Posts Tagged ‘Old Testament’

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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An Artist In The Shadow Of God

March 9, 2012

Of all the fifty-four parashiyot in the Torah, Ki Thissa was the one that spoke most eloquently to me as an artist and illustrator, particularly as it relates how Moses transmitted instructions for building the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan) to the artist and craftsman Bezalel ben Uri. I was drawn to this story many years ago as I sought to understand the levels of meaning within the Second Commandment prohibiting the creation of graven images. In essence, it opened my eyes to the concept of hiddur mitzvah or the creation of beautiful objects to enhance the worship experience, rather than be worshipped as objects in themselves.

I have created several interpretive portraits of Bezalel, the first recorded Jewish artist, most recently the iteration shown here for my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). From the AfterImages section of the book on p. 151, here is an excerpt  from my commentary on the illustration shown above:

In The Shadow Of God is drawn from the Hebrew translation of the name Bezalel, given to him at birth by his father Uri, son of Hur from the tribe of Judah. (Note the image of the Lion below the text next to Bezalel; it symbolizes the tribe of Judah) His full name reads, ‘Bet-Zal-El Hayaita which means ‘you were in God’s Shadow’ explaining his extraordinary artistic skills and closeness to the Creator so that he could envision the Heavenly Temple and accurately follow the directions for the construction of its earthly counterpart. He was tasked with this mission by Moses who transmitted God’s request upon his return from Mt. Sinai. In the Mishnah,Bezalel is credited as the man who was able to comprehend and configure the letters from which Heaven and Earth were created for this holy task. According to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, “All things were created through the combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.” The open scroll that Bezalel is holding reveals a kabbalistic diagram, found in the Sefer Yetzirah, composed in 6th century Babylon, which connects letters in the Hebrew alefbet with the seven planets and twelve signs of the Zodiac. In the center of the diagram is a triangular form that contains the Tetragrammaton, an acronym for one of God’s Names. To avoid a disrespectful rendering of this name, a portion of one of the letters has been removed. At the corners of the triangle connecting it to the outer rings are the three Mother letters, alef, mem and shin that represent the elements air, fire and water. Although many graphic variations of these concepts can be found in the books of mysticism, I chose this particular diagram for Bezalel, as it seemed to invite creative interaction. Standing behind the craftsman with a model of the Mishkan on its back is a strange beast called the Tachash. The word ‘tachashim’ in parashah T’rumah, though translated as ‘dolphin skins’ finds a different interpretation in the Mishnah, which alludes to the creation and existence of this animal for the express purpose of providing materials for the construction of the Tabernacle. When its purpose was completed, it seems to have vanished. 

Since no one knows if it actually existed, could the tachash have been a word to describe a collection of materials taken from several existing species or could it have been an unusual mutation truly created only for its holy purpose? In any case, it will always remain an intriguing idea and so the tachash shown here is purely from my imagination. By the way, these questions occurred to me long after my book was published, which only verifies my philosophy that art is always a work in progress and matures from continuing interpretation. So, if any of my readers would like to posit their own version or questions, send me your links in the comment box; I look forward to continuing this conversation…

For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://www.magiceyegallery.com

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.

A Spiritual Blueprint

February 20, 2012

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

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


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.”

Of Plagues And Promises…

January 27, 2012

In Parashat Bo, read tomorrow, we are in the two months preceding the Passover observance. Against the background of the legendary plagues afflicting the Egyptian people, Pharaoh is still behaving mulishly towards ‘his’ Israelites , refusing them freedom to pursue their spiritual journey with Moses, his brother Aaron and sister Miriam. Amidst the onslaught of bloody waters, intense darkness, animal diseases, locust infestation and other nasty pestilences, the consequences of Pharaoh’s actions seem eschatological in the extreme. But as in every good thriller film, we are being primed; for the worst is yet to come.

In our media-driven era,  we regularly witness earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods of near-biblical proportions around the globe, each claiming myriad victims and destroying their history. For many, a first inclination is bemoan their victimization and to lay the blame on God for these processes too complicated to explain (cleverly condensed to P2C2E in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun & The Sea of Stories) but I often wonder how complicit we are in setting the stage for these events? Are amorality in life and politics catalysts in this process? It’s tempting to imagine they are, but at this stage in our evolution, despite our sophisticated technology, we are still groping in an Egyptian darkness that is still intense, just bigger.

And of all the plagues brought on Egypt by God, the 10th and last, Death of the Firstborn, is the most horrific.

Of Plagues & Promises, shown above, is a detail from Parashat Bo in my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). In this interpretation, here is the infamous Angel of Death, which the Talmud places in the category of destructive angels called Malach Ha-Movet. Why the Angel of Death, when in Exodus, God makes it clear that He, and not an Angel will implement the 10th plague? Are we to understand that all angels are aspects of our Creator? And were all the events in Exodus designed to help us understand the evil inclination as an inextricable element of our natures? In the Babylonian Talmudit states that, “If God created the evil inclination, He also created the Torah as its antidote.” Despite our inflated opinion of our technological advances, perhaps that is all the answer we need…?


Pharaoh’s Gambit: Double Jeopardy?

January 20, 2012

Each time we read the Book of Exodus in anticipation of the vivid and timeless struggle between dualities that comprise and compromise humanity, we rediscover a story that never disappoints. Pharaoh, the story’s antagonist is portrayed as the embodiment of evil, on a mission to maintain his royal status quo while Moses presents as the good man leading his people forth on a mission from God.

Though each player in this game of morality and theology offers clever, strong arguments for their positions, the ultimate moderator is unseen, yet fearsomely present. Because the familiar tale of Israel’s long-suffering sojourn in Egypt has been interpreted and retold in myriad editions of the Passover Haggadah, I won’t be doing so now. Instead, along with the title of this post, I’ve decided to offer these images of Pharaoh, Moses and his brother Aaron as a visual prequel to the Haggadah’s traditional four questions.

Perhaps they will provoke your own questions, challenge old concepts and reveal new facets of a story whose characters and threads continue to  shape our ever-unfolding history. As ever, your thoughts are welcome here.

Further fuel for questions may be found in the AfterImages portion of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) For previews and purchase information visit: http://bit.ly/g2D9Lm

A Map To The Heart

December 30, 2011


As promised in my post of December 16,  here are the illustrations from Parashah Va-Yiggash which is read tomorrow on the Sabbath. In this concluding chapter of Joseph’s story, the young prodigy and dream master is now a grown man with his own family. As Grand Vizier to Pharaoh, he is the second most powerful player in Egypt now tasked with managing food distribution for the country during a prolonged famine (which he fortunately foresaw). Yet, like all of us at one time or another, he is also faced with an ill and aging parent. Through circumstances of destiny, he has not seen his father Jacob for many years. Nevertheless, his love and childhood memories remain true enough to spur him to dramatic action.

Having learned that his father is dying, Joseph orders his chariot prepared and leaves immediately for what will be a final visit. Below him is a map of Goshen, the land that Joseph has promised for Israelite resettlement in the wake of the famine. The map is in the shape of a hand symbolizing Joseph reaching out to his people. It is also a nod to the illustrated allegorical maps of the Holy Land found in Heinrick Bunting’s Itinerarium Sacra Scripturae, or Travels According to the Scriptures, first published in 1581. Below, Joseph and Jacob are seen in an emotional embrace, the former having cast aside his formal court wig and scepter as evidence of his true identity as a son of Israel. You might notice that Jacob’s foot is twisted as a reminder of his angelic confrontation and dramatic transition from a man named Jacob to that of Israel, the progenitor of the twelves tribes of Israel. The young girl in the foreground is Serakh Bat Asher, the legendary daughter of Jacob’s son Asher. She earned immortality for her kindness to old Jacob who had given up hope of ever seeing his son Joseph after his tragic disappearance long ago. So as not to shock him in his fragile state, she is said to have played her harp embedding the news that Joseph was alive in a song. When we need a complex story like this one to yield an understanding of a basic human value, in this case, of chesed (the fourth of the ten sefirot) or kindness, it may be that we must earn that understanding intellectually before we can manifest it unconditionally and unmotivated in ourselves and towards those we love and cherish.

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.

On Hanukkah: Miracles Big & Small

December 19, 2011

I was recently honored by an invitation from Pomegranate Communications, the publisher of my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary(2009) to contribute a post on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which begins tomorrow evening , December 20/24 Kislev, 5772 at sundown. I’ve re-posted it here:

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 On Hanukkah: Miracles Big and Small

Friday, December 16, 2011

We are pleased to welcome guest blogger Ilene Winn-Lederer, artist, illustrator, and author of Between Heaven and Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary. In today’s post she provides a brief history of Hanukkah and explains the symbolism of the menorah. Hanukkah begins this year at sunset on December 20.

The holiday of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, commemorates the historical events that showed the Jewish people’s resilience during the enforced prohibition of their faith and religious culture.

In the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the story begins in 175 BC, when Judea, then part of the Syrian Seleucid Empire under the benevolent rule of King Antiochus III, was invaded by the armies of his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, goaded by special interests dedicated to imposing Greek culture on the Jews.

After the invasion that resulted in the looting and desecration of the Second Temple at Jerusalem, all practices associated with Judaism were outlawed.

One legend relates how children of that era, forbidden to study Torah, would go out to the gardens or fields with their study materials and toy dreidels, or wooden spinning tops. If they were confronted by soldiers who accused them of religious study, they innocently spun their dreidels as a decoy. Below is an illustration of this legend:

In 167 BC, when Antiochus IV installed an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the Temple, he provoked the bloody Maccabean revolt for Jewish independence. The leaders of this rebellion were Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah, who later became known as Judah the Hammer (Judah Maccabee). After the death of his father in 166 BC, Judah inherited the mantle of leadership and under his watch, in 165 BC, the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was completed.

The Temple was then rededicated with a new altar, a restored menorah (candelabrum), and new holy vessels required for proper religious observance. According to Jewish law, the lights of the menorah must be tended for continuous illumination. The Talmud (a core text of Judaism) explains that after the Temple was desecrated, only enough pure (undesecrated) olive oil remained to keep the menorah’s eternal flame burning for one day.

Miraculously, however, the oil continued to burn for eight days, allowing sufficient time for a new supply to be obtained. The holiday is observed by lighting an additional candle on each of eight nights, recalling the time the oil remained alight in the Temple. Outside of Israel, this miracle is recalled by four Hebrew letters traditionally written or carved on the dreidels we use today. The letters nes, gadol, hayah, and sham stand for “A great miracle was there.” Inside Israel, the dreidels carry the letter po instead of sham, meaning, “A great miracle was here.”

The Talmud also states (in Menachot 28b) that the Jerusalem menorah, which has seven branches, may not be used outside the Temple.

So the menorahs used for Hanukkah observance are called hanukiya. They have eight branches plus a ninth (called the shamash or servant), set off from the others, that is used for lighting them.

In Between Heaven and Earth, Ilene Winn-Lederer illustrates the Torah reading preceding Hanukkah, Parashah VaYeishev from the Book of Genesis. Her commentary in the AfterImages portion of the book about this illustration provides further insight into the structure of the menorah and its symbolism.

The steadfast spirit of Hanukkah is also reflected in the preceding weekly Torah portion, Parashah VaYeishev, found in the Book of Genesis. It recounts the story of Joseph and his brothers, sons of the patriarch Jacob, his two wives Leah and Rachel and their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah. Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son, was the offspring of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. He flaunted his intelligence and prophetic abilities, and his father prized him above all of his other children. Great dislike and jealousy festered among Joseph’s brothers, who plotted to kidnap Joseph and murder him. Whether or not they wished to claim his portion of their father’s inheritance is not clear. Though he was cast into a pit full of snakes and scorpions, the young man survived, setting into motion the story of his journey to Egypt. Initially sold into slavery by unscrupulous captors passing the pit, Joseph was able to use his skill at dream interpretation to rise from servant of the palace guard captain Potiphar to become Pharaoh’s grand vizier, credited with saving Egypt from dire famine. The story continues on the Sabbath of Hanukkah when parashat Miketz is read.

Joseph’s subsequent reunion with his father and brothers, detailed next week in parashat VaYiggash dramatically illustrates the workings of divine providence. I will post an illustration next Monday for that reading.

Finally, if we posit a common thread tying the stories of Hanukkah and these parashiyot together, it might be the dual natures of blessings and adversity, where each occurrence is seeded with the other so that the outcome often manifests as a miracle, teaching us to appreciate the importance of both.

An Epic Tragedy: Dinah’s Story

December 9, 2011

It is difficult for me to read this section of Parashah Va-Yishlach without a recurring sense of outrage and injustice. Though the parashah relates the story of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s only daughter among twelve sons and her ill-fated liaison with the Prince of Shechem, it gives short shrift to this epic tragedy. In barely more than a footnote, we learn of the dishonoring of a daughter of Israel and the subsequent pathologically violent response led by Simon and Levi, two of her brothers.

Despite the horrific mass circumcision and murder of the men of Shechem, the only remorse is expressed by Jacob, their father who seems more concerned about his political relations with that city than with the welfare of his daughter. Curiously, no mention of Leah, her mother is made either, adding insult to injury in my mind. While the text presumes Dinah was raped when it tells us that ‘he took her by force’, it then adds that Shechem claimed to be in love with her as he requests her hand in marriage afterwards. Nowhere do we hear Dinah’s side of the story, a fact that invites much speculation. In her bestselling novel, The Red Tent, writer Anita Diamant suggests that Dinah may have felt reciprocal love for Shechem; a view which I found quite intriguing. Accordingly, I’ve shown Dinah’s two brothers, Simeon and Levi plotting against the Prince of Shechem in revenge for ‘defiling’ their sister. She appears at their mercy while her bound wrists indicate her status as the possession of her father, rendering her wishes insignificant. In my portrayal of Dinah, I wondered; how I might have reacted to the unjust pillaging of an entire city allegedly on my behalf and to the horrifying post-circumcision slaughter of my lover and his male subjects? It took quite a while to channel these thoughts into a cohesive illustration. Yet, I wasn’t sure I’d interpreted the story correctly until I read a story last week in the New York Times (nyti.ms/vYddMp) about Gulnaz, an Afghan woman and her extreme punishment for being the victim of rape. For me, these events opened an old wound in the history of women that in some quarters has never been allowed to completely heal. Despite my dramatic treatment of Dinah’s story, it seems that neither words nor pictures are enough…