Posts Tagged ‘heaven’

On The Nature Of Evil…

May 6, 2019

When news broke of the long-anticipated release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 448 page report on aberrations in the presidency of Donald Trump, I indulged in a bit of schadenfreude, imagining how its evidence of the president’s lies and myriad misdeeds under the aegis of his craven administration might justify the suspicions that have become a noxious atmospheric miasma over us since the 2016 presidential elections.

Even as that report comes closer to the light of public scrutiny, we are still in the dark as to its true content because Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate regarding only his redacted version of it. His four-page version and verbal interpretation appeared manipulated to exonerate the president of treasonous activities. By doing so in classic stonewall mode, he revealed his true role as President Trump’s tool and de facto private attorney. This was made abundantly clear when he then refused to testify before the House of Representatives who had originally requested his cooperation.

While we wait to see whether Robert Mueller will be permitted to present his teams’ original version of their report to Congress and the issue of impeachment is tossed around by both governing bodies like a hot potato, many of us can agree that the reality we’ve always taken for granted is undergoing a paradigm shift.

As we are bombarded daily in mainstream and social media by frightening and often incredible developments in both domestic and international spheres, we are finding it more difficult to maintain our equilibrium and react rationally.

Though I risk sounding melodramatic, some days it feels as though life is coming to resemble a dystopian nightmare right out of those speculative science fiction novels in which the tropes of good and evil are woven into characters to reflect the cycling mores and mercurial nature of human history.

This impression assailed me earlier this week. I was out for a walk when I encountered a neighbor whose character has always been a bit dodgy. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he sniffed the air, then prosaically announced, “the devil is walking among us. Can’t you feel it?” What does one say to that? I just nodded, smiled politely and kept walking, marveling silently at the fragile line between reality and fantasy.

Still, that conversation and others shared with acquaintances in person and online these past couple of years have made me curious; have we been gradually spiraling back to a Dark Age mentality despite our technological advances, or perhaps by virtue of them?

With no offense intended towards those whose deep faith admits only God’s Goodness, I can’t help wondering: is what we know as Evil a sociopathic manifestation of the shadowy face of a God inextricably bound to, yet struggling with its own duality of Good and Evil?

Are our inclinations towards evil (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-ra’) and our inclinations towards good (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-tov’ (inclination towards good) actually two sides of that same ‘face’? Since we are capable of surrendering to both of these aspects with equal passion, we must recognize that we have two tasks to address. Our first task throughout our lives is to choose how we will behave and accept the consequences of our choices. Our second task is to understand how our actions affect that balance and work to heal the damaged before it is beyond repair.

Accordingly, the scale shown above is suspended by a ‘yad’ or Torah pointer whose black and white wings symbolize the duality of good and evil. Its pans support two Hebrew letters that represent the spiritual energies of Strength (Gevurah) and Lovingkindness (Chesed). The former is dragging down the latter indicating that these two energies have come out of balance negatively affecting world events.

This illustration is a detail from Leviticus: Parshat Shemini in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). It has been adapted to serve this essay.

As an illustrator and writer, I primarily draw and write in metaphor. My readings in Holocaust literature where God is alternately blamed and absolved of responsibility for those monstrous events are what led me to these notions.

So I’ve imagined that Evil’s destructive energy seems to emerge periodically throughout time, wreaking terror and havoc among us. When it is quiet, for periods of years, decades or centuries, good, productive energies are free to flourish. Meanwhile, that Evil aspect does not sleep; it is infinitely creative, intricately plotting and setting its compromised players on the world stage in the manner of a chessboard where its next move will again guarantee its own terrible victory over good.

Just as astrologers look to the positions of the stars to explain the vagaries of world events, scholars of Jewish mysticism understand them in terms of the dynamic ten sefirot or universal spiritual energies that underlie all life.

In this post Cold War era, while we sustain horrific memories of World War 2 and the Holocaust, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, we remain entrenched in relentless Middle East wars and diplomatic brinksmanship.

Willfully ignorant, the noisome Trumpian doctrine has emerged, currying favor with dictators, stoking the fires of moral degradation, racism, isolationism and a ‘fake news’ agenda that is encouraging an alarming rise in hate-driven mass shootings, cruelty towards immigrants, and dismissal of the health/welfare concerns of most Americans. These are the rumblings and tremors of Evil preparing its next move; one that will undermine democracy in our generation and become our legacy to our children and grandchildren.

Just yesterday, an illustrator friend whose thoughtful, well-crafted work reflects her own perceptive view of our current new-world order,** suggested that we may be living in a 21st century version of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Can we single out ten righteous men in our administration from the corrupt swamp that is our Republican Party ?” she asked.

She was referring to chapter 18:20-33 in the Book of Genesis where Abraham argues with God who had decided to destroy those ancient cities as punishment for their evil ways. The patriarch challenges God to withhold that destruction if he, Abraham, could prove the existence of at least 10 righteous men within them. Of course we know that the cities were destroyed, but a few individuals were warned to escape and so were spared.

Though her question was rhetorical, neither of us could think of even five people in the administration who fit that description, an idea that doesn’t bode well for our country from a biblical perspective.

The United States has long been a physical and psychological haven for immigrants and refugees fleeing their climate-ravaged and/or war-torn homes. Yet, despite our possession of updated papers and passports, given the machinations of our treacherous administration, where can or should we escape to? Who will offer us refuge?

In discussions with friends and relatives with differing opinions or of like mind, one dilemma seems clear; we cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that currently, life is but a nightmare from which we will eventually awaken.

If we reflexively act on our fears and prejudices, we risk our own safety and that of our loved ones. Rather, we must struggle not to remain quietly hopeless and helpless in the incomprehensible face of forces seemingly beyond our control to contain.

Moreover, if we surrender to those modalities, then destructive forces win by default. History will yet again be written by victors whose glorification of their deeds and questionable motives will leave our descendants to question its veracity and learn from our mistakes if they choose.

We will certainly vote with our consciences and/or our feet in the 2020 elections, even as we continue to struggle with the potentially corrupted results as we did in 2016 since there is talk of foreign governments again moving to interfere in our election process.

But this time we must truly understand that only through our unity and ability to question what we are told instead of grasping blindly to a limited ideology, do we hold the keys to repairing what we have allowed to break (Hebrew:’tikkun olam) and to overcoming Evil’s onslaught against our hard-won democracy.

**https://www.instagram.com/naomialiye/

*https://amzn.to/2VC70I7

Illustration: Between Choice & Consequence ©2019 Ilene Winn-Lederer

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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.

Famous Last Words: V’Zot Ha-B’Rakhah

September 28, 2010

“V’Zot Ha-B’Rakhah” or ‘this is the blessing’ are the words that begin Moses’ final address to the tribes of Israel preceding his death. It is a poetic rendering of blessings in the tradition of the patriarch Jacob. Both insightful and prophetic, the blessings describe the psychological nature of each tribe while prophesying their future actions in accordance with those characteristics. The tribes have exhibited and witnessed every duality in human nature during their 40 year journey, yet they have also been prepared to understand that they must become a model for humanity when they enter the Promised Land. To be worthy of God’s vision and blessings, they must develop the Land and refine their behavior according to the blueprint (Torah) that is God’s gift to them through Moses.

On Simchat Torah, the closing festival of the Jewish year, the reading of V’Zot HaBrakhah completes the annual Torah cycle. Accordingly, here are my illustrations for this parashah from Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) . To the right of the quotation, a large Hebrew letter ‘bet’ encloses the words, ‘Hazak, Hazak, V’Nithazek’. In a tradition that originated in the late 12th-13th century by Jews in France, Germany and Spain, this phrase is pronounced at the completion of the Torah cycle. In some Ashkenazic communities, it is pronounced after reading each individual book of the Torah. ‘Hazak…’ is an interpretation of the verse in the Book of Joshua (1:6-8), “Be strong, Joshua, be of good courage…this book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth.” The phrase appears within the ‘bet’ as in ‘Beresheit’ and as a reminder that each contains the other in the duality of beginnings and endings just as a question often contains its own answer yet leads to another question.

The Shekhinah figure to the right of Moses supports a shining breastplate that frames twelve gems representing each tribe above a prominent pavilion, ‘the House of Israel’. She wears an ornate crown of golden pomegranate branches that culminate in a large perfect fruit. The Hebrew letter ‘kaph’ which in kabbalah is the highest sefirot of ‘keter’ surmounts her crown while the letter ‘mem’ is the key element at the base, signifying the unification of heaven and earth. Moses, ethereal in pale earth tones heralding his imminent death stands on a windswept Mt. Nebo, his eyes raised in a last conversation with God and His Shekhinah. His state of spiritual completeness in their relationship is evident by the configuration of the Hebrew letters ‘dalet’ and ‘taph’ for the sephirot ‘da’at’ and ‘tiferet’. These merge the qualities of human and divine, revealing the path of return to his origins; for he now understands the fundamental import of his mission and the majestic legacy he has imparted to his people.

At the final appearance of the celestial mask of God in this book, note that it now appears above the Shekhinah where in Genesis (Parashah Beresheit), it was the foremost image in the illustration. I have done this to emphasize that while God and His Shekhinah are two aspects of One, She is His spiritual ambassador whom we greet each Sabbath and through whom we honor the unity that is God.  I must also include some additional comments on the design of these two images. First of all, no disrespect is intended to anyone who abhors any ‘image’ of God. Throughout the Torah, God is described as though He possessed ‘physical’ human features. Perhaps the common translations of Genesis stating that we are made in ‘His Image ‘gave rise to its simplistic inverse suggestion that ‘He’ ‘looks’ like us, but inconceivably larger.  Nevertheless, since the central concept of monotheism is that God cannot be ‘seen’, common sense asserts that terms such as ‘the eyes of God’ or the ‘breath of God’ are merely metaphors because the Torah was written for human comprehension. So it is with this mask, intended as a reminder that to seek God’s wisdom and blessings, we must look beyond any ‘masks’ into our own hearts.

With best wishes for a healthy, thoughtful and productive year…

 Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary may be ordered from:

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