Posts Tagged ‘Genesis’

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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* 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.

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.


* 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: Nevertheless, the Hand of Miriam attached to the astrolabe represents their spiritual presence.

Band Of Brothers, Inc.

January 11, 2012

The reading of Parashah VaYechi, the final chapter in the book of Genesis/Bereshit on this past Sabbath provides some interesting insights on the origin and often subversive nature of the corporate entity in human history. In the previous chapter, after a long Egyptian sojourn, Joseph as second-in-command to Pharaoh, receives news of his father’s failing health and rushes back to Goshen with his two young sons.

His brothers, the sons of the 147 year old patriarch Jacob/Israel with his wives and their handmaids are also summoned to their father’s deathbed to receive his final blessing. The old man however, is still playing favorites and grants a private audience to Joseph and his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. I can imagine the stressful vibe in that room, given their notable history of nasty behavior towards Joseph, their only sister Dinah and the people of the city of Shechem.

Nevertheless, their father elegantly couches his final blessings in a series of twelve verses which are uncannily prophetic analyses of his sons’ physical attributes and characters as well as the individual destinies of this band of brothers who will lead the twelve tribes of Israel to become the future Jewish people. In effect, the patriarch has laid the ground rules for history’s first corporation and suggested imagery for the logos that would represent each of the tribes. These visually rich verses, interpreted by many artists and architects who have incorporated them into architectural treatments of synagogues have also been a dominant inspiration for much of my work over the past twenty years. Beginning in 1986, I created three drawings called the Tabernacle Trilogy which included an interpretation of the verses. They can be seen at: within the Judaica gallery. In 1987, a fellow artist, Helen Bittmann Sysko and I were commissioned by the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh to design a set of banners on the Twelve Tribes theme to complement the newly built natatorium (swimming pool). These remained in place until 2007 when they needed to be replaced due to the harsh chlorine and humid environment. At that time, Ms. Sysko had changed careers and no longer practiced her art, so I was asked to design and install a new, updated set of banners. The first set had been constructed of appliquéd parachute cloth while for the second set, I had my designs digitally printed on canvas. Examples of both are below:

1987                                                                                       2007

In the illustration above, from my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the logos of the tribes are shown in their birth order: (left) Reuven, Shimeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, (right) Naphtali, Dan, Gad, Asher, Joseph (Ephraim & Manasseh) and Benjamin. The colors of their Hebrew names correspond to the colors of the gems assigned to each on the choshen (breastplate) of the High Priest that will be seen in the next book, Exodus. These are listed and detailed in the AfterImages section of the book on pages 143-144.

Though Parashah VaYechi is replete with ideological corruption, dirty money and nepotism, it sounds disturbing familiar (no pun intended) as we are bombarded daily with the frightening lies and tragicomic discourse of the current Republican Primary that is a precursor to the coming 2012 election. Which of these logos would fit each of the current contenders; or pretenders?

On Sacrifice: Choice Or Consequence?

November 12, 2011

This week’s Torah portion from the Book of Genesis is Parashah Va-Yera in which we hear of the prophesied birth of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. We are also introduced to the tales of Sodom & Gomorrah’s destruction and to the Akedah or Sacrifice of Isaac. Foremost among the dramatic chapters in the development of monotheism, these Biblical events illuminate the tests of faith given to Abraham, Sarah, their nephew Lot and Lot’s wife by a God whose presence was a terrifying mystery in contrast to those familiar deities of their native pagan culture.

As the story opens on the heels of last week’s Parasha Lekh Lekha, Sarah, long past her childbearing years, has already given her husband Abraham her handmaiden Hagar with whom to bear a son in her place. When Sarah is told by angels that she herself would give birth to a son she refuses to be awed and laughs with the cynicism of age and dashed hopes for children. After Isaac’s birth, the events that follow her earlier show of arrogance still provide much material for scholars and novelists to scrutinize.

On this note, the story setting moves to the nearby cities of Sodom & Gomorrah, widely known for their immoral, if not perverted cultural practices. Here, through the angelic warnings to Lot and his family, Parashah Va-Yera illustrates how individual choices affect the outcome of events for the larger populace of that era. The words of the parashah are frightening enough, yet the images they evoke have burnt themselves into our collective memories for all time.

Some years later, Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac, his ‘only’ (acknowledged) son as a demonstration of his belief in God. The pain of a father’s inner conflict, (compounded with his complicit dismissal of Hagar and his firstborn son Ishmael at Sarah’s behest) in the face of such a terrible choice must have been unbearable. Yet, how much more so for the brotherless Isaac whose presence out of trust in his father did not include true informed consent? To be fair, Abraham may not have fully grasped the consequences of his choices either. Nevertheless, the overwhelming body of interpretations of the Akedah posit many justifications for the details and implications of this core theme of Judaism. Among them, the age of Isaac at that time remains unclear. Was he a young boy on the threshold of manhood or was he a young man in his prime of life? Portraying Isaac as a child would certainly have aroused universal sympathy for this seemingly unjust event, but I chose to show him as a young man bound by the emotional and spiritual ties that acknowledge both his filial loyalties and the consequences of his role for future generations of his people. Either way, these cautionary tales and Isaac’s legacy speak for all of us when we make choices that affect the the present and may color the shape of our future.

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: or from Amazon, where you will find several reviews.