Posts Tagged ‘israel’

A Rainbow Of Blessings

June 1, 2014

RainbowBlessingWhen the shadow of a rainstorm has passed and we are able to witness a rainbow illuminating our corner of the world, the most common association of this phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian tradition is with the legend of Noah’s Ark. Schoolchildren are routinely taught that a rainbow symbolizes divine forgiveness for human global corruption and the divine promise to never allow another cataclysmic flood to wipe out nearly all of the life on this planet.

Since that anti-diluvian era, every culture has created their own idea of the rainbow, endowing it with backstories and attributes that range from magical to mundane. Scholars, musicians, artists and poets have made much of those characteristics as have social activists, employing rainbow colors to promote their agendas of social change through racial, gender and sexual equality.

As I considered how to illustrate the idea of a rainbow for this blessing, I recalled a wonderful tertiary (triple) rainbow that I had seen over the east end of Pittsburgh in the late 1990’s. Its three overlapping arches stretched from Squirrel Hill to perhaps somewhere beyond the North Hills, but of course that endpoint remains a mystery. Regretfully, that was before the convenience of iPhone cameras that could easily record it. Nevertheless, I still remember that it appeared in a sky of an unusual grey-green color which made it seem so much brighter.

Suspended in the majesty of that moment, I didn’t care that science views the colors of the rainbow as wavelengths of light traveling at particular frequencies or that their visibility depends on our vantage point relative to the sun’s position and the presence of sufficient raindrops to refract and reflect its light. Even Sir Isaac Newton’s decision in 1672 to divide the spectrum into seven colors seemed frivolous, especially since it was based on the ancient Greek philosophy positing a connection between the colors, the musical notes, the days of the week and the seven planets in our solar system that were known at the time. From my perspective, that rainbow just seemed too magical for such mundane explanations. And so I began to look into the more subtle interpretations that have found their way into our collective understanding; which made thinking about rainbows in terms of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism more appealing.

Sifting through my reference collection, I listened to the voices of sages and scholars through the centuries absorbing their complex commentaries on Bereshit/Genesis. Among these were citations in the Talmud (Hagigah 16a) and in the Zohar (1:71b) which state that one who gazes too intently at the rainbow will compromise his eyesight. Though several opinions are given for this consequence, I found the rainbow’s connection with Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot (merkabah) most intriguing: ‘Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face…”*

I understood these comments as warnings to remain humble in the presence of holiness which further readings alluded to the presence of Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of the Divine. She is the accessible intermediary for Its sefirot** whose many symbolic attributes include their colors which correspond to our perception of the rainbow.

Then there were often fanciful folktales stemming from commentaries on the Book of Genesis whose narratives were both cautionary and poetic. Louis Ginsberg, in his Legends of the Bible, lists the rainbow as one of the ten extraordinary things*** that came into being in the twilight of Creation, although it was not meant to be seen until the time of Noah when the dual concepts of justice and mercy were introduced as the Divine remedy for transgression and repentance.

Such stories suggested to me that the Torah is in itself a rainbow whose colors reflect our spiritual character and mandate, and second, that we, as imaginative creatures, ever curious about who and why we are, can assign whatever significance we wish to any of the natural phenomena that occur on this planet.

On the tail of these thoughts, the image of a tallit flashed in my mind’s eye. I recalled from my studies that the tallit, worn during prayer is often compared to Divine wings which protect us via G-d’s love and commandments. Also, in Jewish tradition a bird is the metaphor of the Shekhinah who comforts and protects Israel during the centuries of exile. Though I do not yet wear one, I liked the idea of being wrapped in a tallit to evoke Shekhinah since it lends credence to the recognition of the sacred feminine.

I then began to wonder about the stripes of a tallit, or prayer shawl and whether they might serve as a rainbow metaphor, even though they are traditionally black in color. As an artist, I knew that theoretically, the color black contains all the colors, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. But then, I came upon a story that Rabbi Zalman Schacter- Shalomi tells in his book, My Life In Jewish Renewal (Rowman & Littlefield, September, 2012) when he explains the significance of his specially made rainbow tallit. His intention was to wear a physical meme as a reminder of Creation and complexity of our world in the light of G -d’s unity.

Eventually, these concepts and my memory of that tertiary rainbow crystallized in my imagination and led to the imagery which accompanies this blessing for the rainbow.

And so, I decided the Shekhinah would be the focus of my illustration. Although I have often interpreted her in my works, the potential iterations for doing so are limited only by imagination. Here she is wearing a crown of feathers (to mirror the bird metaphor) and is embraced by her rainbow tallit. Its colors symbolize the days of Creation. My Shekhinah also balances a crystal revealing the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) to represent the constant physical manifestations of Creation under divine auspices. Her cloven-hoofed ‘feet’ are a fanciful interpretation that is also drawn from Ezekiel’s vision.

If what we imagine gives us comfort, fosters doubt or amuses us, we can also learn how important it is to keep wondering and embellishing these ideas for generations to come.

*******************************************************

Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm  

Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

*******************************************************

*Ezekiel 1:29

** divine energies that form and influence our fundamental reality and the spiritual state of our souls

***In the twilight, between the sixth day and the Sabbath, ten creations were, brought forth: the rainbow, invisible until Noah’s time; the manna; water springs, whence Israel drew water for his thirst in the desert; the writing upon the two tables of stone given at Sinai; the pen with which the writing was written; the two tables themselves; the mouth of Balaam’s she-ass; the grave of Moses; the cave in which Moses and Elijah dwelt; and the rod of Aaron, with its blossoms and its ripe almonds.” -Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible p.44

Advertisements

Acts Of Kindness: States Of Grace?

March 30, 2014

Image

In our visual media-oriented world, we often encounter posters, bumper stickers or heartwarming newspaper columns that urge us to ‘Perform Random Acts Of Kindness’. When these first began to appear around 1982, it might have been in reaction to the pervasive emphasis on individual needs and rights that characterized the ‘Me Generation’. Even today, with so much news of domestic and political strife reported in that same media, it seems we still haven’t learned how to do so easily.

Isn’t it strange and sad that we should need to be reminded? But given the complex duality of human nature, the need to be reminded is nothing new. Morality stories dominate the Old and New Testaments with the patriarch Abraham most commonly cited as the archetype of kindness for his hospitality to three Angels in human disguise. For this next page in An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially thought to present his story for this blessing, but for the reasons explained below, decided that the tiny tent above the Hebrew text would suffice as a meme for it.

The concept of kindness was later refined and codified in the Book Of Ruth (Megillat Ruth).* Upon being told to return to her people after being widowed, Ruth, a Moabite woman insists on remaining with her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Her statement, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” became the takeaway message that defined love, loyalty and the sincere concern for another human being’s welfare. It also painted Naomi as possibly the best mother-in-law in history!

I decided to illustrate this story not only because it exemplifies our capacity for personal empathy, but because it also references the concept of ‘gleaning’; a mandated** act of kindness towards the entire community of impoverished men, widows and orphans. Gleaning is the practice of allowing these individuals to reap the corners of one’s fields and orchards following the initial harvest. The stone wall (which represents the parameters of a field) behind Ruth and Naomi, the sprigs of barley, olives, figs and grapes are memes for this idea, as are the sheaf of wheat and pomegranate branch in Ruth’s hand. I included the pomegranate here for two reasons. First, because of its association with fertility. In the story, Ruth will enable the continuation of Naomi’s line, becoming great-grandmother of King David. Second, because of its decorative presence throughout Judaic art and history. With its alleged 613 seeds, it serves as a metaphor of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that we are expected to perform throughout our lifetimes. Through performing these mitzvot, often referred to as ‘sparks’ (nitzotzot) we collectively ‘lift them up to light and repair the world’ (tikkun olam).

The additional significant image in my illustration is the small Hebrew letter ‘chet’ (pronounced gutturally) formed by three sheaves of wheat that hovers above and between the two women. This letter is from one of the Hebrew alphabets that I designed in 2012 called ‘Shefa’(abundance) shown below:

Image

The letter chet begins the words ‘chittah’ (wheat) and chesed which means kindness or benevolence. It suggests the limitless loving-kindness that characterizes G-d and which, by extension, suffuses all of creation. The verse from Pirke Avot 1:2 (Ethics of the Fathers) attributed to the Second century High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon The Righteous) makes this clear: “The world exists through three things: Torah, Avodah (Temple service) and acts of loving kindness.” No matter how small or insignificant these may seem when they occur, each one is ultimately a part of the larger purpose for which we were created.

I am reminded here of the phrase ‘a state of grace’, which in Christian theology denotes an absence of sin in an individual. From my perspective, while Judaism dwells less on sin and redemption than on ‘kavanah’ or intention, this phrase can also describe the ideal, altruistic state of mind surrounding the performance of a mitzvah, an act of loving kindness.

May you be blessed with abundant mindful opportunities to fulfill and receive acts of loving kindness and, if you’ll permit me a bit of wordplay, a ‘taste of grace’.

* found in Ketuvim or the Writings volume of Torah.
** “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus/Vayikra 14:9-10

Breath, Bath & Beyond…

February 25, 2014

Image

 Although I had listened to tales of mikveh experiences from my mother and others, the idea of ritual immersion meant little to me until my first visit to Israel with my husband in 1974. On our tour of the 1st century CE fortress of Masada, we explored the once-luxurious remains of King Herod’s palace which included a mikveh, or ritual bath. Peering into its now dry depths, I imagined being in the footsteps of my ancient ancestors and hearing echoes of their struggles for spiritual cleansing, closeness with G-d and a measure of sanity in those stress-laden times. This grand complex was later taken over as the desert outpost by a community of Jewish zealots in their rebellion against the Roman rule of Jerusalem. Here is how the mikveh appears today:Image

The Masada tour motivated my curiosity to learn more about how the ritual was carried out and why. It also inspired an an aquatint etching called ‘Mikveh’ that was one of four images in my 1975 ‘The Rituals Of Atonement’ series:Image

But the opportunity for in-depth research into this subject did not assert itself until 2013 when I began An Illumination Of Blessings, this Kickstarter project. Even though my personal background to date did not include the religious or social impetus to actually visit a mikveh, I learned that the ritual of immersion (tevillah) is one of three essential (mitzvot) commandments reserved for women* and decided to include it in this collection.

In brief, the mikveh, which literally means a collection of water in Hebrew, is more than a pool of water. According to Tractate Mikva’ot in the Mishnah (the 2nd century CE codification of the Oral Torah), it must be a bath designed with specific dimensions and capacity to hold water that is stationary but which originates from a flowing natural source (a lake, ocean or rainwater) to permit ritual and spiritual purification. At the links below, there are a number of articles detailing the history of the mikveh and the legal (halakhic) requirements for its use.

Today, despite the long and often painful history of Judaism, immersion in a mikveh remains a viable practice among observant Jewish men and women. Many modern mikvaot, while adhering to those classic dimensions, also exhibit an awareness of the necessity for religious and spiritual continuity. These have been designed to resemble stylish, well-appointed spas such as the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh in Newton, MA.

The setting of my illustration, an early 20th century mikveh in Israel whose water can be seen flowing into it from the passageway beneath the stairs, was inspired by a beautifully made 1997 film called “Women” directed by Michal Bat Adam and Moshe Mizrahi. Here I have shown a young woman with two attendants who are required to observe her immersion and ensure that it is done properly. Three stars, seen through the tiny window in the background signal the onset of the Sabbath, a traditional time for this ritual. Usually a sign displaying the immersion blessings is posted near the pool but with a bit of artistic license, I incorporated the words into the water itself suggesting that like water, our history has been mercurial, yet the consequences and benefits of using it mindfully are eternal.

*********************************************************************************************************

*in addition to lighting the Sabbath candles and separating the challah. Today “challah” refers to the bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Originally “challah” referred to the small piece of dough that was set aside for the kohen (priest) when making bread (Numbers 15:20). Today Jewish women bless, separate and burn a small piece of dough when making bread in remembrance of the portion given to God (through the Temple priests) in ancient times. This ritual reminds us that sustenance ultimately comes from God and transforms baking bread into a spiritual act. 

Links: 

http://judaism.about.com/cs/women/ht/challah_sep.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/mikveh.html

A Blessing For Peace & Protection

February 16, 2014

This week, I present to you The Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Blessing for my Kickstarter book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

ImageFans of the Star Trek television series and its inscrutable Vulcan Mr. Spock like to reference their admiration by raising their hand in the strange configuration shown in my illustration. Since the actor, Leonard Nimoy is Jewish, it’s no small wonder that he affected this gesture from his own ethnic background, basing it on an ancient Hebrew blessing, the Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing.
Inspired by the biblical verse: “They shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them,” the verses of the Birkat Kohanim come from BaMidbar (Numbers) 6:23-27 in which the Levite Aaron, the first High Priest and his sons bless the nascent Israelites. Since then, this oldest of known biblical texts was adapted by individuals for personal use and has been found inscribed on amulets that date to the First Temple period beginning in 957 BCE, some of which are currently in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

According to David Abudirham, a 13th century Spanish Torah scholar focusing on synagogue liturgy, although the unconventional Birkat Kohanim doesn’t begin with “Blessed Are You…”, it is, nevertheless a prayer for peace and protection. It was and is traditionally recited in a synagogue during the major festivals to express the joy and good will of these celebrations. This blessing differs from others because it is not to be recited by an individual but by one or more Kohanim, or descendants of Aaron from the priestly Tribe of Levi. Later interpretations extended its use to rabbis for blessing children at their bar or bat mitzvot and to parents who wish to bless their children before the Sabbath meal. On these occasions, it is usually introduced with a phrase requesting G-d to endow these children with the admirable qualities of Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph or the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

The Birkat Kohanim is also replete with arcane symbols, two of which compelled me to include it in An Illumination Of Blessings.

First is the unusual configuration of the hands; held spread out beneath a prayer shawl over the congregation with fingers and thumbs positioned to create five apertures. The apertures refer to the verses in the Song of Songs (2:8-9) which posit that although G-d remains hidden, He peers through the cracks in the wall, watching over and protecting Israel. Second is the idea that the Birkat contains fifteen words corresponding to the fourteen joints of the fingers and to the palms of the hands to represent the word ‘shalom’ or peace. Accordingly, I’ve taken artistic license to mark the joints of the hands with letters of the Hebrew alephbet signifying the numbers 1 to 15.
Since the Birkat Kohanim speaks to us from the tribal era of Jewish history, the decorative element at the base of the blessing is my fanciful interpretation of the choshen, or breastplate worn by the high priest during Temple services. Within the elaborate golden frame are twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The significance of the twelve stones is explained in more detail in the AfterImages chapter of my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) on pages 144, 152 and 166. The choshen itself was said to contain a hidden pocket which held the Urim and Tmimim, two ‘oracular’ stones used only by the priests to determine answers to various questions brought by the people. The actual functionality of these stones is the stuff of legend.

Thinking back on my own fondness for Star Trek, I realized that Spock’s ubiquitous salute introduced me to a facet of Judaism that would infuse my artwork with mystical speculation for the rest of my creative life. And that turns out to be an inadvertent blessing, indeed.

Note: Additional details about the ceremonial procedure and its history may be found at these links:  http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/894569/jewish/The-Priestly-Blessing.htm and  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priestly_Blessing

A Blessing For Trees: Poems Upon The Skies

January 25, 2014

BlessingOfTheTreesModel3ALike the universal languages of music and art, trees speak to us without words, inspiring us to describe them with our own words and visual expressions. In Deuteronomy (Devarim) 20:19-20, we learn that even in wartime is life precious and that trees are essential to our continued existence: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy its trees by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayst eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by thee?…” Equally eloquent are the words of the late Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in his collection of aphorisms, Sand And Foam: “Trees are poems the Earth writes upon the sky…”.


I was reminded of these ideas during our recent observance of Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat on the Jewish calendar), the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates the renewal of trees (particularly in Israel) and the abundant gifts they provide for us. This year on January 16th, as I enjoyed some dates, figs and pomegranate seeds from among the fruit significant to Israel, I decided that I would illustrate the Blessing Of The Trees (Birkat Ha’Ilanot) for my next page in An Illumination Of Blessings. Although trees are spoken of in the blessing for certain fruits, I chose to work with a blessing for trees that also delight our sense of smell with their beautiful fragrance.


The tree shown here is an imaginary one that integrates both qualities, bearing several varieties of fragrant fruit and their corresponding flowers. Nesting at the apex of the tree is an ornate golden Torah crown and in place of its trunk is a yad (Torah pointer). Unlike the traditional single-handed instrument used for reading Torah, this one has two hands. Together, these images remind us of our stewardship of this planet. In this, we are partners with the Source of Life Who has given us trees not only for our sustenance but as a model and source for the ‘etz chaim’ or Torah staves that support our ‘Book of Life’, an eternal symbol of Earth’s partnership with Heaven.

 

 

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

On The Pragmatism Of Prayer…

April 19, 2013

TheFlightOfAPrayer

In light of the national media babbling 24/7 about the fear and trembling amidst heightened security measures that have overtaken the Boston environs in the wake of the Marathon bombing, I thought about all the prayers that go out both to comfort ourselves, each other and perhaps in attempt to stanch the rising panic over the still at-large bombing suspect. In doing so, I offer these questions for your comments:
 
1. Can prayers be understood as pleas for protection from evil, or for those more philosophically inclined, can they be seen as praise for a G-d whose will in all things is inscrutable?
2. What about the concept of prayers as a way to understand that the balance of good and evil must, however costly to life and property, be maintained for some larger cosmic purpose?
3. Could these prayers relate in some obscure way to the intent of sacrifices in ancient times? In other words, did we perform sacrifices and offer prayers as a tribute to the greatness of G-d, to assuage our fear of His/Her potential anger or a little of both?
 
In Acharey Mot, this week’s Torah reading, although the above questions are given no definitive answers, we learn how the qualities of good and evil inform a duality in our concept of G-d that inspires the custom of absolving communal sin by sacrificing two goats.
 
The illustrations below are details from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). We can see one animal lying trussed and wearing an inscribed boxwood lot dedicating it to G-d. The other, marked as an offering to ‘Azazel’ will be the scapegoat sent into the wilderness.  The term ‘Azazel’ has various connotations. Medieval commentators have referred to it as a desert cliff in the Sinai from which a goat was thrown on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of Israel. But In his commentary on Leviticus 16:8, the Spanish Talmudist Moses Ben Nachman Gerondi (Nachmanides) described Azazel as a goat-like desert god or demon. The image of a demon has long been associated in mythology with evil, sexual misdeeds and the fearsome forces of nature. Merging the two ideas produced the portrayal of Azazel as a winged demon pictured in a barren desert setting. The string tying the lot to Azazel’s goat is partly colored scarlet to recall a custom in the Temple. A red cord was hung in the Temple porch for all to know that a goat had been sent to Azazel. The amount of time needed for the goat and its escort to reach the cliff was calculated and when the sacrifice was deemed complete, the cord allegedly turned white.
 
Perhaps this elaborate, dramatic ritual, was in itself an answer to my questions? If the Torah had not told us that we were made in “…Our Image”, how else would it be possible for us to understand that God may inspire both joy and
heartbreak?
Imaginarius-AchareyMot

Of Mitzvot, Mezuzot And Morality

September 10, 2012

Many of us, feeling under the current stormy political weather, find ourselves facing uneasy choices regarding the future of society and the freedoms of the country that we have long taken for granted. But don’t worry; I’m not about to launch into a pretentious little rant here. Rather, I’ve prefaced this blog entry with the above statement to demonstrate that while our technically enhanced, media-driven political and social conflicts may often seem new to us, this week’s Torah reading, Parashah Ki Tavo, relates how very old they are; for they only serve as new disguises for those ancient energies of good and evil. Through mnemonic devices that include blessings and curses, we find a clear explanation of how our ancestors were given an understanding of these energies and an opportunity to choose between them in every decision and action.

The illustration above, Of Mitzvot & Mezuzot precedes this choice. Here, a man and woman are each wearing a prayer shawl (tallit), a mnemonic device for remembering the commandments. Through the use of gematria, the Hebrew system for number interpretation, the medieval French rabbi, Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), suggests that a tallit’s ‘tzitzit’ or fringes descending from its four corners represent the 613 commandments or mitzvot. In this system, the Hebrew letters for the word ‘tzitzit’ (as spelled in the Mishnah) accrue a value of 600, to which 8 and 5 (representing the strings and knots respectively) are added for a total of 613.

In a nod to Kabbalistic philosophy, the colors of the man’s tallit, black for Gevurah or strength and white for Chesed or lovingkindness refer to those sephirotic valences. The shadowy wings within the woman’s tallit are meant to symbolize her spiritual connection to the Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of G-d.

Parashah Ki Tavo aptly translates as ‘when you enter’, because just after crossing Jordan, before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, Moses and the Levite priests instruct them to set up a series of large stones, or stelae, coat them with lime or plaster and inscribe on them ‘every word of this Teaching most distinctly‘. The inscription on the stelae is a portion of the parashah quotation written in paleo-Hebrew and based on the Moabite stela of King Mesha dated from 850 BC.

Though this method may have preserved the inscriptions better than carving them directly into the stones, preservation did not appear to be of prime importance. According to 15th century Spanish bible commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, Moses may have been concerned that like pagan conquerors, the Israelites might choose to erect a monument to their conquest without acknowledging G-d’s role in it. So he made it plain that these stelae, or massive mezuzot, if you will, were to commemorate their commitment to God and His Commandments. It is not clear whether the writing was to include all of Torah, or only the final book. Neither, concludes Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon, the eighth century rabbi and philosopher. He posits that only the 613 mitzvot were written on the stones because while all of Torah is important, the mitzvot are commandments related to blessings and curses that are connected to direct action. Within the inscribed stele at the lower right of this page is an image of the altar that the Israelites were required to build on Mt. Ebal using similar stones. Because the altar would serve a holy purpose, iron tools, normally used for weapons were prohibited in its construction.

The small decorative mezuzah, seen behind the woman, suggests a modern parallel to those original monuments. Traditionally, a mezuzah is a sort of amulet attached to the doorway of a Jewish home that contains a tiny specially prepared sheet of parchment called a  ‘klaf”. Portions of the Shema (the core prayer in Judaism) are written on it in Hebrew.

In The Consequences Of Choice, shown below, are representatives of  Israel’s twelve tribes, six from each. After raising the stelae, these leaders were then instructed to position themselves  on two facing mountains separated by a valley.

The color of each figure is based on their associated gem set into the choshen (breastplate) of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). From the valley between Mts. Ebal and Gerizim, with Ark of the Covenant in full view, Moses and the priests called out to the tribes, alternating between blessings and curses to reinforce their understanding of good and evil and to ensure that the boundaries between them would never be breached. This understanding was a major prerequisite for settlement in the Promised Land.

Hovering above this tableau, two keruvim (cherubim), each holding a tree are facing away from each other in contrast to their position atop The Ark Of The Covenant to emphasize the discord that ensues when good and evil actions become indistinct from one another. The left keruv’s luxuriant tree represents blessings or fertility when the Laws are properly implemented while the right keruv’s barren tree signifies the curses that will come to pass when the Laws are disobeyed.

Finally, the word ‘Amen‘ is seen above the priests because when we say ‘Amen‘ after a blessing, we are binding ourselves in the light of that blessing and strengthening the bridge between the Upper and Lower worlds. The word ‘Amen‘, calligraphically depicted in its positive and negative aspects emphasizes the tribes’ clear understanding and acceptance of both blessings and curses.

Though I have only one vote in this approaching election, I can only hope that we, as citizens of this unique land, will vote together to ensure that its outcome benefits the physical and spiritual needs of us all; rich, poor and in the middle; for it will define us as standard bearers of the balance of good and evil for future generations.

A Spiritual Blueprint

February 20, 2012

Sometimes, life seems so complex and inscrutable that we forget the intent of its basic philosophic and moral codes found in Parashah Mishpatim(Exodus/Shemot), the Torah reading for this past Sabbath. That intent was imparted to Moses in a form that defied understanding in those times, requiring him to render it comprehensible to his people and by extension, to all of us. Not a simple task by any means, but somehow, we were given a ‘recipe’, if you will, for living and developing our spiritual potential. Over time, much scholarly interpretation attempted to clarify these ideas and have indeed shed much light on them, but have also often resulted in obfuscation. To be fair, I admit that re-interpreting any classical text runs this risk, but perhaps that is part of our own task in pursuing our intellectual and spiritual growth process. I accepted this risk when I wrote and illustrated Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) For those of you whose inclination is towards literal Torah interpretation, you may find it objectionable on some levels, but be assured no insult was intended. Rather, the book is the result of my own artistic and spiritual journey which I wanted to share with those whose questions and ideas might parallel my own. Though we cannot begin to compare to Moses and his special status, I think that any attempt to preserve and disseminate his message may serve to keep us in perpetual pursuit of answers through the questions we were created to ask. From the AfterImages portion of Between Heaven & Earth, here are my interpretations for the images posted this week:

A Torah Tableaux (above) illustrates passage 24:3 from Parashah Mishpatim, which relates how, just prior to writing the Torah; Moses came and repeated God’s commandments to the people. They responded with ‘one voice’, promising to comply with all that the commandments required. I have taken this idea a step further in suggesting that whoever will maintain their dedication to God and to becoming ‘one with His Torah’ will continue to earn His Divine Protection. Following the spectacular event at Mt. Sinai, here is Moses the Scribe (Moshe Ha-Sofer)  in an intimate conversation with an ethereal mask, a visual metaphor of the God Whom we may not look upon. He has written the word ‘Amalek’ on a surface that is separate from the actual Torah scroll and crossed it out three times; the traditional first step a Torah scribe takes when beginning to write a new scroll. With this requirement, the Torah teaches us to understand our history; to do good and not evil.  The unique four-pronged letter shin is emblazoned on the forehead of the mask. It is called ‘The Letter’ or ‘Ha-Ot’ and with the standard shin of the alefbet reminds us that the Torah was given to us in two media; on stone and on parchment. When God instructed Moses to write a Torah scroll with ink on gewil, the special portion of a kosher animal’s skin, or parchment, it was written with the ‘normal’ three-pronged shin. But when the letters were engraved on stone tablets, they appeared from a negative space, which can be seen only by the outline in the remaining stone. The four-pronged shin represents the outline of the shin engraved on the tablets and is only one of two appearances of this special letter. The other place it can be seen is on the head tefillin or phylacteries used for daily prayer. The Ha-Ot is there to inform us that if we will learn Torah with its three-pronged shin, we will be granted the understanding to comprehend the true value of this holy gift.