Posts Tagged ‘peace’

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

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Last week, after completing the blessing for installing a mezuzah, I decided to follow it with the traditional blessing for the home, the Birkat HaBayit. This brief blessing is usually found on decorative plaques or hand-shaped hamsas (amulets) near the entrance to Jewish houses worldwide. It is meant to drive evil spirits (negative emotional projections) from the house and to protect the individuals residing in it. Such items are often given as gifts to one who has just moved into a new house.

Since the text of this blessing is commonly presented on a ceramic tile or other surface enhanced only by pleasant floral or geometric decorations, I wanted my interpretation to be something more; to reflect additional levels of meaning in the text.

In the initial research phase of my illustrations, I often leaf through my collections of aphorisms and quotations for my first clues in understanding the subject of my work and the direction I will take to develop it. These comments are never interpreted literally; they only serve as metaphorical touchstones, suggesting levels of meaning in that subject which invite visual interpretation.

So I turned to the Book of Proverbs which told me: “A house is built by wisdom and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things.” -24:3

Ok, I thought, that’s a powerful idea; but do these qualities also define a ‘home’? Generally speaking, yes. But having visited the homes of many friends and acquaintances around the world, each with its unique flavor and ambiance, I’ve learned that the difference between a house and a home is subtle, yet tangible.

Beyond its physical structure and plain or beautiful interior surroundings, a house that can be called a home glows with an aura of peace, laughter and love. These qualities color its walls, furnishings and inhabitants in a way no skilled decorator can truly emulate.

The desire for a home of one’s own is universal to all species on this planet from the ant to the elephant. It’s first cultural documentation among humanity quite likely originated in the tale of Adam and Eve whose first ‘home’ was the Garden of Eden, the womb of our world, so to speak. Even as the story relates their shock and fear upon exile from this holy place, the budding comprehension of their newly bestowed mortality soon becomes the powerful desire for shelter and stability in the chaotic world beyond Paradise.

Though the Torah offers many other examples of our developing survival instinct from Noah’s post-diluvian resettlement to the long quest for a Jewish homeland, one of the most picturesque appears in in the Book of Exodus (Shemot Parashat T’rumah 25:8-9). Here, G-d requests that Moses establish a sanctuary of a very specific design for the Divine Presence in the earthly realm so that “I may dwell among them (you).” It would seem that even the Source of all Life has need for a place to call ‘home’!

After much consideration, I decided to model the house in this illustration as an idealized amalgam of residential architecture drawn from several areas around Jerusalem because it is the spiritual home for so many of us.

The pomegranate and etrog (citron) trees flanking the doorway are metaphors of beauty, good health, fertility and mitzvot or good deeds that one would wish for the residents of the house. A midrash or commentary suggests that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, a number equivalent to the categories of mitzvot incumbent upon us to perform in our lifetimes. The etrog, one of the four species honored on the holiday of Sukkot, symbolizes our connection to G-d through our hearts.

The cypress trees and the doves are symbols of sacrifice, but rather than the sacrifice attributed to religious ritual, mourning or death, I included them because sacrifices must be made on many levels by all within a household to insure peace and stability.

The fish-shaped mezuzot on the doorpost and near the text symbolize blessing and abundance as drawn from the verse in Genesis (Bereshit 48:16), “And they shall multiply like fish in the midst of the earth.”

The Hebrew letter bet is included in this illustration for several reasons. First, its original form in the proto-Semitic languages of the Middle Bronze Age resembled a tent-like shelter or ‘house’. Second, it begins the Torah with the word B‘reshit (In the Beginning) and represents the dualities that define Creation (dark, light, good, evil, male, female, etc). Third, bet begins the word ‘baruch’ for blessing. I formed this letter from the leaves and fruit of the fruit trees for the same reasons the trees themselves were included, but also because in a sense, trees were the prototypes of shelter from weather and predators.

Finally, the antique bronze key is shown here because with it we enter the idea that when a house becomes a home, it also becomes a metaphor of memory; a repository of touchstones that connect us to ourselves, to each other and to the larger world beyond our doors.

Kaddish: A Blessing For Solace, Peace & Redemption

November 23, 2013

ImageMy decision to include the Mourner’s Kaddish in An Illumination Of Blessings was a rather difficult one, because, having always associated this blessing with death and mourning, I initially did not like the idea of incorporating a somber element in this book. Yet, as I reviewed the other blessings completed to date and considered those remaining to be illuminated, I felt that my task could not be complete without it.

So before I dismissed the idea out of hand, I delved into the blessing’s origins and found that the word kaddish translates as ‘sanctification’ and the prayer itself (which is in the Aramaic language rather than Hebrew) is for the sanctification of G-d’s Name. Why Aramaic? Because this was the common language spoken by Jews during the period of the destruction of the First Temple through the completion of the Talmud, nearly 1400 years ago. It was thought that the prayer was important enough to be understood for it needed to be recited by all, particularly those without formal Hebrew education.

The oldest known version of the Mourner’s Kaddish comes from the ninth century prayerbook Siddur Rav Amram Gaon. Rav Amram was the first rabbinic scholar to arrange a complete prayer liturgy for home and synagogue use. However, regarding the prayer itself, Shira Schoenberg at the Jewish Virtual Library site notes: “The first mention of mourners saying Kaddish at the end of the service is in the Or Zarua (literally “Light is Sown”) a 13th century halakhic (legal) writing by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna. The Kaddish at the end of the service then became designated as Kaddish Yatom or Mourner’s Kaddish (literally, Orphan’s Kaddish).” Most enlightening however, was my discovery at the Chabad site that the Kaddish prayer was meant to praise G-d and express the profound desire for the perfection of all Creation (a detail of which is illustrated within the image of the Torah); it was never intended to be about the finality of death at all!

Although the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer is recited during every traditional prayer service and at funerals, it is only one version among five; each of which has been modified over the centuries for use at different occasions. The others include: the Half-Kaddish (Chatzi Kaddish) read between sections of a prayer unit, the Whole Kaddish (Kaddish Shalem) which concludes the main section of a prayer unit, the Rabbi’s Kaddish, recited after a public lecture on the Torah to honor communal scholars, and the Kaddish HaGadol, recited on completion of reading a tractate of the Talmud or an order of the Mishnah (Torah commentary). It is also part of a siyyum, the ceremony held by a community when a new Torah is completely written for them. Again, none of these ever mentions death or dying; they are prayers for life, peace and redemption as they affirm the greatness of G-d. Indeed, each version of the prayer ends with “He who makes peace in His High Places, may He make peace for us and for all Israel and let us say, Amen.”

My illustration for the Mourner’s Kaddish in the book includes two sources of light and remembrance shown in the lower left corner; an ancient clay oil lamp and a sturdy candle impaled on a medieval pewter candlestick. These reflect an allusion found in the Book of Proverbs (20:27) which considers the soul of man to be G-d’s candle. In Judaism, candles are the universal symbol for the divine spark (nitzotz) which enlivens our bodies. And in spiritual meditation, we are encouraged to to allow a space in ourselves for G-d’s Light to illuminate us for our own benefit and for our interactions with others. 

Perhaps this idea can be understood as a reflection of the process of ‘tzimtzum’ or contraction, explained in Kabbalah, in which G-d, during the process of Creation, made a space within Himself for us and our world to exist.

Floating above the clay oil lamp is the Hebrew letter zayin which corresponds to the number seven in gematria or the system of Hebrew numerology. The zayin illustrates that the seven words beginning with the first ‘Amen’ in the Mourner’s Kaddish are comprised of twenty-eight letters. When the ‘Amen‘(which means ‘so be it’) is included, the verse contains eight words. This may seem like an obscure nit of information, but in esoteric Jewish philosophy, the number six represents our material world while the number seven represents the spirituality contained within that world. With traditional belief maintaining that our material world was created in six days, then the Sabbath or the seventh day became the spiritual catalyst that would complete it, while the number eight represents the idea of that spiritual catalyst’s ability to move beyond that world as we comprehend it. Finally, the number twenty-eight is the numerical attribution of the Hebrew word ‘koach’ or strength, which tells us that when we say the prayer with all of our strength, we can connect to the spiritual dimensions that allow us to virtually transcend our material world.

I decided to include this version of the Kaddish for the book because I wanted to emphasize that while the Mourner’s Kaddish resembles the other versions, I feel it best serves two universal purposes; to enable spiritual continuity (as symbolized by the ancient oil lamp and later medieval candlestick) while it bonds the generations together through ritual and memory.