Posts Tagged ‘Exodus’

A Toast To Bread…

July 9, 2014

BlessingForBreads+CakesBread, whether we enjoy it as a sandwich or with a meal does more for us than merely satisfying our hunger. If we pay attention, it lets us taste the histories of civilization in every bite as it nourishes our bodies and spirits. In evolving as we do; from fertility to growth, maturity and decay, bread is an apt metaphor of life itself.

In the Books of Exodus (16:1-36) and Numbers (11:1-9), bread, in the form of a mysterious substance called manna, was ‘given’ to the early Israelites during their desert tenure. The manna was ground and baked into cakes which purportedly tasted like honey or any other food one wished to imagine. Though no one knows what manna actually was, its etymology and physical form invited speculation that ran the gamut from coriander seed to ‘kosher’ locusts’, hallucinogenic mushrooms and bdellium, a sort of resin, perhaps from the tamarisk tree. This form of ‘bread’ appeared only until they reached and settled in Israel where they learned to cultivate grains. Eventually, grain-based bread was incorporated into religious ritual and made its way to our tables to symbolize the Temple altar. The bread we call ‘challah‘ was named for the piece of dough that was separated from the unbaked loaf and given to the Temple priests to burn as ‘minhah’, a sacrificial offering. According to rabbinical commentary on the Book of Numbers (15:19), it was to be made only from one of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) though some commentators differed on which grains were indicated. Absent the Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E., this custom is now largely followed by religiously observant women who bake bread at home. Technically there are two words in Hebrew for bread; challah, an egg-based bread and lechem, bread baked for daily use. In biblical times, the Sabbath bread was probably a form of the pita we enjoy at Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries.

While the long, complex history of bread and bread-making is worthy fodder for the myriad culinary tomes out there, I will be brief here, as the goal of An Illumination Of Blessings is to visually extract the essence of how bread came to us and the ways by which we honor it and our Creator. Accordingly, the two blessings on this page address all forms of bread and grain-based baked goods. Among the five species of grain that form the borders of my illustration is a stalk of rice. I’ve included it here both for its esthetic beauty and to represent its use in the Spanish or Sephardic Jewish tradition which basically adheres to Orthodox customs with differences in interpretation.

The process of bread-making from harvesting to oven to table is embodied in two figures. There is a woman carrying a sheaf of wheat standing beside an upper hand-stone and lower grindstone or quern. These were used to grind (mill) the grain until more efficient devices were developed. Grinding was a difficult, time consuming task commonly assigned to women. In ancient times, each household stored its own grain and it is known that at least three hours of daily effort were required to produce enough flour to make bread for a family of five.

In the lower right corner, a baker is standing behind a sack of flour and pantry scoop. Under one arm are two baguettes and a challah. The round challah is of a type used on the Rosh Hashanah holiday to signify the wish for a long life. The baguettes are there simply because they remind me of the delicious breakfast served in the pension where my husband and I stayed on our first visit to Paris. The oven paddle or ‘peel’ in his right hand is a tool that has been in use since ancient times to move loaves of bread and baked goods in and out of hot ovens. It symbolizes one of oldest hand crafts in the world. On a visit to the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum some years ago, I saw some actual 5,000 year old loaves of bread and stalks of wheat that, if they could speak, would tell of ancient summers in the Land of the Pharaohs.

The ‘ha-motzi’ blessing at the top of the page is for any bread made from the aforementioned five grains, while the blessing below it is the ‘mezonos’ recited over baked goods such as cakes, pastries, cereals and cooked grain goods like pasta or couscous. Online are many lists that specify which products require this blessing. One of these is: http://oukosher.org/guide-to-blessings/

Since baker’s products are as many and varied as their cultures, customs and their imaginations permit, I’ve chosen just a few representative samples of both bread and dessert items. In addition to the challah and baguettes mentioned above, there are bagels, pita and a croissant for breads. Two types of rugelach, apple strudel, sufganiyot (jelly donuts popular in Israel and the US), macaroons, hamentaschen (for the Purim holiday) and mandel brate (almond bread) with fruit and nuts stand for desserts.

There is one last detail for this blessing. If you look closely, the challah at the center of the page bears a tiny number 78. Students of Hebrew mysticism may know that the gematria (numerical equivalence of letters and words in Torah) of bread or lechem is 78; the letter lamed =30, the letter chet = 8 and the final letter mem = 40. One of the lessons learned by the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt was that their bread/manna, was a ‘heaven-sent’ daily miracle. And in many ways, it still is. While we no longer subsist on manna, we understand the thought process around this miracle as the basis for agricultural laws which we continue to develop, perhaps with divine guidance. Consequently, we are expected to recite Grace after each meal thanking G-d for sustaining us in this way. In gematria, the numerical equivalent for G-d’s Name is 26 and it appears each time in the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals. Three times 26 = 78 to bring us full circle as we acknowledge our Creator and the miracles of life.

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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

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

Image

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

Parashat T’rumah: Mirroring Heaven

February 15, 2013

Imaginarius-T'rumahAlthough each of the Torah’s fifty-four parashiyot contain stories and precepts that are meant to guide us in living and working towards our spiritual and cultural fullfilment, it is this week’s reading, Parashat T’rumah with its intricate, symbol-laden descriptions of the desert tabernacle that resonates with especial clarity for me as a visual artist.

In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), Parashat T’rumah is illustrated with a double page spread depicting the various implements and ritual objects prescribed for use in the sanctuary. The images shown here are selected details from that illustration which appears on pages 54-55. Entitled, ‘As Above, So Below’ it draws inspiration from the eponymous alchemical maxim referring to the dual concepts of the heavenly sanctuary shown to Moses on Mt. Sinai and the earthly sanctuary that the people were required to build so that God would have a place to ‘appear’ among them. A detailed description with footnoted references may be found in the AfterImages section of the book on pages 149-150.

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.

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

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Parashat Bo: The Masks Of Light And Darkness

January 24, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Visitors

April 6, 2012

In honor of the first night of the Passover holiday, here is an excerpt from the source of these illustrations in my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009):

‘The Visitors’ featured in this illustration for Parasha B’Shallakh are Eliahu Ha-Navi (Elijah the Prophet) and Miriam, Moses’sister. Elijah, flying from house to house is the perpetually honored guest at every Passover seder. Attired in clothing reminiscent of Eastern Europe, Elijah is the perpetual guest at the Passover seder. He carries an ‘Elijah’cup customarily set aside for him and a candelabra, the light of tradition. To emphasize his immortality, the prophet also wears the satchel which Moses carried on his exile from Egypt. Below Elijah is a paschal lamb, represented as a sacrificial symbol in the traditional seder plate.

The ‘Miriam’ in this illustration is the 20th century counterpart of Moses’ sister. In similar period costume, she holds her special cup with her ancient name written in Mesha (Paleo-Hebrew) script, uniting past and present. The cup commemorates Miriam’s well, one of ten magical objects called into existence on the sixth day of Creation. This phenomenon appeared to the Hebrews during their journeys only as needed. Including a Miriam’s Cup on the seder table has become traditional in recent decades as a reminder of the equal and important role of women in the time of redemption. In honor of her namesake ‘Miriam’ is shown with a tambourine. The object below her is a ‘mayim achronim’ or ritual washing implement.

For all of you that observe this holiday that is one of the cornerstones of the Jewish year, I wish you a joyous and thoughtful journey through the next eight days…

With Divine Spirit: The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth

March 23, 2012


Since 2012, corresponding to the Hebrew year 5773 is a leap year, several of the fifty-four Torah portions are read together so that the differences in these calendar systems may be reconciled. This week, we pair reading of the final two chapters of the Book of Exodus, VaYakhel and P’kudey. Commentary for the images in this post are from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

With Divine Spirit
, above, again shows us the master artisan Bezalel working to complete his design and construction of the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan). Here,he is holding one of the results of his ability to permute the letters of the alefbet. The object is the Choshen, the breastplate to be worn by Aaron, the High Priest for the services in the Tabernacle. It is described in one of the sections of a work called ‘Choshen Ha-Mishpat‘ (Breastplate of Judgment) and with some reservations is attributed to the 13th century rabbi and scholar Bahya Ben Asher. The Choshen‘s threads are of crimson red, purple and blue, the three signature colors of all fabrics used in construction of the Tabernacle and priestly garments. Woven into it are twelve stones set into gold frames, each engraved with one of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are arranged in the birth order of Jacob’s twelve sons and in four rows of three stones. Each row is in honor of the Four Mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
The Choshen and two carbuncle ‘shoham’ stones, also engraved with the tribal names, are attached to the shoulders of the Ephod portion of the High Priest’s garment. These appear in the illustration of Aaron for the Parashah T’Tzavveh. The twelve stones, listed on page 144 in the AfterImages section of the book, are:

Tribe of Reuven: Odem/Ruby
Tribe of Simeon: Pit’dah/Prase, or Chalcedony
Tribe of Levi: Bareket/Carbuncle
Tribe of Judah: Nofekh/Emerald
Tribe of Issachar: Sapir/Sapphire
Tribe of Zebulun: Yahalom/Beryl
Tribe of Dan: Leshem/Topaz
Tribe of Naphtali: Sh’vo/Turquoise
Tribe of Gad: Ahlamah/Crystal
Tribe of Asher: Tarshish/Chrysolite
Tribe of Joseph*: Shoham/Onyx
Tribe of Benjamin: Yashfeh/Jasper

*Tribe of Joseph incorporates the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh

According to Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Bible, Bezalel had the assistance of a special creature to construct these items. It was the tiny Shamir, (shown above Bezalel’s right arm) a worm-like creature that appeared in the evening of the sixth day of Creation. The Shamir was endowed with the unique ability to cut through impermeable materials like gemstones. Beneath the Shamir worm are two objects called the “Urim v’ Tmimim.” The appearance and function of these objects have generated much conjecture. Generally known as ‘oracle stones’ they were placed in the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate. Their alleged prophetic powers allowed him to focus on a specific problem or situation. He would then either obtain a vision or perceive combinations of letters with which he could determine the solution.

Behind Bezalel stands Oholiab, son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan, the co-worker assigned to him by God. The scales on his worktable symbolize his tribe and his honest artisanal skills. Oholiab is preparing the gold plate (reading “Holy To The Lord”) that will be attached by a blue cord to the High Priest’s helmet (on the table to his left). Finally, the ‘Parokhet’ or inner curtain for the front of the Ark of the Covenant is shown in the background. According to Parashah T’rumah, “You shall make a curtain of blue, crimson and purple yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of K’ruvim worked into it.” Though I have included the specified colors in the image, I have also taken artistic license with the background of the curtain by adding the apotropaic eye in the center.

In The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth, above, under the canopy of Heaven, the Shekhinah, God’s feminine aspect, lifts her hands to bless the people in this symbolic ‘marriage’ between God and Israel. The ‘Bridegroom’ in this union is the Ark of the Covenant. Shekhinah wears the Crown of Paradise with golden pomegranate trees. Her sephirah of Malkhut or earthly monarchy is prominent at the base of the crown. A tiny chuppah adorns the large ceremonial wedding ring held aloft by the K’ruvim on the Ark. Her ‘feet’ resemble the cloven hooves of a calf from the bizarre four-faced ‘Chariot’ creatures in the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision. The full description of this vision appears in the haftorah reading for the Festival of Shavuot.

Below, The Guardian Of The House of Israelimage concludes the Book of Exodus.

It depicts the completed Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert surrounded by the tents of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The color of each tent reflects its corresponding gemstone in the High Priest’s Choshen (Breastplate). Although the text of this Parashah initially seemed to require two illustrations, I imagined an enormous angel bearing both symbols of God’s Holy protection. He wears a head covering that resembles a medieval liripipe. Suspended from its ‘tail’ is an alchemical glyph representing two elements of Creation: air and fire. Finally, I have shown the Pillar of Fire in the form of a Ner Tamid or ‘Eternal Light. The burning bush within recalls the Covenant at Sinai while its chains incorporate the heads of korbanot (Temple offerings). The Ner Tamid has occupied a place of honor over the Ark in synagogues worldwide illuminating our memories of the original Tabernacle that guarded and inspired our ancestors three thousand years ago.

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

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An Artist In The Shadow Of God

March 9, 2012

Of all the fifty-four parashiyot in the Torah, Ki Thissa was the one that spoke most eloquently to me as an artist and illustrator, particularly as it relates how Moses transmitted instructions for building the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan) to the artist and craftsman Bezalel ben Uri. I was drawn to this story many years ago as I sought to understand the levels of meaning within the Second Commandment prohibiting the creation of graven images. In essence, it opened my eyes to the concept of hiddur mitzvah or the creation of beautiful objects to enhance the worship experience, rather than be worshipped as objects in themselves.

I have created several interpretive portraits of Bezalel, the first recorded Jewish artist, most recently the iteration shown here for my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). From the AfterImages section of the book on p. 151, here is an excerpt  from my commentary on the illustration shown above:

In The Shadow Of God is drawn from the Hebrew translation of the name Bezalel, given to him at birth by his father Uri, son of Hur from the tribe of Judah. (Note the image of the Lion below the text next to Bezalel; it symbolizes the tribe of Judah) His full name reads, ‘Bet-Zal-El Hayaita which means ‘you were in God’s Shadow’ explaining his extraordinary artistic skills and closeness to the Creator so that he could envision the Heavenly Temple and accurately follow the directions for the construction of its earthly counterpart. He was tasked with this mission by Moses who transmitted God’s request upon his return from Mt. Sinai. In the Mishnah,Bezalel is credited as the man who was able to comprehend and configure the letters from which Heaven and Earth were created for this holy task. According to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, “All things were created through the combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.” The open scroll that Bezalel is holding reveals a kabbalistic diagram, found in the Sefer Yetzirah, composed in 6th century Babylon, which connects letters in the Hebrew alefbet with the seven planets and twelve signs of the Zodiac. In the center of the diagram is a triangular form that contains the Tetragrammaton, an acronym for one of God’s Names. To avoid a disrespectful rendering of this name, a portion of one of the letters has been removed. At the corners of the triangle connecting it to the outer rings are the three Mother letters, alef, mem and shin that represent the elements air, fire and water. Although many graphic variations of these concepts can be found in the books of mysticism, I chose this particular diagram for Bezalel, as it seemed to invite creative interaction. Standing behind the craftsman with a model of the Mishkan on its back is a strange beast called the Tachash. The word ‘tachashim’ in parashah T’rumah, though translated as ‘dolphin skins’ finds a different interpretation in the Mishnah, which alludes to the creation and existence of this animal for the express purpose of providing materials for the construction of the Tabernacle. When its purpose was completed, it seems to have vanished. 

Since no one knows if it actually existed, could the tachash have been a word to describe a collection of materials taken from several existing species or could it have been an unusual mutation truly created only for its holy purpose? In any case, it will always remain an intriguing idea and so the tachash shown here is purely from my imagination. By the way, these questions occurred to me long after my book was published, which only verifies my philosophy that art is always a work in progress and matures from continuing interpretation. So, if any of my readers would like to posit their own version or questions, send me your links in the comment box; I look forward to continuing this conversation…

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