother of King David. Second, because of its decorative presence throughout Judaic art and history. With its alleged 613 seeds, it serves as a metaphor of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that we are expected to perform throughout our lifetimes. Through performing these mitzvot, often referred to as ‘sparks’ (nitzotzot) we collectively ‘lift them up to light and repair the world’ (tikkun olam).

The additional significant image in my illustration is the small Hebrew letter ‘chet’ (pronounced gutturally) formed by three sheaves of wheat that hovers above and between the two women. This letter is from one of the Hebrew alphabets that I designed in 2012 called ‘Shefa’(abundance) shown below:

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The letter chet begins the words ‘chittah’ (wheat) and chesed which means kindness or benevolence. It suggests the limitless loving-kindness that characterizes G-d and which, by extension, suffuses all of creation. The verse from Pirke Avot 1:2 (Ethics of the Fathers) attributed to the Second century High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon The Righteous) makes this clear: “The world exists through three things: Torah, Avodah (Temple service) and acts of loving kindness.” No matter how small or insignificant these may seem when they occur, each one is ultimately a part of the larger purpose for which we were created.

I am reminded here of the phrase ‘a state of grace’, which in Christian theology denotes an absence of sin in an individual. From my perspective, while Judaism dwells less on sin and redemption than on ‘kavanah’ or intention, this phrase can also describe the ideal, altruistic state of mind surrounding the performance of a mitzvah, an act of loving kindness.

May you be blessed with abundant mindful opportunities to fulfill and receive acts of loving kindness and, if you’ll permit me a bit of wordplay, a ‘taste of grace’.

* found in Ketuvim or the Writings volume of Torah.
** “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus/Vayikra 14:9-10

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

The Seventh Blessing: For Life & Love

September 25, 2013

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The Seven Blessings, or Sheva Brachot are a lovely old tradition, each one recited under the Chuppah (Marriage Canopy) by chosen friends and family at Jewish weddings. The Seven Blessings begin with the blessing over wine (‘pri hagofen’) followed by praise and gratitude to the Source of Life for our creation, for our existence and for our ability to thrive through time. They also address the binding of the couple, wishing them a life of love, joy, peace and friendship from the Biblical perspective; that their union should mirror the happiness of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. Finally, the couple is made aware that as they rejoice in each other, their union will also bring joy to the world . Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests that Jewish weddings reflect the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai symbolizing the wedding of Heaven and Earth.

For the eleventh blessing in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially attempted to work all seven blessings into the illustration, however after further research and several iterations, I came to the conclusion that the seventh blessing really encompasses the other six and is therefore essential. This idea was suggested by an interpretation in Kabbalah which explains how each of the seven blessings corresponds to seven of the sefirot, or the energies that are the foundation of Creation.

Although there are actually ten sefirot, the interpretation posits that the three remaining sefirot do not correspond to their own blessings because two of them, Keter (Crown representing ethereal consciousness) and Chokhmah (representing Wisdom) are contained in the sefirah of Binah (Understanding) and the last one, Malkhut receives all of those above and before it. The Hebrew language in the Seventh Blessing also contains ten words or synonyms for happiness, peace and friendship, all of which lead to joy. In this sense, it corresponds to all ten sefirot as well as the ten phrases by which the world was created and the Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai. These ideas prompted me to place the letter Bet (for Binah) in the space above the Chuppah for these values must guide all that we do. The commentary at the end of the book will provide explanations of the symbols that appear in the illustration.

Shown above is the finished illumination for the Seven Blessings and below is one of the iterations.

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As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

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

An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence

April 19, 2012


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

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

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

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

A Covenant Of Fire

February 11, 2012

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro honors Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite chieftain and an unusual man whose wisdom and generosity were key in shaping the future of the Israelites under his son-in-law’s care.  Acting on his concern for Moses’ health and the well-being of his family, he advised the establishment of a prototype for the timeless judicial system that has been co-opted globally, if not without controversy, remaining in place for nearly 3,000 years. I’ve envisioned Yitro here for reference, but have chosen to focus visually on the larger part of the parashah that encompasses the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. This covenant of fire would become the core event in Jewish history, unsurpassed for its drama and future ramifications for the cultural development of individuals and entire societies.

When the shofar was sounded at Mt. Sinai to summon the Israelites, the volume and duration of its notes was amplified and extended to emphasize the significance of receiving the Law at Sinai. This thought led me to model the shofar after the mystical ram’s horn that binds heaven and earth, heralding the arrival of the Moshiach (The Messiah) the Alef-Tav: the Beginning and End of Days. The shofar is also a vehicle for the ten sephirot that enclose the Ten Commandments and ascribe multiple levels of meaning to each of these ‘Words’ or ‘Utterances’. In addition, the man is bound to his instrument as Isaac was bound to the altar in the Akedah and as we are bound to our genetic inheritance. By enfolding the ten commandments within their corresponding sephirot they have acquired color values that further illustrate the depth of meaning in each of them. The equivalences according to one source, ‘The Gates of Light‘ by medieval Sephardic kabbalist Rabbi Azriel of Gerona are as follows:

1.  You shall have no other gods besides Me                                       Keter                                 white

2.  You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image…              Chokhmah                        composite/all colors

3.  You shall not swear falsely…                                                           Binah                                 yellow/green

4.  Remember the Sabbath Day…                                                        Chesed                               silver/white

5.  Honor your father and your mother…                                         Gevurah                            red/gold

6.  You shall not murder…                                                                     Tiferet                                yellow/violet

7.  You shall not commit adultery…                                                    Netzach                              pale pink

8.  You shall not steal…                                                                          Hod                                     dark pink

9.  You shall not bear false witness…                                                 Yesod                                  orange

10. You shall not covet…                                                                        Malkhut                             blue   

These are deceptively simple ideas and questions still surface in countless interpretations. With the false confidence bestowed by our sophisticated technology, we may often ignore them, feeling beyond the fear of divine reprisal. Yet on some days, I think the world has not become a better place for it. Look around; has our stewardship of this planet and socio-political condition truly reflected the trajectory envisioned by our ancestors standing at Mount Sinai? Perhaps Conan O’Brien, signing off the Tonight Show, January 22, 2010 said it best: “If you work hard and are kind, amazing things will happen.”

Dreams and Nightmares: The Foundation of Faith

June 17, 2011

Parashah Shelakh-Lekha, one of the best-known episodes in the Book of Numbers, concerns the twelve scouts, or spies, sent ahead of the Israelite camp to appraise the nature of the Promised Land. It is often compared to the Golden Calf incident of Exodus, in that both events were tests of the Israelites’ faith and trust in G-d, their leaders and themselves. When the expedition returned, ten of the men dramatically exaggerated what they had seen, in an attempt to discourage the Israelites from accepting their territorial inheritance. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.” In the left-hand illustration, the small hybrid grasshopper-man addresses the terror and trepidation the scouts disseminated. Perhaps, they calculated, their negative report would ensure positions of power for themselves among the people instead of encouraging the people to act with faith in G-d and in their own abilities? I have given this creature a tattoo in the shape of the Hebrew letter ‘mem’ whose numerical equivalent is forty because this incident doomed the Israelites to wander in the desert for forty years until a new generation arose that would be spiritually prepared to realize its divine inheritance.

The symbols that comprise these illustrations each tell stories of their own that are too lengthy to include here. They can be found on page 169 in the AfterImages portion of my  book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) It can be purchased directly from the publisher, http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon,  amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will find several reviews.

I welcome your comments and questions here at Imaginarius and will do my best to respond. Wishing you a thoughtful Sabbath and weekend…

Emor, Omer & Zohar: A Spiritual Evolution

May 6, 2011

This week’s Torah parashah, Emor, is one of insightful contrasts. It emphasizes the observance and performance of good deeds (mitzvot) for the festivals of Passover (Sefirat ha-Omer or Counting of the Omer), Shavuot (Shtei ha-Lechem or Grain Offering), Rosh HaShanah(Yom Teruah or Blowing of the Shofar), Yom Kippur ( Yom Ta’anit or Day of Fasting), Sukkot (Chag Ha Succot or Festival of Booths). My images for this parashah focus on the Counting of the Omer which occurs during the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot (remembering respectively the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Law at Mt. Sinai). Omer  is the Hebrew word for ‘sheaf’, an offering of grain brought to the Temple in hopes of a healthy barley harvest. For seven weeks, one omer is set aside (today, this is done symbolically) and counted each day. The practice commemorates the length of the Israelites journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai.

According to the  Zohar (a collection of classic Jewish mystical treatises), forty-nine days is also a period recognizing the transition from their spiritual impurity to the Israelites’ comprehension of their profound relationship with God upon receiving the Law on Shavuot. The candelabra, beneath a vignette of the night sky with three stars, announces the onset of the Sabbath, considered the most important religious observance throughout the Jewish year. Below the candles a sheaf of barley represents the omer offering and below that is a colorful grid that I designed for counting the omer. Each numbered space in the grid contains two Hebrew letters, one nested within the other. They connect the seven weeks of the omer to the values of seven of the sefirot, or sacred energies: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malkhut. Through meditation, we can incorporate these values into our lives to facilitate spiritual development. Each letter encloses a second one to illustrate that each day of the omer count encompasses all the other values. Below the omer grid is a blessing recited on the Sabbath and during Festivals. “Blessed are You, O Lord, who sanctifies {the Sabbath and} Israel and the Festivals.”

Besides these images is Shimon Bar Yohai, the revered rabbi, scholar and alleged author of the Zohar. It seemed appropriate to include him on this page because he is said to have died on the thirty-third day of the omer count. Behind him is Psalm 67, traditionally recited on Lag B’Omer. The psalm consists of seven verses with forty-nine words mirroring the count of the omer in appreciation of the earth’s bounty by all who partake of it.

Below this page is a detail from the facing page of the spread for parashah Emor. It is called Of Stars & Seasons and is my interpretation of the ancient Hebrew zodiac, which is based on the Jewish luni-solar calendar. In this system the year corresponds to the solar calendar while the months follow the lunar calendar. Since the twelve months are about eleven days short of 365, a leap month is added to the calendar on its nineteen-year cycle. Accordingly I have merged the sun and moon and surrounded them by the holidays corresponding to the signs of the zodiac. The Shehekhianu blessing for praise and thanks to God is recited at the first candle-lighting for each festival is seen at the core of this celestial calendar.

Additional information from my interpretation for parashah Emor may be found on pages 159-161 in the AfterImages portion of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

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The Timeless Theatre of Passover

April 17, 2011

While it serves as a seasonal religious cornerstone with its complex preparations and formalized recitations, the Passover Seder is, at heart, a metaphor of remembrance. Though the interpretations and translations have varied with social and political considerations in each generation since the original event described in the Book of Exodus, I find it interesting that the Hebrew text remains the same. There are some things you just don’t mess with. But when it comes to pictures, the Haggadah is one of the few texts in the Jewish tradition that permit, even encourage vivid visual accompaniments. So when it came to illustrating Parashat Bo in Exodus, I chose to portray the seder as set elements in a stage play surrounding two matzo bakers whose story is timeless theatre brought to life each year.

Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) may be purchased here: http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or here: Amazon: http://bit.ly/gRhg0g