Posts Tagged ‘Kabbalah’

The Evolution Of Choice: Tattoo Or Not To?

August 16, 2012

This week, in our reading of Parashah Re’eh in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we discover a complex chapter that addresses the Israelites’ approaching settlement of Canaan. It is filled with cultural admonishments and exhortations designed to preserve the relatively fledging concept of monotheism. Because so much of the text recaps stories and strong points of the first four books of the Torah, I chose to focus on the brief section (14:1-14:3) that seemed pointedly relevant to contemporary life; the section that addresses choice in individual holiness.

As an illustrator and graphic designer, it is necessary to establish a unique brand identity within an extremely competitive market. This logo, or mark that represents our professional achievements and aspirations, though it may take the form of a simple graphic or phrase requires much thought. It becomes the face you present to the world. Though I have experimented with several designs over the years, a sun and moon motif remains my favorite, since it speaks to the timelessness of creative spirit.

A little story: Once, years ago at a neighborhood shop I purchased some stones and beads that I could fashion into a necklace. As I reached into my purse to pay for these items, one of my business cards inadvertently fell onto the counter. A young patron behind me caught a glimpse of it and immediately inquired if she might have one so that she could copy the design for a tattoo. For a moment I was flattered and somewhat amused, but my inner ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi‘ quietly nudged me. “This tattoo (K’tovet Ka’aka) would be so not kosher!” it seemed to say. I offered a crooked smile and told her, “It’s nice that you like my work; thanks. Maybe you are not Jewish, but I’m afraid my religion doesn’t permit tattoos and I would not feel good about letting my work be used for them.” The young woman stared at me. “Oh,” she said with a frown. “Too bad, it’s a great design.” Something about her narrowed eyes told me she would have some version of it made anyway. Oh well.

Though tattoos are as old as the history of many cultures (full body coverage is a fine art in Japan called horimono), they’ve become ubiquitous in our urban landscape with less clothing worn in public being the norm. I began to pay special attention to the numerous young people sporting a variety of tattoos and body piercings when I left the shop. At that time, I hadn’t seen any tattooed Jews, but maybe they weren’t as bold about them as they are today given the caché of magen-david studded tabloid celebrities who profess to be ‘into’ kabbalah.

Anyway, I found some of the wide array of designs interesting, even technically brilliant from an artistic perspective, but deeply disturbing otherwise. Perhaps it was their aura of permanence (though removal is easier these days), but in retrospect I think that my fickle artistic sensibilities would soon grow weary of any design I chose despite my passion for it at the time. Not to mention how age and wrinkles would distort it.

I was prompted to check out the Torah to verify this prohibition. Though the Torah views tattooing, body piercing and shaving portions of the head as evidence of ancient cultic death rituals and a form of idolatry (Avodah Zarah), other subtle issues around it such as cosmetic tattooing are addressed in rabbinic discourse. Rabbi Chaim Jachter, faculty advisor at The Torah Academy of Bergen County, NJ suggests that our bodies do not belong to us, but are loaned to us that we may perform mitzvot; not to do whatever we wish with them. There are some who scoff at the law barring Jews with tattoos from burial in a Jewish cemetery and by extension at that law requiring that only Jews of good conscience belong in such hallowed ground. No one is perfect, they say. Saints and liars may not be kosher fellow dirt-nappers but who’s going to argue after the funeral? I don’t know the technicalities, but that argument sounds pretty disingenuous to me while it attempts to sanction undesirable behavior.

The young Goth woman about to eat a scorpion kebab accompanies the quotation on the opposite page to demonstrate another important prohibition of this parashah; polluting our inner purity with forbidden foods. The grid below her displays a selection of animals that permitted (full color) and forbidden (mauve color). As world travelers  know, these foods (scorpion kebabs are a common street food in Beijing) are readily available and many find them appetizing. But again, eating such things raises the question of choice. Are she and the tattooed man with the skull Jews? Hard to tell, but for my purposes, they are, since they might easily reflect the growing trend among young Jews to adopt this form of body modification. Nevermind that we have always been a people apart; is it really necessary to blatantly remind the world of that fact? What Holocaust survivor still alive wouldn’t shudder at the sight of a young tattooed Jew? Even if said tattooed Jew loudly proclaims that he/she is proud of their Jewishness and wishes the rest of the world to know it?

That is why I’ve placed a Holocaust witness in the background; for perspective. He might be their ancestor observing their assimilation into our surrounding culture. Yet he seems to say that as much as we try to disguise our ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi’ or even to silence it with sheer rebellion, such choices may again become our undoing.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that being ‘cool’ is knowing you don’t need to be.

The illustrations above may be found along with additional footnotes in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html.

The Challenge Of Change

June 21, 2012

Though  I am not fluent in French, the classic aphorism, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they remain the same) seems particularly relevant with regards to Korah, the Torah portion from the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) that will be read this Sabbath. This particular parashah is memorable to me personally, as it marks the Bar Mitzvah of my eldest son in 1988 and the beginning of the thought process and research that would become my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). As the story recounts the challenge made by the Levite Korah to the divinely ordained authority of his cousins Moses and Aaron, it reminds us that the often smarmy dynamics that characterize ‘modern’ politics has barely changed in 2.000+ years. From the AfterImages section of this book which also includes footnotes for the sources, here is an excerpt of the interpretation for the illustrations shown above and below:

“In The Price Of Power, we see the blue-robed Korah ben Izhar, a wealthy, prominent Levite. Despite his influence as cousin to Moses and Aaron, he craved more power and determined to challenge the authority assigned to them over the Israelites. He gathered 250 men with ambitious agendas of their own, and outfitted them in luxurious tallitot (prayer shawls) made entirely of blue wool. In a mockery of the ‘one-cord of blue’ commandment (Shelakh-Lekha), Korah, exhibits a serpents’ forked tongue as he and his party arrogantly confront Moses and Aaron with a cunning argument for the equal holiness of all the Israelites.

Yet, for such a clever man, he seemed unaware that challenging God’s wisdom would have dire consequences. The Mishnah  describes the violent ‘earthquake’ that swallowed Korah and his men as the ‘mouth of earth’, one of ten mystical things created before the first Sabbath of the world. The copper firepans (upper left) had once held incense offerings. These were obligatory when Korah requested the meeting with Moses and Aaron. They were all that remained of Korah’s party. The firepans were later gathered by Eleazar, Aaron’s son to be melted into plating for the sacrificial altar– a legacy of this tragic event. Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Bible suggested the disgruntled sun and moon. They, too, challenged God and refused to voluntarily perform their duties if He levied punishment on Korah and his men. Ever after, sun and moon must be prodded into their daily cycles. With linguistic irony, the three Hebrew consonants in Korah’s name translate as ‘kereach’ or’ice’ and also as ‘bald’, both meaningful descriptions of his nature. The ‘ice’ refers to his cold, logical approach to spiritual matters while the ‘bald’ recalls the ‘bald spot’ he left among the Israelites when the earth swallowed his followers. 

When Korah challenged the right of Aaron to be High Priest, The Ark Of Judgment was employed to provide a test of faith in response. One of its k’ruvim sits on top of the Ark holding eleven barren staffs, each carved with the name of a tribe. The other keruv holds the staff of the tribe of Levi, which has put forth almond blossoms and fruit, confirming the choice of Aaron as High Priest of Israel. Aptly characterizing this tale is an unusual feature of Aaron’s staff: its dual fruits of bitter and sweet almonds. One variety begins sweet and turns bitter, like most disputes while the variety that begins bitter, but yields sweet fruit is akin to the achievement of peace. The motif on the shekel coin below commemorates the miracle of Aaron’s staff. The almonds in the hands below Aaron’s crown demonstrate that their name in Hebrew, ‘shaked’ is a permutation of ‘kodesh’ meaning ‘holy’: proof that God had chosen Aaron to bring holiness to the world.”

So where does that leave us now? In a metaphorical desert, I suppose; forced to define our own sense of morality in the face of our own media-driven misinformation campaigns. Then, as now, personal wealth and smarmy charm were exploited to secure a position of leadership with intentions that were far more self-centric than concerned with the spiritual and physical well-being of those who would be led. The major difference between now and then is the absence of a Divine Presence to dramatically balance the scales of justice, unless you naively believe that those who would rule us have a hot-line to Heaven.

“A Cord Of Blue…”

June 15, 2012

Though Parashah Shelakh-Lekha in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) is memorable for its dramatic account of Joshua, Caleb and the group of ‘spies’ sent to scope out the land of Canaan, its final verse (16:37) is the take-away message that will inform the identity of the Jewish people for generations to come. The message appears in the quotation within the illustration above, titled A Foundation Of Faith. It and the interpretation that follows have been adapted from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)*

The title refers to the Even ha-Shetiyyah, or the mythical Foundation Stone upon which the world was created. Diverse legends describe this immense stone and its origins. There is an eye at its center to indicate the presence of God within every aspect of Creation. Poised on the stone is man wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin engaged in prayer. The tallit prominently features the knotted fringes at the four corners of the garment, which the man has gathered together. Each fringe contains a cord of blue as a daily reminder of the bondage in Egypt and the instructions to observe all of God’s commandments. The tefillin are two small black lacquered boxes containing passages of Torah with black straps attached to them. One box, worn on the head bears a four-pronged letter shin. The other is placed on the left arm, near the heart. The straps are wrapped around the left arm and hand so as to form the Name of God. Suspended above the man’s hands is the letter aleph, whose description by the magic realist writer Jorge Luis Borges  inspired its inclusion here. “ In the Kabbala, that letter stands for the Eyn Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher world…”

 Above the figure is a tiny Murex trunculus snail, the origin of the famed blue dye called techeilet. Known as the chilazon in Hebrew this boneless invertebrate was found on the coast of Northern Israel and ancient Phoenicia and its secretions processed at dyeworks in Tyre. Behind the figure is a compass motif inspired by a medallion that illuminates the Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides’ classic work, Guide To The Perplexed. As the Foundation Stone supports the ‘four corners’ of the world, the cardinal points on the compass guide the two figures representing Jews around the world towards the observances of their faith. Though the Sabbath occurs each week, its potential to remind us of what we’ve forgotten while offering us new understanding are timeless.

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

Of Memories And Realities

June 8, 2012

As always, I am surprised at how the stories and lessons in the Torah are able to transcend their times and reach into our own. Understanding how requires projecting and transposing their symbolism into our present era. This week’s reading, Parashah Beha’alotekha , addresses a range of instructions and events in the Israelites’ post-Exodus sojourn that include Tabernacle/Mishkan rituals for the Levites (priestly class) and the establishment of a second Passover (Pesach Sheni) for those who were not permitted to participate in the first one due to ritual impurities. These are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

Today, I’ve decided to focus on a third element that is also addressed in this parashah; the events caused by the sometimes tragic disconnect between what we remember and what is.  The images above are selected from the illustrations for this parashah and presented here with a brief explanation of their symbolism.

The figure floating above the sand is an allegory for some of the Israelites who have come perilously close to idolatry in their weariness and boredom with the abundant supply of manna (buried in the sand). I imagined them as a hybrid creature of man and fish; a parody of the pagan fish-god Dagon angrily demanding meat while voicing idealized memories of Egypt’s plentiful cuisine. He is holding a backwards-facing letter nun’ that appears twice in this section of Parashah Beha’alotekha, surrounding the account of the Israelites leaving Mt. Sinai and their subsequent rebellious demands. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz, also known as the ‘Kli Yakar’ explains this phenomenon. In the Aramaic language, the word for fish is ‘nune‘. A fish instinctively turns towards water, as it understands where it can remain alive. Conversely, the Israelites, in their eagerness for the Promised Land, left Mt. Sinai without remorse, turning away from their source of life; acting metaphorically as a backward ‘nune‘ or fish. God’s retribution for their attitude comes at Kivroth HaTaavah (also called ‘The Graves of Craving’), a day’s march from the Sinai wilderness. A multitude of quails descend on the camps, sating their hunger, but leaving behind a devastating plague. Accordingly, the second backwards nun appears just out of reach near a hand protruding in the agony of death. A discussion in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 75b) offers a mystical foundation for God’s choice of quails as meat. This type of bird is naturally saturated with fat and oil. Oil, in mystical texts is often compared to the sefirot of Chochma, or wisdom. So the oily quail meat may have been an altruistic attempt to impart wisdom to the Israelites, but one that failed since they were too attached to their own bodily needs to attend to their spiritual needs.

Moving forward, I find a potential parallel between those ancient Israelites and our religious fundamentalists, politicians and the wealthy 1% who support them. In their ideological nostalgia for the 1950’s, an era of burgeoning national prosperity and civic growth fueled by two disastrous world wars, those fatalistic desires have become a foundation of quicksand beneath us, eroding moral behavior, political and social balance within a gravely ailing economy. Despite the often clairvoyant voices of media pundits and commentators, we seem stuck in that quicksand. Like those unfortunate Israelites eager to satisfy their hunger, we too are enslaved by our creature comforts and the tantalizing consumer culture we’ve created that enables them.

Nevertheless, I believe we have the potential to be better than our material needs by looking inwards and trying to understand the essence of our humanity that such materialism is decimating. Do we truly need the latest SUV, grand McMansion or expensive ocean cruise? If so, why?

For Shavuot: An Antidote For Apathy

May 25, 2012

Despite my conviction that works of art and literature, always contain the potential to become a work in progress, I am invariably surprised to find proof of this continual process of awakening and learning. Tomorrow, as we begin the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar), it is nearly three years after the publication of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).* Though I created illustrations for Parashat BaMidbar based on narrative with some artistic license, I recently wondered why Parashah BaMidbar (In The Desert) was designated as the Torah reading on the festival of Shavuot when it opens on the census of Israel, and focuses on tribal positions around the Tabernacle along with the rules regarding service of the Levite priestly class rather than the actual receiving of the Law from Mt. Sinai.

The parashah states, “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai” (BaMidbar 1:1),for which the Midrash (BaMidbar Rabba 1:7) offered this metaphorical explanation: “Our Sages have inferred… that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and desert” (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7). Though I am aware of the concept of mystical, elemental underpinnings within the desert sojourn, a 2010 commentary by Rabbi David Pinto, ShLIT”A provided some further clarification:”It may be that by this teaching, the Sages wanted to show man that he can only safeguard his learning and resist the evil inclination, which seeks to control him every day, by means of the Torah which possesses these three characteristics. As our Sages have said, “I created the evil inclination, but I created the Torah as its antidote.” (Kiddushin 30b). “Since the evil inclination is made of fire,…a person can only resist
it by the power of Torah, which is compared to fire… The evil inclination is like a small fire that anything can extinguish, and the Torah is a blazing fire that never goes out…thus the fire of the evil inclination is consumed by the fire of the Torah…In order for a person not to grow proud on account of the fire of the Torah, he must humble himself and resemble water. (Ruth Zutah 1). This is why the Sages instituted the reading of Parsha Bamidbar prior to Shavuot. It is in order to remind us that the Torah only endures in us when we metaphorically transform into a desert (perhaps a receptacle) for G-d’s will.

Wow. I guess that’s about as close as we’ll come to a ‘user’s manual’ for the Torah, whose full meaning and that of the events surrounding its debut will (hopefully) continue to be interpreted for many generations to come. Whether or not you agree with these ideas, apathy is not an option.

The full illustrations and complex symbolism on these pages are explained in greater detail in the AfterImages section of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) on pages 165-166. Your questions and comments are welcome!

The book may be previewed and purchased at: http://www.magiceyegallery.com under the gallery pull-down menu titled Books’.

Omer, Emor & Zohar: Of Stars & Seasons

May 11, 2012

This year’s observance of the Lag B’Omer holiday began on Wednesday evening and continued until sundown on Thursday. Accordingly, the Torah portion from the Book of Leviticus/VaYikra that will be read tomorrow is named Emor and addresses the significance and structure of the seasons of our year.

Parashah Emor, meaning ‘speak ‘in Hebrew is one of perceptive contrasts. Although the festivals of the Jewish year are introduced in the book of Exodus, they are reprised in this section of Leviticus to include the laws applying to Kohanim, the priests of Israel. While these laws serve to set the role of the Kohanim apart from the community, they also teach us that even in times of great misfortune and sadness, it is important to retain holiness and joy in life by the regular observance of festivals and holy days. Our calendar is an important means for the understanding and intelligent use of time. It allows us to set aside our daily routines and enter a state of transformation leading to spiritual growth. For example, the search on the eve of Passover to remove traces of bread (chametz) from our homes equates with a search and examination of our own imperfections. Judaism employs a luni-solar calendar in which the year corresponds with the solar calendar and its months match the lunar calendar. Since the twelve months of the Jewish calendar are about eleven days short of a 365-day year, a leap month is added to the calendar on a 19-year cycle. The Hebrew zodiac in the illustration illuminates this concept.

The parashah focuses on the observances and performances of good deeds (mitzvot) for the festivals of Passover (Sefirat ha’Omer or Counting of the Omer), Shavuot (Shtei Ha’Lechem or Grain Offering), Rosh HaShanah (Yom Teruah or Blowing of the Shofar), Yom Kippur (Fasting) and Sukkot (Sukkah Booth & Arba Minim or Four Species). In choosing images for this parashah, I’ve focused on the ‘Counting of the Omer’ that occurs during the 49 days between Passover (The Exodus from Egypt) and Shavuot (The Giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai). ‘Omer‘ is the Hebrew word for ‘sheaf’, an offering of grain brought to the Temple in hopes of a healthy barley harvest. For a seven-week period, one ‘omer‘ is set aside and counted on each of the 49 days. This practice commemorates the length of time taken by the Israelites to reach Mt. Sinai from Egypt after the Exodus. According the Zohar, a collection of classic Jewish mystical treatises, this is also a period recognizing their transition from spiritual impurity to becoming a people in a profound relationship with God inaugurated by their receipt of the Law on Shavuot.

For those of you who have not seen it, the illustrations for this parashah are adapted from my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)* as is the interpretation above. Between the zodiac of the Hebrew year and a grid depicting the counting of the omer with a sprig of barley, the young boy holding a small etrog (citrus) tree reflects a custom among Orthodox Jews that is observed on Lag B’Omer. Until he reaches the age of three, a child is considered unable to interact fully with this world, as he is deeply absorbed in building his spiritual infrastructure. After this time, his family and friends stage an ‘Upshernish‘ or formal haircut celebration to initiate his ‘entry into the world’. If a child’s birthday falls between Passover and Lag B’Omer when hair is not permitted to be cut, the event is postponed until Lag B’Omer. Having attended several of these events, I am always touched by the tender poignance radiating from the child and parent who supports him. The tiny etrog tree and the letter aleph are included here as symbols of the Torah learning and mitzvot that the child will begin to experience. It is heartening to know that we too, can observe this time cognizant of our journey towards fuller spirituality. Hag Sameach!

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

On Art And Memory

April 30, 2012

Despite the volumes of analysis, artspeak and criticism that accompany the long history of art, it seems that each generation is compelled to coin new definitions and ‘movements’ for their own artistic expression or at least redefine and clarify existing terms.

From my own experience, the question of what makes art ‘Jewish’ or what is ‘Jewish art’ was raised in the early 80’s during a solo exhibition. In writing his review, the reporter for a local newspaper asked me to define it for his broader audience. He wanted to know whether art was deemed ‘Jewish’ because of its subject matter or because it was made by a Jewish artist. At that moment, I couldn’t say, but I did know that it had to be some combination of both. Only a few days later on December 12, 1982, I’d finished reading Chaim Potok’s 1972 book, My Name Is Asher Lev when an answer came to me that I recorded in one of my journals: ‘Jewish art, regardless of its creator, is what emerges when one is inspired to create art whose imagery is specific to Jewish culture, history, tradition and/or ritual.’ Given my penchant for illustration, my love of stories and growing interest in a faith I was born to but did not deeply observe, that realization would become the touchstone for much of the work I would produce in the ensuing three decades.

As I explored the literature, history and traditions of Judaism, I began to understand how vital art is in the preservation of our collective memories so our descendants may inherit them and pay them forward. When the details of a story have faded with time, an image associated with that story remains the guardian of its essence. By visually encoding its imaginings, traditions and memories, these components are assured a certain immortality that becomes verbally embellished with specific details at each viewing. These thoughts inspired today’s illustration, The Besht’s* Minyan, based on an old, often retold legend of the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name:

When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him that involved the safety and welfare of the Jewish community, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer. Afterwards, what he had set out to accomplish was done.

A generation later, when the Maggid**of Mezhyrich was faced with a similar task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers.” And what he prayed for became reality.

In a succeeding generation, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov too, was faced with the difficult task of ensuring the well-being of the Jewish community. Returning to the woods where his ancestors had prayed, he said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we do know this place in the woods to which it belongs; that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

Finally, in the generation that followed, Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin was called upon to perform the time-worn task of preserving his community, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: ‘we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story on how it was done.”
And the story which he told verified in effect the actions of the previous three sages.

All of which persuades me to conclude that as I continue to interpret the stories that illuminate Jewish history, mysteries and seemingly mundane wisdom, I may be doing my small part to pay forward that vibrant tapestry of ideas into the continuum of who we were, who we are and who we may yet be.

I welcome your questions and interpretations of this image as I look forward to continuing this conversation…
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*’Besht'(בעש”ט) is the acronym for Baal Shem Tov. Though later attributed to several of his descendants and disciples, this honorific was originally attributed to the 17th century rabbi Yisroel(Israel)ben Eliezer who is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a movement based on his own spiritual and mystical insights and practices. For further information, Wikipedia offers a lengthier biography and explanation of the Besht’s philosophies at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal_Shem_Tov.

**an Eastern European Jewish itinerant preacher of Torah and narrator of religious stories.

An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence

April 19, 2012


A favorite trope of philosophers and religious scholars from ancient times to ours has been the concept of free choice. Does it exist as a vague tenet of traditional religious entitlement so we may feel free to question our ‘destiny’? Or is it merely a glib, convenient dodge for questionable behavior? Either way, acting upon it is never without consequences for the present or the future, both of which we like to think we can influence even if that influence may be illusory in itself. One of the stronger arguments for the consequence of interpreting the concept of free choice is found in Parashat Shemini, this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

In the illustration above, called Choice & Consequence, a scale is suspended from a mystical winged yad (Torah pointer). One pan holds the sephirah of Chesed (lovingkindness) that has been damaged and unbalanced by the sephirah Gevurah, (strength and power) in the other pan. The status of these qualities lies beneath the many vivid examples of victory and tragedy in the Torah narrative. One of most heartbreaking events was the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, High Priest of Israel. The young men were also godsons of Moses, Aaron’s brother. The Talmud and Kabbalah offer multiple interpretations of this incident. The most familiar is the brother’s unauthorized offering of incense or ‘strange fire though not requested to do so. According to Louis Ginzburg’s Legends of the Bible 1, they were killed upon their offering by two filaments of fire that flashed from the Ark in the Tabernacle. These split into four flames, pierced the nostrils of the young men and incinerated their souls. The bodies are shown intact for the legend also claims that after the event, no external injuries were visible. My imagination rode this story back to an earlier example of an unacceptable sacrifice; that of Adam’s son Cain, his rejected harvest offering and subsequent murder of his brother Abel. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering makes this tale equally tragic despite God’s vague attempt to justify his action to an angry and vengeful Cain. Though the later sacrificial system was designed to short-circuit the expression of these emotions, the loss of these young lives remains a scar on our history. One of the stranger postscripts to Cain’s murder of his brother is that God chose not to destroy Cain for his misdeed. Instead, he was condemned to live with his crime for an extraordinarily long lifetime while bearing an enigmatic stigma. Rashi, the medieval French Torah commentator asserts that this ‘mark of Cain’ was a horn that protruded from his forehead eventually causing his death by a hunter who mistook him for an animal. Another interpretation in the Zohar(Book of Splendor) associates this mark with the Hebrew letter ‘vav‘ because the name Cain or ‘qayin‘ in Hebrew, means ‘hook’.2 Was this ‘vav‘ or ‘hook’ meant to connect Cain to God during his journey towards spiritual redemption? Since both of these assertions intrigued me, I decided to combine them in one image showing Cain’s horn emerging from the ancient Hebrew letter ‘vav‘. The design of his horn was suggested by the ‘horns’ of the mizbeach or sacrificial altar.

I often marvel at how everything is connected in strange and subtle ways. Though created as a stand-alone post, last week’s drawing, ‘Innovasion'(detail shown above) whimsically explored the theme of unusual eating utensils. Coincidentally, the other important theme in Parashat Shemini, happens to be the laws of kashrut (kosher eating practices)regarding animals; laws that clarify which animals may and may not be eaten with any utensils. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the illustration for this section of Parashat Shemini, called Sanction & Censure was my final choice for the book. Yet, I thought it might be interesting to show an alternative option I considered at the time.

By way of explanation, the diverse array of creatures categorized in Parashah Shemini as kosher and unkosher provided an intense artistic challenge. As I began to draw these creatures, I was as delighted as a child to be depicting representatives of the vast array of life forms inhabiting our planet. Digging further into the laws of kashrut, however, these restrictions seemed way too complex to be arbitrary. I wondered about their true meaning for us beyond straightforward obedience. Though I personally understand and observe the basic tenets of kashrus, my imagination is simultaneously attracted to the esoteric. So, upon closer examination, if the animals I have drawn seem to have unique personalities, they do. Their ‘personalities’ were suggested by the Hasidic idea that each creature deemed ‘kosher’ contains ‘sparks of holiness’ and that when properly blessed and eaten, those ‘sparks’ are released, inviting the Divine Presence into our material world. Accordingly the creatures appearing fully colored underscore this idea. Those appearing in neutral grey tones within the black chessboard grid are considered inappropriate to be eaten and for the performance of commandments (mitzvot). Surrounding the ‘chessboard’ are emblems representing four of the spiritual worlds (atzilus,beriyah,yetzirah,asiyah) and elements associated with them (air, water, earth, fire). I thought these should remind us that free choice may not exist merely to reassure our need for independent thinking, but rather we should understand it as a way to reaffirm our connection to creation and to each other.

A Passover Perspective: Of Sanctuary And Sacrifice

March 30, 2012


As we enter the week preceding the Passover holiday, mindful of the history it commemorates, it is always with some trepidation. Some of that anxiety centers around the shopping and intense household tasks involved in preparation for the seder meals, but for me, as I do so, there is always the nagging question of ‘how much is enough’? Of course, if one observes stringent, time-honored personal tradition, such a question is never asked; preparations are undertaken with a few eye-rolls but mostly with zealous pride.

However, in the years since my children were young, my own preparation has become less formal, more intuitive in terms of the symbolism underlying each ritual. Ironically, as my domestic rituals shifted, my wish to continue identifying as a Jew began to take shape as an interest in the holiday’s cultural rationale and its history. Indeed, these became germaine in producing the illustrations and commentary in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) It was as though all those years had been a sort of practice for what was to come.

The illustrations accompanying this week’s post are from The Book of Leviticus/Vayikra and address Parashat Tzav. While the book presents a slightly different arrangement of the images, on reflection I have added an element from Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy/Devarim) to cast them in a larger perspective. Though the figure from Parashat Re’eh speaks for itself, a full explanation of the other images may be read on pp. 155-156 in the AfterImages
portion of the book.

A wag for whom I’ve much affection once suggested that since the Israelites had so little time to prepare for their exodus and we are compelled to observe the holiday as though we too were about to leave Egypt, perhaps an appropriate symbolic ritual would be to forget all the Passover dishes and chametz-chasing. Instead, we should consider packing a few suitcases for basic survival and leaving them near the door as a reminder that on a moment’s notice, we may be compelled to leave our homes for a great unknown.

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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