Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Sinai’

Thunder And Lightning! Oh, My…!

May 21, 2014

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We can’t mistake or ignore them. Like the rain, sun, winds, and snow, thunder and lightning remind us of our place in the moment, celestial bookmarks, if you will.

They assault our senses and extort our reluctant humility regardless of how clever and powerful we believe we are. Ancient cultures, their divinities and religious rites were by-products of the awe and terror their dramatic appearance commanded.

When the growing sophistication of monotheism began to dominate much of human society, its scholars and poets attributed a more subtle intent to them.

In the Talmud (Brachot 59a), we are taught to recite blessings on several varieties of natural phenomena such as comets and earthquakes. On thunder and lightning, the custom developed to recite two separate but related blessings because they may be two sides of the same coin. We also learn that “Thunder was created only in order to straighten the crookedness of the heart.” Moreover, the Mishnah** Berurah 227:5, considers it, rather than lightning, the more potent signal of divine power.

In his legal opinion on the Shulchan Aruch*, the 16th century Polish Rabbi David Ha-Levi Segal, also known as ‘Taz’, speculated that perhaps thunder’s roar makes it the dominant natural force, although he did not know how the custom of two blessings for these phenomena originated. He suggested that the blessing for lightning (Blessed Are You, Source of Life, Who Makes the works of Creation) can be recited in the presence of either thunder or lightning, particularly when they are witnessed together.

Now there’s a powerful image! Thunder and lightning as a vast cosmic defibrillator!

Sure, science has it own technical explanation for these ‘natural’ phenomena and in a sense, these ideas are comforting because they give us an illusion of control via ‘understanding’. But the Talmudic observation is also a lyrical way of reminding us to ask who or what created thunder and lightning and why? From the standpoint of religious faith, the answer is indisputable.

Though we appreciate a certain majestic beauty in the raw violence of nature’s elemental symphonies that play against bruised and sullen skies, how else, but by contrast, would we appreciate their alternate persona; that breath-taking sapphire clarity under a sun dodging wispy or pompous clouds? At the very least, it is convincing evidence for the myriad dualities of creation.

Illustrating this elemental blessing seemed simple at first; one need only show a dark sky with bursts of lightning, leaving the noise of thunder to the imagination. But further reading convinced me of its deeper significance. Tracing the history of our developing comprehension of thunder and lightning, I suddenly wondered, were there any recurring shapes or patterns in a storm’s bursts of lightning? Could they form some sort of heavenly message? Ok, ok, I know this whimsy is magical thinking. But then, I’m not a meteorologist with hard knowledge of the electrical and mathematical characteristics that might explain its technical structure.

So I let my imagination travel back to Mt. Sinai and the revelation of the Law. Could the thunder have been meant to call our attention to lightning’s shapes and patterns inspiring ancient minds to create the letter-forms of an early paleo-Hebrew language? I soon envisioned a rare single cell thunderstorm hovering over the mountain, wondering whether its winds, shaking the burning bush on the mountain, also whispered meaning into Moses’ ear? As the illustration progressed, I couldn’t resist allowing a tiny lightning bug onto it, illuminating the wonder and complexity of our existence.

Presenting the blessing in this light might be an improbable leap of faith, dismissible by many as nonsense, yet I’d like to think that transliterating this divine ‘skywriting’, has brought us a long way in understanding one of the countless chapters we’ve marked in the Book of Life.

* Codification of Oral Law of Torah by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi,180-220 CE

**The Code of Jewish Law, written in Safed, Israel and published in Venice by Yosef Karo in 1563-57.

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The Mindfulness Of A New Endeavor

April 15, 2014

ImageOn the eve of the Pesach/Passover holiday, which begins a time of reflection and renewal of purpose, this blessing for a new endeavor completes the Journeys portion of An Illumination Of Blessings and seems appropriate for today’s Imaginarius post.

While the Passover holiday represents an epic physical and spiritual journey in the history of the Jewish people, I like to view each new endeavor that we undertake, regardless of magnitude, as a microcosm of it. As such, it can be seen as a journey of sorts, independent of whether we leave our homes, workplaces or travel outside of our comfort zones to accomplish something new to our experiences.

Whether we are creating a work of literature, art, music or science, I believe that we are not doing this solely of our own volition, but in a sort of partnership with a larger intelligence that requires it of us. Perhaps this ‘larger’ intelligence is a numinous, spiritual entity or the multifaceted imaginings of all of the ‘threads’ in the larger human tapestry. Either way, our endeavors in sum make each of us a significant thread in that tapestry; an entity alive with potential.

Illuminating this blessing is my representation of the artist/artisan Bezalel in the process of imagining the works he will design for the Mishkan/Tabernacle in the desert. According to the instructions of Moses, who received them at Mt. Sinai, he is to build a structure and ritual implements that will mirror their heavenly counterparts. I have shown him reaching towards the letters of a suspended, spinning pre-Canaanite Hebrew alphabet in a symbolic tribute to his relationship with the Creator in this endeavor and to their mystical role via the techniques of permutation in the creation of the world.

One of these ritual objects is the Ark of the Covenant which will reside within the Holy of Holies (the sacred sanctuary portion of the Tabernacle) that only the High Priest is permitted to enter on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It will support the two keruvim/cherubim to protect the Tablets of the Law, Aaron’s blossoming staff and a jar of manna. Bezalel’s plans for the Ark appear on the papyrus scroll in the foreground along with the Egyptian-influenced ink palettes and drawing tools that he might have used. Some of these tools are also seen in the pocket of the artisan’s work apron. On the vertical loom behind him is the tapestry with representations of the keruvim that will become the parochet or veil guarding the Ark. Although no one other than the High Priest is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the veil is meant to provide a virtual glimpse of its guardians to the congregation of worshippers.

This image of Bezalel is one of several I have developed as part of my ongoing exploration and understanding of the Second Commandment (the prohibition against creating graven images) as it affects creative artists. Other versions and essays may be found at:

Bezalel’s Vision: As Above, So Below?

With Divine Spirit: The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth

An Artist In The Shadow Of God.

As the sun sets and the Passover seders begin, there is much to consider about the holiness of even the most mundane aspects of this holiday, by each endeavor that we undertake and how these contribute to life’s larger experience for each of us. By understanding that what we create for our own needs and pleasure can enlighten and benefit others, we acknowledge and thank the One Who created us for the realities we continually create together.

Here’s to a healthy, happy and creative Passover holiday for all.

 

Blessings Both Hidden And Revealed

December 15, 2013

ImageAt first glance, the blessing traditionally recited prior to reading the Torah appears to be merely a formal expression of respect for this foundational document of Judaism. But it’s much more. I’m including it in An Illumination Of Blessings because it is a way we can express our gratitude to the Source of Life for the opportunity of partaking in this sweet and savory feast for our minds, bodies and souls.

With this blessing, we honor the moment when Moses descended Mt Sinai with the divine gift of our ‘spiritual DNA’; a gift of timeless and inestimable value. I like to think about this gift in the metaphoric terms of information science, where data is transmitted to its destination via virtual electronic ‘packets’. Similarly, the Torah can be seen as a compilation of concise ‘packets’ of instructions for how to live and steward our planet embedded with the assurance that the Source of Life would bless us always; if and when we accepted them.

Extending this idea, we can think of each encounter with Torah as akin to meeting a person for the first time. Although we recognize that Hebrew is the language of Torah and that a person’s physical features define them as human, how do we account for our immediate physical and/or emotional reactions to them? It may be that Information and impressions are transmitted between individuals in virtual packets via a delivery method we do not yet understand or control. Only thought and time spent with that individual allow us to ‘unfold’ these ‘packets’ to understand our initial reactions and determine the character of that relationship. In the same way, the Torah reveals her meanings to us gradually through time and thoughtful study as we learn to see between her lines.

Perhaps the oddly-named scholar and convert to Judaism, Ben BagBag, quoted in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) said it best: “Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.”

The Torah is masterwork of infinite, unfathomable depth; a virtual blueprint of Creation. Though we cannot fully decode its mysteries, it will always be there to keep our curiosity and questions alive and to help us maintain our dialogue with the Source of Life. Indeed, my five and a half year experience with Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) was an exercise in humility, for I realized how very much there is yet to learn…

The Seventh Blessing: For Life & Love

September 25, 2013

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The Seven Blessings, or Sheva Brachot are a lovely old tradition, each one recited under the Chuppah (Marriage Canopy) by chosen friends and family at Jewish weddings. The Seven Blessings begin with the blessing over wine (‘pri hagofen’) followed by praise and gratitude to the Source of Life for our creation, for our existence and for our ability to thrive through time. They also address the binding of the couple, wishing them a life of love, joy, peace and friendship from the Biblical perspective; that their union should mirror the happiness of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. Finally, the couple is made aware that as they rejoice in each other, their union will also bring joy to the world . Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests that Jewish weddings reflect the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai symbolizing the wedding of Heaven and Earth.

For the eleventh blessing in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially attempted to work all seven blessings into the illustration, however after further research and several iterations, I came to the conclusion that the seventh blessing really encompasses the other six and is therefore essential. This idea was suggested by an interpretation in Kabbalah which explains how each of the seven blessings corresponds to seven of the sefirot, or the energies that are the foundation of Creation.

Although there are actually ten sefirot, the interpretation posits that the three remaining sefirot do not correspond to their own blessings because two of them, Keter (Crown representing ethereal consciousness) and Chokhmah (representing Wisdom) are contained in the sefirah of Binah (Understanding) and the last one, Malkhut receives all of those above and before it. The Hebrew language in the Seventh Blessing also contains ten words or synonyms for happiness, peace and friendship, all of which lead to joy. In this sense, it corresponds to all ten sefirot as well as the ten phrases by which the world was created and the Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai. These ideas prompted me to place the letter Bet (for Binah) in the space above the Chuppah for these values must guide all that we do. The commentary at the end of the book will provide explanations of the symbols that appear in the illustration.

Shown above is the finished illumination for the Seven Blessings and below is one of the iterations.

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As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

Between The Lines: A Conversation Both Holy And Profane

February 11, 2013

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When we are told a story, whether true or fictional, we hear and feel it in the words and body language of the speaker.  Yet even as the experience provokes a direct reaction, we may be thinking of how we can share it with others. Except for people with eidetic memory skills, a story is rarely remembered verbatim. Rather, it is verbally and physically paraphrased to fit the recipient and the circumstances of its retelling.

Whenever I read last week’s Parashah Yitro and the current Parashah Mispatim, in which Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, it is difficult not to picture these scenes as portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1954 film of The Ten Commandments. Having seen the film’s premiere as an impressionable child, I barely appreciated the enormous implications of that divine event beyond the ‘silver screen’ until many years later. When the heavenly fireworks that accompany the giving of the Torah terrifies everyone gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai and Moses ascends to the summit to accept it as an intermediary for his people, the idea that Moses was to make this vast trove of information accessible to them in a language and form they could comprehend was stunning.

There has been much speculation as to the form of that divine transmission, from questions concerning the original ‘language’ to the method of delivery to the mental and physical qualities that distinguished Moses for this task. Popular writers and university scholars have collaborated and done well promoting the idea of ‘bible codes’, prophetic information encoded in strings of letters. Yet, scintillating as this notion is, solid proof remains elusive. And perhaps it should be, if faith is to flourish in the face of scientific scrutiny.

Considering Moses’ pivotal role in this dramatic narrative, a few questions arise. Was Moses chosen for this task because of a natural ability for opening his mind and heart to this divine body of knowledge, or were these qualities acquired from his early experience as a prince of Egypt and subsequent discovery of his true identity as an adult? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but until someone invents time travel, these arguments remain philosophical conjecture. From a slightly different perspective, I like to imagine that Moses’ ability to receive G-d’s transmission is a metaphor of ‘tzimtzum’, G-d’s contraction of His Essence, permitting Creation to occur from the dark void. My logic may be fuzzy, but when Moses becomes instrumental in the creation of the nation of Israel out of a nation of slaves, he seems to mirror that ‘tzimtzum’ on a micro-level.

Designing the illustrations to embody these ideas for my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), brought me to a major contextual impasse. Representing G-d in any form is prohibited in the second commandment, but I intended no offense when I drew upon the kabbalistic idea that Hidden One may only be perceived behind an ethereal mask. I imagined Him emerging from between veils of light and darkness with the intention of letting Himself be known to us, but shielding us from a force that we, in our frail forms could not endure ‘face to face’. Consequently, in the illustration above, I have portrayed Moses as a sofer, a Torah scribe in an intimate conversation with G-d through His Mask*. Wielding a reed pen, Moses is writing the word ‘Amalek’ a great enemy of Israel, then crossing it out three times. This part of the transcription process has since become the traditional first step a Torah scribe takes when beginning to write a new scroll. In this way we are meant to understand our history; to do good and not evil.

And now we understand that Moses is also more than just an ‘envelope’, so to speak, for the divine message. As ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’, Moses our teacher, he has becomes a timeless example of how the we and the Torah must become one in both spirit and practice.

*A more detailed explanation of the four-pronged letter ‘shin’ is found in the AfterImages section of my book on pp. 148-149

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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?

A Covenant Of Fire

February 11, 2012

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro honors Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite chieftain and an unusual man whose wisdom and generosity were key in shaping the future of the Israelites under his son-in-law’s care.  Acting on his concern for Moses’ health and the well-being of his family, he advised the establishment of a prototype for the timeless judicial system that has been co-opted globally, if not without controversy, remaining in place for nearly 3,000 years. I’ve envisioned Yitro here for reference, but have chosen to focus visually on the larger part of the parashah that encompasses the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. This covenant of fire would become the core event in Jewish history, unsurpassed for its drama and future ramifications for the cultural development of individuals and entire societies.

When the shofar was sounded at Mt. Sinai to summon the Israelites, the volume and duration of its notes was amplified and extended to emphasize the significance of receiving the Law at Sinai. This thought led me to model the shofar after the mystical ram’s horn that binds heaven and earth, heralding the arrival of the Moshiach (The Messiah) the Alef-Tav: the Beginning and End of Days. The shofar is also a vehicle for the ten sephirot that enclose the Ten Commandments and ascribe multiple levels of meaning to each of these ‘Words’ or ‘Utterances’. In addition, the man is bound to his instrument as Isaac was bound to the altar in the Akedah and as we are bound to our genetic inheritance. By enfolding the ten commandments within their corresponding sephirot they have acquired color values that further illustrate the depth of meaning in each of them. The equivalences according to one source, ‘The Gates of Light‘ by medieval Sephardic kabbalist Rabbi Azriel of Gerona are as follows:

1.  You shall have no other gods besides Me                                       Keter                                 white

2.  You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image…              Chokhmah                        composite/all colors

3.  You shall not swear falsely…                                                           Binah                                 yellow/green

4.  Remember the Sabbath Day…                                                        Chesed                               silver/white

5.  Honor your father and your mother…                                         Gevurah                            red/gold

6.  You shall not murder…                                                                     Tiferet                                yellow/violet

7.  You shall not commit adultery…                                                    Netzach                              pale pink

8.  You shall not steal…                                                                          Hod                                     dark pink

9.  You shall not bear false witness…                                                 Yesod                                  orange

10. You shall not covet…                                                                        Malkhut                             blue   

These are deceptively simple ideas and questions still surface in countless interpretations. With the false confidence bestowed by our sophisticated technology, we may often ignore them, feeling beyond the fear of divine reprisal. Yet on some days, I think the world has not become a better place for it. Look around; has our stewardship of this planet and socio-political condition truly reflected the trajectory envisioned by our ancestors standing at Mount Sinai? Perhaps Conan O’Brien, signing off the Tonight Show, January 22, 2010 said it best: “If you work hard and are kind, amazing things will happen.”

The Seductive Shine of Fool’s Gold…

February 18, 2011

The episode of the golden calf in Ki Thissa, this week’s Torah portion has to be the mother of all morality tales. In a nutshell, while waiting impatiently under harsh desert conditions for Moses to descend from Mt. Sinai with his message from God, the Israelites lose it and persuade Moses’ brother, the High Priest Aaron to sanction the creation of a golden idol that can serve as a focus for their passions, religious and otherwise. Kosher, this is not. And when Moses does finally show, he is not best pleased. In shock at this mass betrayal of his people and his brother, he drops the Tablets of the Law which shatter upon impact. According to a rabbinic legend in the Babylonian Talmud, when the tablets were broken, the letters of the Commandments flew back to Heaven. The Israelites were then plagued with a plague as a token of God’s displeasure. Moreover, they were condemned never to reach the Holy Land; only the next generation would do so. Which tells us that wisdom, even Divine, may be glimpsed, but until the designated recipient(s) are fully awake and aware, may not be completely received.

Every time I read this parashah, I wonder about the metaphoric presence of a golden calf in my own life; what values or ideals have I focused on that were not worthy of my humanity? Too many to list here. Yet at these times, I find my thoughts vacillating between understanding Moses’ profound anger and understanding why the people of that first generation of Israelites needed that infamous symbol of all they had left behind in Egypt. While Moses’ mission was to establish a monotheistic religion, his people were making it clear that old habits, particularly bad ones notoriously dog our best intentions for change, both in ourselves and by extension in our environment. Which made the recent events in modern day Egypt so astoundingly ironic. The Egyptian people living under a long-term dictatorial regime, didn’t need a golden calf to effect a change that will mark their place in history, only the united desire to be a free and democratic people. Indeed, they have come full circle and have overthrown their own Pharaoh.

Illustration from: Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) may be purchased here: http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or here: Amazon: http://bit.ly/gRhg0g