Posts Tagged ‘kosher animals’

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.

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The Price Of $acrifice

March 4, 2012

The trope of duality, running throughout Creation, seems especially poignant in parashah T’Tzavveh, yesterday’s Sabbath Torah reading. In the detailed instructions for the sacrificial rites to be performed in the Mishkan(Tabernacle) and later in the Temple, I sense a subtle thread of altruism amidst the darkly violent nature of these rites which require the ‘merciful’ slaughter of prescribed animals for the appeasement of God and by extension to our deep-seated animal natures. These rites quite likely reflect the dual nature of the One who, in a terrifying display of otherworldly power, bestowed our code of living from Mt. Sinai. But it might be that light show was simply part of a recipe for extracting the divine elements in each of us. Yet, as in any ‘surgical’ procedure, such spiritual ‘correction’ is not without considerable, perhaps chronic pain. It is this idea that provoked the illustrations of sacrifice, both public and personal, above.

By way of explanation, the kosher animals pictured are examples of those to be sacrificed daily or on specified occasions for a public offering, not as a ‘bribe’ or ‘food’ for God, but in order to come close to Him through the revelation of our divine natures. Above and to the right of the animals is a supplemental grain offering of unleavened bread. The amphora of olive oil must be used by Aaron to anoint the altar in preparation for the sacrificial ritual. Aaron the High Priest and his wife Elisheva (who is never mentioned in the text) appear to the left of the offerings. His fingers are parted in Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing and the small Hebrew letter  ‘khet’ appears on his palm indicating his corresponding sephira of ‘hod‘. The event shown here will happen in Leviticus, but I’ve brought it forward in the Torah chronology after the elaborate instructions for the design of his garments in T’Tzavveh to stress the importance and demands of Aaron’s responsibility to his people. The time is shortly after the death of Nadav and Abihu, two of their four sons, destroyed by God for ‘bringing strange fire’ to the incense altar. A burning firepan can be seen in front of Elisheva. Though there has been much speculation by rabbis and scholars, it is not clear what exactly caused their untimely deaths. A rabbinic legend in the Babylonian Talmud, speculates that God’s fire destroyed their souls but not their bodies. Presuming they were given proper burials, I have not shown their bodies, but only their special priestly clothing, which their mother Elisheva clutches to herself in grief. Conversely, Aaron, their father is forbidden to mourn in light of their judgmental death and his overarching responsibility as High Priest to the community. Nevertheless, in light of his humanity, I have allowed a quiet tear to escape.

These images are from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher at this link: http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon: amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will also find several reviews.