Posts Tagged ‘creation’

Evolutionary Amnesia?

April 9, 2020

BY our own estimates, human evolution has made vast progress over the millennia in our dominance of Earth as a species; particularly in the development, capacity and intuitive functionality of our brains. Which leads me to question, why, as clever and technologically astute as we have become, even in the face of historically evident patterns, can we not learn from our mistakes?

Inevitably, I have more questions than answers.

Driven by our good and evil inclinations, we repeatedly experience periods of war or peace as we veer between prosperity and paucity. Although we are now engaged in battling a global pandemic, this is not a traditional theater of war with a clearly visible, organized enemy; unless you have access to a scanning electron microscope and a fully equipped lab to make sense of it.

However, our conflicting responses to it make me wonder about that ancient argument of free will vs. determinism. Given my penchant for science fiction, are we ‘pre-programmed’ to behave this way by some incomprehensible ‘entity’? And might that ‘entity possess a dual nature that encompasses both good and evil that eternally vie for dominion over us?

Perhaps we were created to evolve with a ‘bug’ in our neural coding; ostensibly to help us navigate our way through life’s physical environment, develop civilizations and address the bombardment of misleading or insufficient information in each generation? For lack of a scientific term, have we dubbed this ‘bug’ ‘free will’?

Or, perhaps our overactive imaginations are merely a random side effect of our physical evolution? Since I have no philosophical or scientific creds to bolster technical arguments for either idea, my curiosity and incessant reading habits of both secular and religious literature will have to do.

I suppose that my religious beliefs urge me towards determinism but depending on the circumstance, I occasionally waver between the two ideas. And here is why:

In each go-round, we are presented with chains of man-made and/or environmental events that soon result in reduced populations, prejudiced political dogma and sometimes polemic leadership. The latter rises by promising that life will surely improve going forward under their watch (which it may briefly do). Still, when negative situations arise, our response remains confined to predictably static phases: denial, then outrage and finally, surrender to performing damage control while bemoaning our fate.

For centuries, historians have documented this cycle of events with their often tragic denouements yet offered only theoretical remedies for them.  Such remedies, beholden to hindsight rather than foresight leave us trapped in the disasters we’ve created through our complaisance, economic manipulation and deadly political mischief.

It would seem that while we have dramatically evolved physically from our knuckle-dragging forbears, we have remained psychologically frozen as teenagers; prone to impatience, addicted to excitement and often intolerant towards others.

Holocaust denial may be one of the most cited examples of this idea despite the copious historical evidence and heartfelt efforts of the few remaining victims of its atrocities. Nevertheless, in succeeding generations, individuals arise with a superficial understanding of Nazi culture and its role in these horrific events yet they know enough to twist the facts or form groups of like-minded acolytes in order to activate its worst malevolent characteristics.

Many years ago, this idea struck home when I was commissioned to draw caricatures by a local department store (remember those?) during the holiday shopping season. Taking a break, I was watching the zombified shoppers wander through the glittering aisles, when a young teenaged boy approached my table asking if I would draw him. Sure, I said. Then I noticed that he had inked the sign of a swastika on his hand. Not wishing to provoke a confrontation, I asked innocently as my eyes narrowed involuntarily. “What’s that?” Without hesitation he explained proudly that it was a sign worn by a group of his ‘friends’. “Oh,” I said. Never one to let a teaching opportunity pass, I further inquired, ” Do you know what it means?” “Not really,” he shrugged. ” I just did it because they said it would be cool.” “Uh-huh” I nodded, then proceeded to give him a brief but graphic history of the Holocaust. As I explained, I watched his face drain of color and without a word, he raced to the men’s room. Upon his return, he waved his hand in my face. “See?” he crowed, I scrubbed it off! I think I need to find some new friends!” In common social media parlance, SMH.

So, considering our long, fraught history (the ‘woke’ teenager notwithstanding) , to what extent does free will ‘bug’ exist, if it does? Do we not learn from our mistakes because in order for evolution to continue its mysterious trajectory, each iteration of humanity must be doomed to make its own mistakes? And could this be why ancestral wisdom gets poorly translated and/or misinterpreted in succeeding generations? Or, in simple street terms, does sh*t just happen?

I realize that this essay opens a pungent can of worms, but it’s just my opinion and I’m truly curious as to what you think…?

 

Eden’s Edible Blessings

July 1, 2014

BlessingForFruit+VegetablesRGB6-50%.jpgAlthough 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.

Thunder And Lightning! Oh, My…!

May 21, 2014

Thunder+LightningBlessingRGB5

We can’t mistake or ignore them. Like the rain, sun, winds, and snow, thunder and lightning remind us of our place in the moment, celestial bookmarks, if you will.

They assault our senses and extort our reluctant humility regardless of how clever and powerful we believe we are. Ancient cultures, their divinities and religious rites were by-products of the awe and terror their dramatic appearance commanded.

When the growing sophistication of monotheism began to dominate much of human society, its scholars and poets attributed a more subtle intent to them.

In the Talmud (Brachot 59a), we are taught to recite blessings on several varieties of natural phenomena such as comets and earthquakes. On thunder and lightning, the custom developed to recite two separate but related blessings because they may be two sides of the same coin. We also learn that “Thunder was created only in order to straighten the crookedness of the heart.” Moreover, the Mishnah** Berurah 227:5, considers it, rather than lightning, the more potent signal of divine power.

In his legal opinion on the Shulchan Aruch*, the 16th century Polish Rabbi David Ha-Levi Segal, also known as ‘Taz’, speculated that perhaps thunder’s roar makes it the dominant natural force, although he did not know how the custom of two blessings for these phenomena originated. He suggested that the blessing for lightning (Blessed Are You, Source of Life, Who Makes the works of Creation) can be recited in the presence of either thunder or lightning, particularly when they are witnessed together.

Now there’s a powerful image! Thunder and lightning as a vast cosmic defibrillator!

Sure, science has it own technical explanation for these ‘natural’ phenomena and in a sense, these ideas are comforting because they give us an illusion of control via ‘understanding’. But the Talmudic observation is also a lyrical way of reminding us to ask who or what created thunder and lightning and why? From the standpoint of religious faith, the answer is indisputable.

Though we appreciate a certain majestic beauty in the raw violence of nature’s elemental symphonies that play against bruised and sullen skies, how else, but by contrast, would we appreciate their alternate persona; that breath-taking sapphire clarity under a sun dodging wispy or pompous clouds? At the very least, it is convincing evidence for the myriad dualities of creation.

Illustrating this elemental blessing seemed simple at first; one need only show a dark sky with bursts of lightning, leaving the noise of thunder to the imagination. But further reading convinced me of its deeper significance. Tracing the history of our developing comprehension of thunder and lightning, I suddenly wondered, were there any recurring shapes or patterns in a storm’s bursts of lightning? Could they form some sort of heavenly message? Ok, ok, I know this whimsy is magical thinking. But then, I’m not a meteorologist with hard knowledge of the electrical and mathematical characteristics that might explain its technical structure.

So I let my imagination travel back to Mt. Sinai and the revelation of the Law. Could the thunder have been meant to call our attention to lightning’s shapes and patterns inspiring ancient minds to create the letter-forms of an early paleo-Hebrew language? I soon envisioned a rare single cell thunderstorm hovering over the mountain, wondering whether its winds, shaking the burning bush on the mountain, also whispered meaning into Moses’ ear? As the illustration progressed, I couldn’t resist allowing a tiny lightning bug onto it, illuminating the wonder and complexity of our existence.

Presenting the blessing in this light might be an improbable leap of faith, dismissible by many as nonsense, yet I’d like to think that transliterating this divine ‘skywriting’, has brought us a long way in understanding one of the countless chapters we’ve marked in the Book of Life.

* Codification of Oral Law of Torah by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi,180-220 CE

**The Code of Jewish Law, written in Safed, Israel and published in Venice by Yosef Karo in 1563-57.

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.

 

Sunrise, Sunset, So What?

May 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parsing Passover…

March 15, 2013

ImageSince beginning this blog in conjunction with the publication of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) I have presented many of its illustrations along with new insights that have grown from the traditional readings and from your questions and comments.

Sometimes, the illustrations themselves have been tweaked to reflect these changes, making my book a continual work in progress.Though I can not pretend to their scholarly stature, I like to imagine this process akin to the conversations and Torah insights of the great 2nd century rabbis and scholars (Amoraim) that were gathered to comprise the Talmud. Accordingly, the illustrations are structured so that each element’s story and symbolism for a parashah enhance each other on its page.

So, in this week preceding Pesach/Passover, as we begin the Book of Leviticus with Parasha Vayikra, I was thinking about the concept of sacrifice as more than the ritual slaughter of animals and other material offerings. Sacrifice can also be considered as a tenet of mindfulness.

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, animal sacrifice was at the core of Judaism’s complex practices; fulfilling G-d’s commandments and providing nourishment for the priests. Yet, the parashah also reminds us of its more subtle purpose; to learn the difference between our animal and divinely-based natures and to gain mastery over them so that we may evolve culturally and spiritually.

A slight digression: metaphorically, the body of esoteric knowledge of kabbalah understands Creation as a process of ‘tzimtsum’, where G-d contracts/withdraws His/Her Essence to allow all that we know to exist.

That said, each time we perform a mitzvah (a commandment or good deed for the benefit of another), we can think of this process as our own microcosmic ‘tzimtsum’.  In this way, we are setting aside our ‘animal’ nature (which is characterized by instinctive actions for self-preservation) in favor of our divinely based nature (marked by our mindfulness as a human being  and a responsible member of the larger community).

Often, there is great pain associated with a transition from one nature to the other, as in the time of the Exodus when the Hebrew slaves coming out of Egypt made the agonizing 40-year transition to becoming Israelites. Though we are many generations removed, we are reminded of that learning process each year when we remove the masks of our animal natures to allow our divinely-based essences to commemorate and celebrate Passover.

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

Beastly Burdens

March 11, 2011

According to Biblical text and commentaries, Adam was first charged with naming the animals in his proximity on the sixth day of Creation.  In addition to providing names for the creatures based on his impressions of their appearance and behavior, rabbis and scholars have suggested that the sixth day was also marked by Adam’s awareness of the physical and psychological qualities that he, as a created being shared with them. Addressing this awareness is this week’s Torah reading from the Book of Leviticus. ‘Vayikra’ (“and G-d called”) provides the laws and rituals that guide us to an understanding of our nature while it draws us into an awareness of our relationship with G-d. At first glance, the parashah appears to be about performing animal sacrifices to elicit G-d’s attention and pleasure. While these often gory and macabre rituals seem to echo the human history of centuries-old pagan cult beliefs and practices, closer examination reveals that G-d doesn’t actually require blood sacrifice; it is only a means of helping us to discover and control our baser natures. The figures in this illustration embody the types of ‘sins’ codified in Vayikra. They are seen approaching a sacrificial altar shedding masks that represent their animal natures to reveal and evolve the spiritual aspects that we share with G-d. Taking current world events into account, the sacrifices and their consequences continue…

Readers, here is a question for you: how do you view your own animal nature? Would you change it if you could and if so, how?

Illustration from: Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html

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