Posts Tagged ‘Old Testament’

Beholding Beauty : A Blessing Of Appreciation

June 25, 2014

BlessingForBeautifulBirds+TreesRGBBeauty is in the eye of the beholder,” goes the old cliché, but it is a quick sound bite at best because it doesn’t attempt to define beauty nor does it offer insight into alternative, more subtle perspectives.

At first glance, this blessing recited upon seeing something beautiful in our world seems ‘sound-bit-ish’ and similar to the one recited on encountering a fragrant tree. Both are found in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot, 58b) and both express appreciation to our Creator for the gifts of Creation and of our five senses. The latter focuses exclusively on the sight and smell of certain trees while the former also recognizes trees, but includes the singular esthetic beauty of humans, birds and animals that we acknowledge with our senses of sound, touch and taste. Together, they serve to enhance perception of our environment and help us to connect with our divine origins.

The words of the blessing seem simple enough, however the concept of beauty in life is anything but. So how does an artist begin to choose which elements will represent the depths of meaning inherent in this blessing? I knew that I needed to portray some sort of tree along with a person, animal or bird, though I didn’t know which of these I would choose or why.

Of all my references, the Torah and its associated collections of commentary from across the  centuries have never failed me, even on quests that are secular in nature.

As I thought about what sort of tree to illustrate for this blessing on natural phenomena, I remembered a midrash on the Book of Genesis concerning the mysterious Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The former bore fruit which kept Adam and Eve healthy and immortal while the fruit of the latter was forbidden to the first couple for reasons not explained. Perhaps this was the model for the inscrutable mitzvot known as ‘chukkim’? These are a category of commandments which are to be followed without question as a test of our obedience and respect for our Creator.

Inevitably, mysteries invite speculation. This midrash suggests why no one knows what types of trees they were. Despite the arguments of medieval churchmen, scholars and artists that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree (which did not exist in the Middle East at that time), many other species have joined the fray with inventive justifications; wheat, pomegranate, quince, St. John’s Bread (carob) and date palms, even grapevines and fig trees. These justifications are too numerous to list here but can be found in B’reishit Rabbah, a book of commentary on Genesis*.

The commentary concluded that since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge against the prohibition and precipitated their disastrous expulsion from the Garden of Eden, its species would always remain unknown to honor its innocence in bringing death to the world and to prevent its extinction from Earth’s biosphere.

Although the nature of the Tree of Life also remains unknown (except as a metaphor of Torah wisdom), Rabbi Abba of Acre** offers the etrog (citrus medica) as a likely candidate. He suggests that Eve found the wood of the etrog tree edible (Genesis 3:6). Later authorities such as Rabbi Abahu*** translate the word etrog as ‘ha-dar’ or that which dwells, because its fruit, in both young and old phases remains on the tree through all seasons.**** The ‘pri etz hadar’ or fruit of the beautiful tree is described in the book of Leviticus (23:40) and though it originated in India, it has been cultivated in ancient Judea for more than 2000 years.

In common use, the word ‘ha-dar’ comes from the Aramaic language and means ‘beautiful’. Because an etrog is the only fruit that tastes like its tree, both are considered beautiful. The fruit is said to symbolize the human heart as it represents a person who is able to internalize scholarship and also perform good deeds (mitzvot). There was much more commentary on the etrog, but at this point, the etrog tree became my obvious choice for this illustration. In this interpretation, I’ve given my virtual Etz Chayim 22 etrogim, symbolizing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which, according to Kabbalah, are the building blocks of Creation.

For my representative choice of beautiful birds, the commentaries on this blessing offered the fine examples of peacocks and parrots because these species are unique  for their graceful forms and beautiful colors. I arbitrarily added the cockatoo, a distant cousin of the parrot once known as the crested parrot, for compositional balance and simply because I love to draw them! To complete my illustration, I’ve prefaced the blessings English and Hebrew calligraphy with initial caps constructed from macaw parrot and peacock feathers respectively.

If this blessing and my visual interpretation of it put you on the path of marveling daily at the world around us and expressing your appreciation of it’s myriad gifts, then perhaps I’ve begun to meet my own purpose in this effort. Thanks for staying with me; the book is becoming more of a reality with each post!

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page 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.

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*B’reishit Rabbah 15:7, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, ed., Hayim Nahman Bialik, Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) pp. 21–2


** Abba bar Acre was a 3rd century Palestinian ‘amora’ (commentator on the Oral Torah).

*** Rabbi Abahu was a 2nd generation ‘amora’ living in Caesarea, a major influence on ethics, philosophy and religion. http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/2443094/jewish/The-Singular-Tree.htm/mobile/false https://sites.google.com/site/rabbiabahu/stories-and-biographical-info

**** http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/746603/jewish/Why-cant-I-use-a-lemon.htm/mobile/false

Sunrise, Sunset, So What?

May 6, 2014

ImageOn average, we spare little daily thought for the sun other than to its perceived influence on the esthetics of the next twenty-four hours. It is, therefore, we are. End of story.

But since the sun’s first appearance in the skies on the fourth day of Creation, according to the Torah (Book of Bereshis/Genesis), this story is not one with an ending; it is punctuated with the myths and folklore of every human culture from the beginning of recorded time and perpetuated across generations in forms apropos to each telling.

These tales comprise a portion of the collective effort to comprehend our origins amidst our mercurial environment, the relentless cycle of the seasons and our place in the cosmos. They are an amalgam of sincere theological speculation, intriguing scientific discovery with some millennial fear-mongering thrown in for spice.

In tribute to this timeless portrait of human curiosity, I’ve chosen to include a rare Jewish blessing for witnessing natural phenomena in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

The Birkat Ha-Chamah or Blessing of the Sun is rare because it is recited only once every twenty-eight years, most recently in April of 2009. It is not to be found in standard prayer books; rather, it is distributed to participants at each recitation ceremony. The blessing dates back to Talmudic times (first century AD) when the rabbis, wishing to acknowledge the sun’s importance to life on Earth without inviting idolatry, addressed the star theologically without attributing divinity to it.

According to rabbinical opinion in the Babylonian Talmud, the blessing is to be recited every twenty-eight years on the vernal equinox* to commemorate the sun’s return to its original position (relative to the Earth) on the fourth day of Creation when it is fully visible above the horizon at dawn. They taught: “One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…recites: ‘Blessed is the One Who made the Creation’.” (Tractate Berachot 59b)

My illustration for this blessing is set in medieval Europe when rabbi-scholars like Maimonides (the Rambam) and Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon engaged in lively discussions of Torah and Talmud, codifying their opinions for future generations.

On a grassy hillside against the backdrop of a castle fortress-town, a prayer shawl (tallit) clad man and his son are awaiting the full sunrise as they imagine a vignette of the fourth day of Creation framed within an astrolabe. The hand-shaped (hamsa) device from which the astrolabe is suspended is meant to represent the idea that its five fingers remind us to use our five senses to praise G-d. The hamsa is also referred to as the Hand of Miriam in remembrance of her as sister to Moses and Aaron.** The boy holds a ram’s horn (shofar), which will be sounded when the sun has risen.

This image was suggested by the Birkat Ha-Chamah ceremony of April 8, 1981, led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York and sounded the shofar amidst a crowd of 300 participants.

I think, perhaps, this is how we might understand our place in the cosmos. As witnesses to the wonders of created life, that is a dance of chaos and order, we are privileged to question it, but are never to know all the answers or the end of the story; at least, not yet.

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* Why every twenty-eight years? Although the sun rises and sets in the east and west respectively, its position shifts seasonally, moving to the north in summer and to the south in winter. The midpoints of this movement are the equinoxes which mark the autumn and spring seasons. To complete this cycle requires one solar year, the length of which varies by slightly more than a day in our calendar. So the rabbis calculated that when the equinoxes have moved forward exactly thirty-five days, they will occur on the same day and hour as on the first hour of the fourth day of Creation.

** Some of you may wonder why I have not included a woman in this ceremony. This is because the Birkat Ha-Chamah is a time-based mitzvah (commandment) which women are exempt from observing. You can read more about this tradition here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/woman_commandments.html Nevertheless, the Hand of Miriam attached to the astrolabe represents their spiritual presence.

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

Between The Lines: A Conversation Both Holy And Profane

February 11, 2013

Imaginarius-2013-Mishpatim

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

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com

Parashat Bo: The Masks Of Light And Darkness

January 24, 2013

Exodus-Bo1AS I reflected on Bo, this past week’s parashah in The Book of Exodus, its lurid descriptions of the final three plagues inflicted on the Egyptians (locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians) caused me to wonder about our perception of the nature of good and evil. When we blithely attribute occurrences of good or evil to forces beyond ourselves and therefore beyond our control, are we forgetting our innate capability to influence them from our miniscule place in the tapestry of humanity?

The creation stories of each major religion maintain that we are modeled after One Who ’embodies’ good and evil among myriad other attributes and has called us into existence. If so, then we too are creatures that embody these attributes to some lesser degree. And if we accept this idea, then we must shoulder our part of this great responsibility. We cannot entirely shifted it onto our Creator without denying the autonomy of free choice, a trope hotly debated, but never resolved over the centuries by religious scholars.

When I first read the phrase in which G-d tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount to your sons and to your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”, I was cynically inclined to see the players in this epic drama as pathetic puppets whose human frailties were being manipulated by unseen forces as an end to their own means. Was this part of some vast cosmic game played by said entity (ies) for their own amusement? If so, then who was playing whom’? Could the players in the epic drama of the Exodus be archetypes meant to teach us that we and the ‘One’ mirror each other?

Or, were these events but a series of horrific natural phenomena occurring within the Earth’s evolving biosphere as scientific researchers have attempted to demonstrate? Are the scientific and religious interpretations (as cause and effect punishments for human misbehavior) of these natural phenomena mutually exclusive? What a classic illustration of  ‘right brain vs. left brain’ thinking!

Given our distant remove from these events and the effects of diaspora living, perhaps the above questions are clues to their own answers. If we believe that ‘the devil made me do it’ excuses evil behavior or if we insist that we are but victims of natural disasters, then our human frailties can become excuses for despair and inaction. In which case, we are denying our true capabilities as the ‘crown of creation’ and stewards of this planet as evidenced by the plethora of blogs out there.

In sum, I prefer to think that both sides are a kind of duality; dependent on their discrete functions to validate each other. In the way that we wouldn’t understand the properties of good and evil if they didn’t exist to define each other.  So, I’m inclined to believe that if the story of Moses’ righteous deeds and Pharaoh’s intractable stubbornness was intended to inform the metaphorical book of our spiritual and cultural development, then we ought not stop at any of these interpretations. The mystery of it all is too vast to comprehend in thousands of lifetimes, but each lifetime grants us more clues to its solution.

Our sages agree that Torah is to be viewed as the blueprint of creation, its stories as instructions for living with each other on this planet. And as we continue to interpret the dualities (multiplicities) embedded in its intricate diagrams, we will comprehend more of how they apply to us individually and as a nation. And in this evolving understanding of our humanity and spiritual mandate will the true nature of our power be made clear.

The Price Of Posterity

August 31, 2012

Among the many laws regarding moral and ethical behavior within interpersonal relationships, this week’s reading of Parashah KiTetse’ includes an ancient but striking solution to the preservation of a family name in the event of untimely death; levirate marriage . Although this practice was common among many tribal cultures to preserve their autonomy, it is codified in a formal ceremony for the first time in the Torah. In essence, the custom centers on the widow of a man who has died without leaving a male heir. It then becomes incumbent upon her brother-in-law, if he is able and willing, to marry her so that she might produce a son to perpetuate her husband’s name, assets and spiritual legacy. If this levirate union cannot be assured, a ceremony called ‘halitzah’ is arranged to disengage the man and woman from their obligation. Halitzah takes place within a synagogue following the morning service when a number of witnesses would be present. From these witnesses, three judges and two assistants are appointed, the ‘judges’ are seated on one bench, and the assistants are seated on a second bench beside it. The brother-in-law (yabam) and the widow (yebamah) stand between them. Their case that includes certain criteria for eligibility in this rite such as the state of their mental and physical health is presented to the ‘court’. The brother-in-law asserts that he is present of his own free will and the proceedings begin. A special leather shoe (made from the hide of a kosher animal) that is the property of the community is then tied to his right leg. The lead judge makes the following statement which the widow repeats three times: “My brother-in-law refuses to raise unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not marry me.” The brother-in-law is required to repeat: “I do not wish to take her.” He holds his foot to the floor while his sister-in-law loosens the shoe and tosses it to the side of the court. She then faces her brother-in-law, spits on the floor in front of him and repeats three times the following statement after the judge: “So shall it be done unto that man who will not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, ‘the house of him that hath his shoe loosed.” The widow is now free to marry whomever she wishes after the proper mourning period has ended. However, a question remained; what if the brother-in-law attempted to extort money from the widow in exchange for releasing her from the levirate obligation? Eventually, medieval Polish rabbis created a document called the “shetar halitzah” which all the brothers of the groom in a marriage were made to sign. This ensured that they would submit to ‘halitzah’ if their brother died childless without making any financial claims on his widow.

It should be noted here that in the 1,500 years since Talmudic times, when polygamy was outlawed from marriage practices, the halitzah ritual became the preferred alternative to levirate marriage. This ceremony is shown across two pages because its ramifications extend from generation to generation. In addition to the images on these pages that depict the players in this ritual, I have included the leather halitzah shoe (based on one in the collection of Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia), a ceremonial wedding ring and a parchment held by the brother-in-law representing the assets and nullified obligations of halitzah. I’ve portrayed the widow, having removed the shoe as she is preparing to spit and seal the ceremony.

Is she wearing an expression of regret or relief?

 

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 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.

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…

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

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.