Posts Tagged ‘dove’

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.

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Birkat Ha-Gomel: A Blessing For Well-Being

October 7, 2013

For the twelfth installment of An Illumination Of Blessings, I’ve chosen to interpret the Birkat Ha-Gomel, a blessing that I did not have the presence of mind to recite when I really needed to do so. A few months ago, I was involved in an automobile accident that nearly totaled my car. Fortunately, I was not seriously injured , escaping with minor bruises and aftershocks of a mental earthquake. But at that time I should have intoned this blessing of well-being in appreciation for having experienced and recovered from a life-threatening situation.

 The Birkat Ha-Gomel originated in the Talmud (Berakhot 54b) and was drawn from Psalm 107 which describes four situations that merit recitation of this blessing: when one has safely completed a sea voyage, crossed a desert wilderness, recovered from illness or childbirth and been released from captivity. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, anyone who experienced these situations would be required to bring a live sacrifice (korban) of thanksgiving, but the Birkat Ha-Gomel is now an acceptible alternative. According to Rabbi J.H. Hertz, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, it may be recited after any extraordinary escape from danger. In the Orthodox tradition, this blessing is also meant to be recited publicly among a minyan (quorum) of ten men; although Conservative and Reform traditions include women in this number so that an entire congregation may acknowledge an individual’s survival and recovery from one of the above situations.

Whether I visually interpret a Torah parashah, a passage from Talmud, a folktale or as in this case, a blessing, I like to explore such texts on multiple levels so that you are not seeing merely a literal illustration, but rather one that invites you to draw your own interpretations or ask more questions.

And so here is the Birkat Ha-Gomel blessing with it’s attendant symbolism reflecting the situations named here along with their spiritual counterparts. While I hope you will never find yourself in any precarious situation that requires its recitation, it might not be a bad idea to keep a copy at hand…

For those of you that missed the funding deadline, but would still like to have a copy of the book or gicleé prints from the illustrations, don’t fret. You can visit this link to place pre-orders for the book and to specify which blessings you would like to have made into prints: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm It’s back to work for me now onto the next blessing! As always, your questions and comments are welcome!

The Odds Of March

March 19, 2012

ate one night, near the end of February, the rooster-less weather vane spun madly atop the Inn Of The Four Winds. Perhaps it was anticipating the outcome of the wager within…

Beneath the iridescent glow of a crystal chandelier, March’s fate lay in the cards. Would the month begin with the icy breath of a roaring storm or with the gentle bleat of a spring breeze? Excitement ran high among those with stakes in this annual game, for the cards were to be held by those famous adversaries, the Lion and the Lamb. The game required a curious playing deck consisting of three hundred and sixty-five cards (with a wild card thrown in for leap years). Its four suits distinguished the deck, each representing one of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. On the cards within each suit, specific weather conditions such as thunderstorms or clear, blue skies were depicted. But these magical cards were more than just pretty pictures. As they were selected in the game, each image exuded its unique sounds, sensations and smells!

A dealer was appointed to divide this enormous deck into twelve stacks of cards, corresponding to the months of the year. From those stacks, he then dealt each player twelve cards. The remaining cards were tossed into a barrel and shuffled so they could be reassembled into one large stack at the center of the ornately carved table.
The rules of the game decreed that neither the Lion nor the Lamb were to see each other’s hand, but were to select cards in turn from the center stack, rejecting unwanted cards back into the barrel for next year’s game. Then, by means of dealing, trading and bluffing (if necessary), each player must build a complete hand of thirty-one cards (corresponding to March’s thirty-one days) whose suits and weather conditions matched their own meteorological vision.

If the Lion expected to win, his hand must consist of thirty-one cards depicting only fierce weather conditions; while the Lamb would need to collect thirty-one cards displaying only fair weather symbols for her victory. The first player to collect a complete hand would win the honor of deciding whether March came in like a Lion and went out like a Lamb, or vice versa! Although the weather was enigmatically commanded by the powers that be, ancient wisdom held that this annual match exerted its own mysterious influence…

The large hall of the Inn was crowded with spectators and speculators proclaiming their wagers and noisily debating the fate of March. Among these were the weather vanes’ Rooster, the Groundhog, the Dove and the Monkey. By virtue of their special interests in the resolution of the match, the four were permitted to surround the principal players.
The Rooster, having abandoned his weathervane for this event, anxiously hoped for an early spring in March. He was a proud fellow, but he was exhausted after a long winter of announcing early sunrises and taming temperamental winds. An early spring would allow him to do his tasks a wee bit later in the morning. And so he crowed enthusiastically for the Lamb.

The Dove cooed for the Lamb, too. As the messenger whose task was to let other birds know when the ice and snow would end, Dove’s sentiments were also personal; she dearly missed all of her friends who flew south for the winter.
The Groundhog, charged with predicting the fate of winter for humans, had grumpily crept out of his burrow for this game, grunting in favor of the Lion. He wished to enjoy his winter nap for just a little longer.

And the Monkey, gifted with a special knowledge of the language of plants and trees, was entrusted with bearing the tidings of spring to jungles and forests everywhere. In recognition of her intelligence, she was appointed to act as dealer. This obliged her to remain neutral, though she secretly hoped for an early spring. There was nothing she liked better than swinging lazily on a thick vine and munching an early crop of mangoes.

When the table was prepared and everyone had settled down, the Lion and the Lamb entered the room, greeted their audience, and took their seats. While the Monkey dealt their cards, the players exchanged menacing glances and crooked smiles, each determined to emerge victorious from the match.

As the game proceeded, the Lion could barely suppress his little rumbles of delight; for the majority of his cards depicted his signature storm symbols: lightning, thunder, snowy blizzards and hurricanes. Smugly, he glanced around the room and then at his opponent; a clear gesture that he held the winning cards. On the other hand, the Lamb, with her gentle features drooping, seemed to be down on her luck this year. Shivering from her handful of wet, cold, windy storm cards, she desperately wanted to declare an early spring, and hoped that some of her beautiful sunshine and flower symbols would turn up soon.

Suddenly, as if the powers that be had heard her wish, the stack of cards at the center of the table began to yield one springtime card after another! Growing more excited with each turn, the Lamb could nearly taste her victory as her fans cheered her on. The Lion began to growl in frustration, his whiskers wrinkling at the scent of the spring grass and crocus cards, which kept cropping up. Peeved by the waning encouragement of his supporters, the big cat was not a good loser. But he did have a flair for drama.

Narrowing his big green eyes, he stood up as if about to stretch, letting loose a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a roaring yawn. The startled Lamb gasped and dropped her cards, then bleated accusingly at her opponent for cheating. The Monkey, who had just reached out to straighten the center stack of cards, trembled, scattering the remainder of them all over the table and floor! To make matters worse, the crowd had begun to panic. What would become of the month of March?

After a few moments, the Lamb’s natural grace and charm returned, and she giggled as she regarded the mess on the table and floor. “Oh, well,” she shrugged philosophically, ” I was getting tired of this old game anyway!” The Lion, somewhat abashed by the Lamb’s swift recovery, felt a slow smile creeping across his chops. “So am I,” he agreed, nodding his shaggy head. “Besides,” he added slyly, ” I’ve heard there is a cheap flight to Paradise this weekend. Would you like to join me?” Fluffing the curly wool behind her delicate pink ear, the Lamb glanced flirtatiously at the Lion, and happily accepted his offer.

The crowd of spectators and speculators had finally regained their wits and were so busy arranging their wagers for next year’s game, that they never noticed the Lion and the Lamb waltzing out of the Inn’s doors locked in an embrace.

The powers that be rolled their collective eyes indulgently as they helped a very sleepy Rooster back to his weathervane perch atop The Inn Of The Four Winds.

This year, for a change, March would have to take care of itself.

Reflections In The Mirror Of Heaven And Earth

September 1, 2011

As the Hebrew year turns towards its own renewal and the High Holiday cycle begins, we are given yet another opportunity to reflect on personal and public events that have transpired and on our reactions to them. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is approaching as our political system and economy continue to decay. Collective tides of anger become chaotic outbursts that loudly and messily continue to replace intelligent discourse and the media is a glutton at this smorgasbord. The environment, like the skin on our bodies tells its own tale of woe as it hosts one natural disaster after another. Our religious liturgies conveniently offer lengthy poetic formulae and intricate acrostics with which we can communally express our feelings, but I often wonder how mouthing these familiar verses composed so long ago relates to who I am now and how I have lived this year? Have my choices largely demonstrated mindfulness, indifference or willfulness? Have I tried to express myself creatively or have I automatically repeated clichéd pleasantries in response to casual encounters? Have I listened well and learned anything? Moreover, is God listening and to what extent are we being observed and judged? Will my name remain listed in that legendary Book of Life? These and other sober concerns lend gravitas to this time of year. Perhaps that is why Parashah Shoftim is read early in the month of Elul, for it gives us some historical, legal and spiritual perspective on who and why we are.

In the calendar, Elul precedes the month of Tishrei when judgment for our deeds of the previous year is rendered. Traditionally, we express our wishes to retain life in good health that we may continue to perform mitzvot or good deeds. Though many powerful ideas are presented in this parashah, I purposely chose the quotation pertaining to justice for this visual interpretation.

‘The Mirror Of Heaven & Earth‘, shown above reflects a commentary in the Talmud and a further interpretation by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) in the Tanya (the foundational work of Hasidic philosophy) regarding how a negative event can be rendered positive upon consideration. I like to think that as we are partners with God in Creation, so are we empowered to collectively change our world for the better. This drawing features a celestial looking-glass, the metaphor of a window to our world through which God may view the consequences of His/Her Creation and we may imagine glimpsing the duality of justice that exists in both dimensions. This may be the basis for repeating the words, “Justice, Justice”. Although the parashah emphasizes the appointment of authorities to administer the laws and specifies the consequences of disobedience, I am drawn to the philosophical interpretation that applies these laws to our physical bodies as microcosmic versions of Creation and Torah.

In ‘A Balance Of Powers‘, shown below, one of the key players in the process of judgment is the prophet, standing to the right of the Shekhinah, or feminine aspect of God.

He is included because his divinely inspired words are associated with world events, both present and future. He and the artifact shadowed behind him are modeled after the prophet Ezekiel and the mystical vision he experienced during the Babylonian Exile in 593 BCE.

The Kohen Gadol or High Priest standing to the prophet’s right holds a small model of a Levitical city of refuge. These properties were given to the tribe of Levi instead of farmland so that their designated roles as Torah scholars and teachers to the Israelites could be performed without domestic distractions. The Shekhinah is shown with a set of scales that represent the qualities of justice and mercy. The fire in the left pan surrounds the Hebrew letter ‘tzadee’ that begins the word ‘tzedek’ for justice. In the right pan rests the Hebrew letter ‘resh‘ for ‘rachamim’ or mercy with a dove holding a lily. The dove, although it is the familiar symbol of peace also addresses the quietude needed for objective decisions.  The lily was chosen for its association with purity and for its six petals shaped in the form of a six-pointed star. In Hebrew the flower is called ‘shoshan‘, from the root word ‘shesh’ or the number six. And on the sixth day of Creation, we came to be; for better or for worse, but somehow gifted with hope that always shows us the potential of ‘better’.

These images are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which 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.