Posts Tagged ‘Sefirot’

An Illumination Of Blessings Is For Real!

September 22, 2014

Dear Backers of An Illumination Of Blessings:

As of this past Monday, September 15th, I am pleased to announce that with your generous support and encouragement, this Kickstarter project is done and delivered! It’s been a wonderfully challenging year and a half of research, writing, design and illustration for these 36 illuminated blessings including the  interactions with all of you throughout the process. Recently, I’ve been asked whether another edition of blessings will follow to bring us closer to the originally intended count of 100. Perhaps, if there are a significant number of requests for it. But for the moment a bit of recovery is in order as I contemplate a short list of options (which include both Judaic and secular themes) for my next project. Your questions and suggestions are welcome!  Again, thank you all from the bottomless-ness of my creative well: I look forward to continuing our creative conversations and collaborations!

Ilene Winn-Lederer, September 18, 2014

A Blessing For Dressing: Are You What You Wear?

March 21, 2014

ImageJust as our skin conceals our interior systems, its visible condition is designed to describe their functional state. Likewise, our clothes in their myriad styles and colors both conceal and reveal our psychological states even when our thoughts, speech and actions might proclaim otherwise.

But in a perfect world, the clothes we choose to wear would project not merely the public image we present (depending on our socioeconomic status), but would instead serve as ‘soul garments’ to reflect our inner character from the dynamic facets of our souls. In a superficial sense, they do so, but only if those who see us care to interpret our choices.

I decided to interpret this blessing for getting dressed as a commentary to our ongoing obsession with fashion and the messages we believe it broadcasts for us. Perhaps this blessing, which is one of fifteen blessings recited in Shacharit (the morning service) was designed to help us clarify our understanding of why and how we clothe ourselves. It can also be recited when donning a new article of clothing. In his essay,“Putting On Soul Garments”*, Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter at The Ascent of Safed organization explains why:

“Through its recitation we thank G-d daily for enclothing us with the potential to do mitzvot, i.e. the ability to utilize the garments of the divine soul in a constructive and Jewish way. Each day we weave a finer and more exquisite garment of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, each person according to his capacity. When the soul leaves this world to reunite with its Source, it “wears” a garment woven from all of the positive thought, speech and action a person engaged in while alive. This blessing verbalizes our commitment to transform our mundane actions into a stepping-stone to our Creator by choosing to clothe ourselves in the garments of our Divine soul. Thus, “…who clothes the naked” can also be rendered: “…He that gives purpose to the purposeless,” and by saying this blessing, we thank G-d for investing our lives with meaning and direction.” This was all very interesting, but in order to create proper visuals for this blessing, I needed to know more about how these ideas evolved.

Verse 3:20 in Bereshit/Genesis relates that our primeval ancestors had worn only their ‘birthday suits’ during their time in the Garden of Eden but when this phase in human development ended with their consuming fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, it also brought them realization of two truths; their own mortality and the ability to perceive their bodies and souls as separate entities where they were previously oblivious to such an idea.

Although we are told poetically that Adam and Eve were then provided with a ‘garment of skins’ for protection from the mercurial elements beyond that ideal environment, no specific description of these garments is given until rabbinic commentaries (Midrash) to the Torah were composed in later centuries.

Until beginning my research for this blessing, I had presumed with some distaste that ‘skins’ meant animal skins which would have required the death of another living creature. However, in a midrash called Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer The Great), I read an intriguing explanation.

It seems that when Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, the serpent who provoked their illicit behavior did not go unpunished. Knowing that Sammael, for that was the serpent’s name, could not die, he was painfully confined to boogie-ing on his belly and was made to shed his skin every seven years. It was from this ‘skin’ that garments were made to replace the fig leaves which Eve had hastily sewn together to wear as a sort of apron.

Though I have not included a literal image of the serpent in my illustration, you might see a shadow of Sammael in the sinuous length of linen that frames it. As I drew this undulating form, I wondered whether his devious actions might have actually liberated Adam and Eve’s intelligence and enabled them to fashion their clothing from the skins of animals and natural plant fibers in their environment? This question led me to include a fig leaf image symbolizing Eve’s ingenious response to her newly mortal predicament.

I’ve dressed the couple shown here in medieval European style garments and shoes derived from both plants and animals; their shoes are made from leather and their clothing from the plant fibers of either flax, hemp, cotton or wool. Note that the sheep and cotton bough are depicted together beneath and separate from the flax and hemp plants. This was done to illustrate the prohibition against combining wool and linen (which is a product of flax or hemp) in a piece of clothing. This commandment is called ‘Shaatnez’ and is one of four ‘chukkim’ in the Torah (laws that seem inscrutable to us yet are to be obeyed without question).*

Though medieval art, architecture and fashion history color many of the illustrations in this book, the fashion aspect is especially relevant in this blessing because it visually epitomizes the tenets of tznius, or modesty in appearance. This custom of dressing encourages us to look past one’s clothes in order to appreciate the character and soul of the one wearing them.

To illustrate this concept, I’ve placed a metaphorical object in the man’s hand. It is a construction of the Ten Sefirot (Divine Energies) in which the Hebrew letter ‘vav’, corresponding to the ‘vav’ in G -d’s name, hosts the other nine letters. It was inspired by my reading of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh’s complex essay,‘The Kabbalah of Nutrition’** in which he explains that while clothing protects us from the elements, it also represents our character traits making it a ‘prescription’ for a healthy body and soul that enables connection to our Creator.

Finally, it is worth noting that in our contemporary scientific attempts to reconcile the significance of clothing with the message it projects, we have developed technologies to create ‘smart clothes’ that measure some of our vital signs to keep us informed of our physical condition. Still, this does not address the spiritual purpose of clothing; it is just a tiny beginning. We have a very long way to go if we are to understand how our clothing can teach us more about who and what we are, technology notwithstanding. Nevertheless, maintaining a certain mindfulness regarding Who provides for us and how we cover our bodies may one day inspire us to understand and perhaps re-experience the perfect world in which we were conceived.

* http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380607/jewish/Putting-On-Soul-Garments.htm
**The other ‘chukkim’ are explained on pp. 171 and 176 of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).
***http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/690373/jewish/The-Kabbalah-of-Nutrition.htm

Birkat Ha-Gomel: A Blessing For Well-Being

October 7, 2013

For the twelfth installment of An Illumination Of Blessings, I’ve chosen to interpret the Birkat Ha-Gomel, a blessing that I did not have the presence of mind to recite when I really needed to do so. A few months ago, I was involved in an automobile accident that nearly totaled my car. Fortunately, I was not seriously injured , escaping with minor bruises and aftershocks of a mental earthquake. But at that time I should have intoned this blessing of well-being in appreciation for having experienced and recovered from a life-threatening situation.

 The Birkat Ha-Gomel originated in the Talmud (Berakhot 54b) and was drawn from Psalm 107 which describes four situations that merit recitation of this blessing: when one has safely completed a sea voyage, crossed a desert wilderness, recovered from illness or childbirth and been released from captivity. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, anyone who experienced these situations would be required to bring a live sacrifice (korban) of thanksgiving, but the Birkat Ha-Gomel is now an acceptible alternative. According to Rabbi J.H. Hertz, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, it may be recited after any extraordinary escape from danger. In the Orthodox tradition, this blessing is also meant to be recited publicly among a minyan (quorum) of ten men; although Conservative and Reform traditions include women in this number so that an entire congregation may acknowledge an individual’s survival and recovery from one of the above situations.

Whether I visually interpret a Torah parashah, a passage from Talmud, a folktale or as in this case, a blessing, I like to explore such texts on multiple levels so that you are not seeing merely a literal illustration, but rather one that invites you to draw your own interpretations or ask more questions.

And so here is the Birkat Ha-Gomel blessing with it’s attendant symbolism reflecting the situations named here along with their spiritual counterparts. While I hope you will never find yourself in any precarious situation that requires its recitation, it might not be a bad idea to keep a copy at hand…

For those of you that missed the funding deadline, but would still like to have a copy of the book or gicleé prints from the illustrations, don’t fret. You can visit this link to place pre-orders for the book and to specify which blessings you would like to have made into prints: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm It’s back to work for me now onto the next blessing! As always, your questions and comments are welcome!

Of Mitzvot, Mezuzot And Morality

September 10, 2012

Many of us, feeling under the current stormy political weather, find ourselves facing uneasy choices regarding the future of society and the freedoms of the country that we have long taken for granted. But don’t worry; I’m not about to launch into a pretentious little rant here. Rather, I’ve prefaced this blog entry with the above statement to demonstrate that while our technically enhanced, media-driven political and social conflicts may often seem new to us, this week’s Torah reading, Parashah Ki Tavo, relates how very old they are; for they only serve as new disguises for those ancient energies of good and evil. Through mnemonic devices that include blessings and curses, we find a clear explanation of how our ancestors were given an understanding of these energies and an opportunity to choose between them in every decision and action.

The illustration above, Of Mitzvot & Mezuzot precedes this choice. Here, a man and woman are each wearing a prayer shawl (tallit), a mnemonic device for remembering the commandments. Through the use of gematria, the Hebrew system for number interpretation, the medieval French rabbi, Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), suggests that a tallit’s ‘tzitzit’ or fringes descending from its four corners represent the 613 commandments or mitzvot. In this system, the Hebrew letters for the word ‘tzitzit’ (as spelled in the Mishnah) accrue a value of 600, to which 8 and 5 (representing the strings and knots respectively) are added for a total of 613.

In a nod to Kabbalistic philosophy, the colors of the man’s tallit, black for Gevurah or strength and white for Chesed or lovingkindness refer to those sephirotic valences. The shadowy wings within the woman’s tallit are meant to symbolize her spiritual connection to the Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of G-d.

Parashah Ki Tavo aptly translates as ‘when you enter’, because just after crossing Jordan, before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, Moses and the Levite priests instruct them to set up a series of large stones, or stelae, coat them with lime or plaster and inscribe on them ‘every word of this Teaching most distinctly‘. The inscription on the stelae is a portion of the parashah quotation written in paleo-Hebrew and based on the Moabite stela of King Mesha dated from 850 BC.

Though this method may have preserved the inscriptions better than carving them directly into the stones, preservation did not appear to be of prime importance. According to 15th century Spanish bible commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, Moses may have been concerned that like pagan conquerors, the Israelites might choose to erect a monument to their conquest without acknowledging G-d’s role in it. So he made it plain that these stelae, or massive mezuzot, if you will, were to commemorate their commitment to God and His Commandments. It is not clear whether the writing was to include all of Torah, or only the final book. Neither, concludes Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon, the eighth century rabbi and philosopher. He posits that only the 613 mitzvot were written on the stones because while all of Torah is important, the mitzvot are commandments related to blessings and curses that are connected to direct action. Within the inscribed stele at the lower right of this page is an image of the altar that the Israelites were required to build on Mt. Ebal using similar stones. Because the altar would serve a holy purpose, iron tools, normally used for weapons were prohibited in its construction.

The small decorative mezuzah, seen behind the woman, suggests a modern parallel to those original monuments. Traditionally, a mezuzah is a sort of amulet attached to the doorway of a Jewish home that contains a tiny specially prepared sheet of parchment called a  ‘klaf”. Portions of the Shema (the core prayer in Judaism) are written on it in Hebrew.

In The Consequences Of Choice, shown below, are representatives of  Israel’s twelve tribes, six from each. After raising the stelae, these leaders were then instructed to position themselves  on two facing mountains separated by a valley.

The color of each figure is based on their associated gem set into the choshen (breastplate) of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). From the valley between Mts. Ebal and Gerizim, with Ark of the Covenant in full view, Moses and the priests called out to the tribes, alternating between blessings and curses to reinforce their understanding of good and evil and to ensure that the boundaries between them would never be breached. This understanding was a major prerequisite for settlement in the Promised Land.

Hovering above this tableau, two keruvim (cherubim), each holding a tree are facing away from each other in contrast to their position atop The Ark Of The Covenant to emphasize the discord that ensues when good and evil actions become indistinct from one another. The left keruv’s luxuriant tree represents blessings or fertility when the Laws are properly implemented while the right keruv’s barren tree signifies the curses that will come to pass when the Laws are disobeyed.

Finally, the word ‘Amen‘ is seen above the priests because when we say ‘Amen‘ after a blessing, we are binding ourselves in the light of that blessing and strengthening the bridge between the Upper and Lower worlds. The word ‘Amen‘, calligraphically depicted in its positive and negative aspects emphasizes the tribes’ clear understanding and acceptance of both blessings and curses.

Though I have only one vote in this approaching election, I can only hope that we, as citizens of this unique land, will vote together to ensure that its outcome benefits the physical and spiritual needs of us all; rich, poor and in the middle; for it will define us as standard bearers of the balance of good and evil for future generations.

“A Cord Of Blue…”

June 15, 2012

Though Parashah Shelakh-Lekha in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) is memorable for its dramatic account of Joshua, Caleb and the group of ‘spies’ sent to scope out the land of Canaan, its final verse (16:37) is the take-away message that will inform the identity of the Jewish people for generations to come. The message appears in the quotation within the illustration above, titled A Foundation Of Faith. It and the interpretation that follows have been adapted from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)*

The title refers to the Even ha-Shetiyyah, or the mythical Foundation Stone upon which the world was created. Diverse legends describe this immense stone and its origins. There is an eye at its center to indicate the presence of God within every aspect of Creation. Poised on the stone is man wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin engaged in prayer. The tallit prominently features the knotted fringes at the four corners of the garment, which the man has gathered together. Each fringe contains a cord of blue as a daily reminder of the bondage in Egypt and the instructions to observe all of God’s commandments. The tefillin are two small black lacquered boxes containing passages of Torah with black straps attached to them. One box, worn on the head bears a four-pronged letter shin. The other is placed on the left arm, near the heart. The straps are wrapped around the left arm and hand so as to form the Name of God. Suspended above the man’s hands is the letter aleph, whose description by the magic realist writer Jorge Luis Borges  inspired its inclusion here. “ In the Kabbala, that letter stands for the Eyn Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher world…”

 Above the figure is a tiny Murex trunculus snail, the origin of the famed blue dye called techeilet. Known as the chilazon in Hebrew this boneless invertebrate was found on the coast of Northern Israel and ancient Phoenicia and its secretions processed at dyeworks in Tyre. Behind the figure is a compass motif inspired by a medallion that illuminates the Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides’ classic work, Guide To The Perplexed. As the Foundation Stone supports the ‘four corners’ of the world, the cardinal points on the compass guide the two figures representing Jews around the world towards the observances of their faith. Though the Sabbath occurs each week, its potential to remind us of what we’ve forgotten while offering us new understanding are timeless.

*For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://bit.ly/g2D9Lm

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?

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

On Art And Memory

April 30, 2012

Despite the volumes of analysis, artspeak and criticism that accompany the long history of art, it seems that each generation is compelled to coin new definitions and ‘movements’ for their own artistic expression or at least redefine and clarify existing terms.

From my own experience, the question of what makes art ‘Jewish’ or what is ‘Jewish art’ was raised in the early 80’s during a solo exhibition. In writing his review, the reporter for a local newspaper asked me to define it for his broader audience. He wanted to know whether art was deemed ‘Jewish’ because of its subject matter or because it was made by a Jewish artist. At that moment, I couldn’t say, but I did know that it had to be some combination of both. Only a few days later on December 12, 1982, I’d finished reading Chaim Potok’s 1972 book, My Name Is Asher Lev when an answer came to me that I recorded in one of my journals: ‘Jewish art, regardless of its creator, is what emerges when one is inspired to create art whose imagery is specific to Jewish culture, history, tradition and/or ritual.’ Given my penchant for illustration, my love of stories and growing interest in a faith I was born to but did not deeply observe, that realization would become the touchstone for much of the work I would produce in the ensuing three decades.

As I explored the literature, history and traditions of Judaism, I began to understand how vital art is in the preservation of our collective memories so our descendants may inherit them and pay them forward. When the details of a story have faded with time, an image associated with that story remains the guardian of its essence. By visually encoding its imaginings, traditions and memories, these components are assured a certain immortality that becomes verbally embellished with specific details at each viewing. These thoughts inspired today’s illustration, The Besht’s* Minyan, based on an old, often retold legend of the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name:

When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him that involved the safety and welfare of the Jewish community, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer. Afterwards, what he had set out to accomplish was done.

A generation later, when the Maggid**of Mezhyrich was faced with a similar task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers.” And what he prayed for became reality.

In a succeeding generation, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov too, was faced with the difficult task of ensuring the well-being of the Jewish community. Returning to the woods where his ancestors had prayed, he said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we do know this place in the woods to which it belongs; that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

Finally, in the generation that followed, Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin was called upon to perform the time-worn task of preserving his community, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: ‘we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story on how it was done.”
And the story which he told verified in effect the actions of the previous three sages.

All of which persuades me to conclude that as I continue to interpret the stories that illuminate Jewish history, mysteries and seemingly mundane wisdom, I may be doing my small part to pay forward that vibrant tapestry of ideas into the continuum of who we were, who we are and who we may yet be.

I welcome your questions and interpretations of this image as I look forward to continuing this conversation…
***************************************************************************************************


*’Besht'(בעש”ט) is the acronym for Baal Shem Tov. Though later attributed to several of his descendants and disciples, this honorific was originally attributed to the 17th century rabbi Yisroel(Israel)ben Eliezer who is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a movement based on his own spiritual and mystical insights and practices. For further information, Wikipedia offers a lengthier biography and explanation of the Besht’s philosophies at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal_Shem_Tov.

**an Eastern European Jewish itinerant preacher of Torah and narrator of religious stories.

An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence

April 19, 2012


A favorite trope of philosophers and religious scholars from ancient times to ours has been the concept of free choice. Does it exist as a vague tenet of traditional religious entitlement so we may feel free to question our ‘destiny’? Or is it merely a glib, convenient dodge for questionable behavior? Either way, acting upon it is never without consequences for the present or the future, both of which we like to think we can influence even if that influence may be illusory in itself. One of the stronger arguments for the consequence of interpreting the concept of free choice is found in Parashat Shemini, this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

In the illustration above, called Choice & Consequence, a scale is suspended from a mystical winged yad (Torah pointer). One pan holds the sephirah of Chesed (lovingkindness) that has been damaged and unbalanced by the sephirah Gevurah, (strength and power) in the other pan. The status of these qualities lies beneath the many vivid examples of victory and tragedy in the Torah narrative. One of most heartbreaking events was the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, High Priest of Israel. The young men were also godsons of Moses, Aaron’s brother. The Talmud and Kabbalah offer multiple interpretations of this incident. The most familiar is the brother’s unauthorized offering of incense or ‘strange fire though not requested to do so. According to Louis Ginzburg’s Legends of the Bible 1, they were killed upon their offering by two filaments of fire that flashed from the Ark in the Tabernacle. These split into four flames, pierced the nostrils of the young men and incinerated their souls. The bodies are shown intact for the legend also claims that after the event, no external injuries were visible. My imagination rode this story back to an earlier example of an unacceptable sacrifice; that of Adam’s son Cain, his rejected harvest offering and subsequent murder of his brother Abel. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering makes this tale equally tragic despite God’s vague attempt to justify his action to an angry and vengeful Cain. Though the later sacrificial system was designed to short-circuit the expression of these emotions, the loss of these young lives remains a scar on our history. One of the stranger postscripts to Cain’s murder of his brother is that God chose not to destroy Cain for his misdeed. Instead, he was condemned to live with his crime for an extraordinarily long lifetime while bearing an enigmatic stigma. Rashi, the medieval French Torah commentator asserts that this ‘mark of Cain’ was a horn that protruded from his forehead eventually causing his death by a hunter who mistook him for an animal. Another interpretation in the Zohar(Book of Splendor) associates this mark with the Hebrew letter ‘vav‘ because the name Cain or ‘qayin‘ in Hebrew, means ‘hook’.2 Was this ‘vav‘ or ‘hook’ meant to connect Cain to God during his journey towards spiritual redemption? Since both of these assertions intrigued me, I decided to combine them in one image showing Cain’s horn emerging from the ancient Hebrew letter ‘vav‘. The design of his horn was suggested by the ‘horns’ of the mizbeach or sacrificial altar.

I often marvel at how everything is connected in strange and subtle ways. Though created as a stand-alone post, last week’s drawing, ‘Innovasion'(detail shown above) whimsically explored the theme of unusual eating utensils. Coincidentally, the other important theme in Parashat Shemini, happens to be the laws of kashrut (kosher eating practices)regarding animals; laws that clarify which animals may and may not be eaten with any utensils. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the illustration for this section of Parashat Shemini, called Sanction & Censure was my final choice for the book. Yet, I thought it might be interesting to show an alternative option I considered at the time.

By way of explanation, the diverse array of creatures categorized in Parashah Shemini as kosher and unkosher provided an intense artistic challenge. As I began to draw these creatures, I was as delighted as a child to be depicting representatives of the vast array of life forms inhabiting our planet. Digging further into the laws of kashrut, however, these restrictions seemed way too complex to be arbitrary. I wondered about their true meaning for us beyond straightforward obedience. Though I personally understand and observe the basic tenets of kashrus, my imagination is simultaneously attracted to the esoteric. So, upon closer examination, if the animals I have drawn seem to have unique personalities, they do. Their ‘personalities’ were suggested by the Hasidic idea that each creature deemed ‘kosher’ contains ‘sparks of holiness’ and that when properly blessed and eaten, those ‘sparks’ are released, inviting the Divine Presence into our material world. Accordingly the creatures appearing fully colored underscore this idea. Those appearing in neutral grey tones within the black chessboard grid are considered inappropriate to be eaten and for the performance of commandments (mitzvot). Surrounding the ‘chessboard’ are emblems representing four of the spiritual worlds (atzilus,beriyah,yetzirah,asiyah) and elements associated with them (air, water, earth, fire). I thought these should remind us that free choice may not exist merely to reassure our need for independent thinking, but rather we should understand it as a way to reaffirm our connection to creation and to each other.

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://bit.ly/g2D9Lm