Posts Tagged ‘shekhinah’

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 Rainbow Of Blessings

June 1, 2014

RainbowBlessingWhen the shadow of a rainstorm has passed and we are able to witness a rainbow illuminating our corner of the world, the most common association of this phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian tradition is with the legend of Noah’s Ark. Schoolchildren are routinely taught that a rainbow symbolizes divine forgiveness for human global corruption and the divine promise to never allow another cataclysmic flood to wipe out nearly all of the life on this planet.

Since that anti-diluvian era, every culture has created their own idea of the rainbow, endowing it with backstories and attributes that range from magical to mundane. Scholars, musicians, artists and poets have made much of those characteristics as have social activists, employing rainbow colors to promote their agendas of social change through racial, gender and sexual equality.

As I considered how to illustrate the idea of a rainbow for this blessing, I recalled a wonderful tertiary (triple) rainbow that I had seen over the east end of Pittsburgh in the late 1990’s. Its three overlapping arches stretched from Squirrel Hill to perhaps somewhere beyond the North Hills, but of course that endpoint remains a mystery. Regretfully, that was before the convenience of iPhone cameras that could easily record it. Nevertheless, I still remember that it appeared in a sky of an unusual grey-green color which made it seem so much brighter.

Suspended in the majesty of that moment, I didn’t care that science views the colors of the rainbow as wavelengths of light traveling at particular frequencies or that their visibility depends on our vantage point relative to the sun’s position and the presence of sufficient raindrops to refract and reflect its light. Even Sir Isaac Newton’s decision in 1672 to divide the spectrum into seven colors seemed frivolous, especially since it was based on the ancient Greek philosophy positing a connection between the colors, the musical notes, the days of the week and the seven planets in our solar system that were known at the time. From my perspective, that rainbow just seemed too magical for such mundane explanations. And so I began to look into the more subtle interpretations that have found their way into our collective understanding; which made thinking about rainbows in terms of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism more appealing.

Sifting through my reference collection, I listened to the voices of sages and scholars through the centuries absorbing their complex commentaries on Bereshit/Genesis. Among these were citations in the Talmud (Hagigah 16a) and in the Zohar (1:71b) which state that one who gazes too intently at the rainbow will compromise his eyesight. Though several opinions are given for this consequence, I found the rainbow’s connection with Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot (merkabah) most intriguing: ‘Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face…”*

I understood these comments as warnings to remain humble in the presence of holiness which further readings alluded to the presence of Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of the Divine. She is the accessible intermediary for Its sefirot** whose many symbolic attributes include their colors which correspond to our perception of the rainbow.

Then there were often fanciful folktales stemming from commentaries on the Book of Genesis whose narratives were both cautionary and poetic. Louis Ginsberg, in his Legends of the Bible, lists the rainbow as one of the ten extraordinary things*** that came into being in the twilight of Creation, although it was not meant to be seen until the time of Noah when the dual concepts of justice and mercy were introduced as the Divine remedy for transgression and repentance.

Such stories suggested to me that the Torah is in itself a rainbow whose colors reflect our spiritual character and mandate, and second, that we, as imaginative creatures, ever curious about who and why we are, can assign whatever significance we wish to any of the natural phenomena that occur on this planet.

On the tail of these thoughts, the image of a tallit flashed in my mind’s eye. I recalled from my studies that the tallit, worn during prayer is often compared to Divine wings which protect us via G-d’s love and commandments. Also, in Jewish tradition a bird is the metaphor of the Shekhinah who comforts and protects Israel during the centuries of exile. Though I do not yet wear one, I liked the idea of being wrapped in a tallit to evoke Shekhinah since it lends credence to the recognition of the sacred feminine.

I then began to wonder about the stripes of a tallit, or prayer shawl and whether they might serve as a rainbow metaphor, even though they are traditionally black in color. As an artist, I knew that theoretically, the color black contains all the colors, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. But then, I came upon a story that Rabbi Zalman Schacter- Shalomi tells in his book, My Life In Jewish Renewal (Rowman & Littlefield, September, 2012) when he explains the significance of his specially made rainbow tallit. His intention was to wear a physical meme as a reminder of Creation and complexity of our world in the light of G -d’s unity.

Eventually, these concepts and my memory of that tertiary rainbow crystallized in my imagination and led to the imagery which accompanies this blessing for the rainbow.

And so, I decided the Shekhinah would be the focus of my illustration. Although I have often interpreted her in my works, the potential iterations for doing so are limited only by imagination. Here she is wearing a crown of feathers (to mirror the bird metaphor) and is embraced by her rainbow tallit. Its colors symbolize the days of Creation. My Shekhinah also balances a crystal revealing the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) to represent the constant physical manifestations of Creation under divine auspices. Her cloven-hoofed ‘feet’ are a fanciful interpretation that is also drawn from Ezekiel’s vision.

If what we imagine gives us comfort, fosters doubt or amuses us, we can also learn how important it is to keep wondering and embellishing these ideas for generations to come.

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Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm  

Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings 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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*Ezekiel 1:29

** divine energies that form and influence our fundamental reality and the spiritual state of our souls

***In the twilight, between the sixth day and the Sabbath, ten creations were, brought forth: the rainbow, invisible until Noah’s time; the manna; water springs, whence Israel drew water for his thirst in the desert; the writing upon the two tables of stone given at Sinai; the pen with which the writing was written; the two tables themselves; the mouth of Balaam’s she-ass; the grave of Moses; the cave in which Moses and Elijah dwelt; and the rod of Aaron, with its blossoms and its ripe almonds.” -Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible p.44

An Illumination Of Blessings Update: On Moonlight And Memory

May 16, 2014

RoshHodesh-MoonBlessing50%Science and religion have always been strange bedfellows, each occupying neighboring compartments in our minds, yet ever distrustful of each other.

A quotation attributed to Albert Einstein offers some insight: “A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Nevertheless, they remain eternal antagonists, each perhaps seeking an impossible validation from the other.

This observation is far from new, but it came to me as I considered how to approach this blessing for the moon, an ancient source of wonder until July of 1969, when American astronauts walked on the moon. They became at once part of its history and its future in human perception.

Although they seemed to prove that the moon was physically no more than a rather large, cratered and lifeless asteroid, unworthy of the age-old mysteries attributed to it, still, they changed little for most of us earth-bound creatures in terms of our romantic, spiritual or prophetic predilections. We still love to invest the moon with human qualities in our arts and culture or laugh at the idea that it is made of green cheese.

Yet, whether we are romantic or pragmatic, we can safely admit there is a certain subtle beauty in the presence of the moon; it’s there to light our paths at night and in a numinous way, to remind us that we are not alone or without purpose in the dark.

These ideas might be part of the foundation underlying religious rituals created around the moon. In Rabbinic tradition, the newly minted Israelites were commanded to sanctify the new moon upon their delivery from Egypt. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-2)

This practice directly conflicted with Egypt’s officially sanctioned sun worship. It also ensured that the moon would not become an object of worship; instead, its cycles became the basis of the Jewish calendar, a valuable tool for timekeeping and agricultural foresight.

In this system, each month defines one lunar cycle as the moon completes one orbit of earth. One hallmark of the lunar calendar, the Rosh Hodesh* holiday is observed with prayers and blessings at the point in the moon’s orbit when it is suspended directly between earth and the sun so that a thin crescent of it is visible to all, marking the beginning of a new month and/or season.

Metaphorically, the appearance of the moon as it progresses through its phases, illustrates our ‘deliverance’ from spiritual darkness to light. It would seem that such ‘enlightenment’ included recognizing the importance of women in early Israelite culture, yet I wonder, does it also tell us that the story of human existence would always be written in alternating chapters of darkness and light?

It is interesting to note that the monthly cycles of both women and the moon figured in the establishment of Rosh Hodesh as a holiday. Perhaps this reflects the idea that both women and the moon are capable of rebirth or renewal and must be honored as such. But two references in the Babylonian Talmud perceive it as a special one for women in particular while an 8th century midrash provides the backstory.

The first reference, in Tractate Megillah (22b) states that women must be exempt from work** on this day. The midrash, Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer*** suggests that after the incident of the Golden Calf, women were given a work-free holy day as a reward for their refusal to contribute their jewelry to the construction of the idol. Later, the French medieval Torah commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) specified that the exempt work included spinning, weaving and sewing since these were the skills that women freely contributed to the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) following the Exodus from Egypt.

The second reference points to a related monthly prayer called Kiddush Levanah****, or The Sanctification of the Moon in which we express our appreciation for G-d’s celestial gifts. It is traditionally performed outdoors in the moonlight (preferably under a cloudless sky) at the end of the Sabbath from 3-7 days after the new moon is visible. So, in Sanhedrin (42a) Rabbi Yochanan teaches that one who blesses the new moon in its proper time is regarded as one who greets the Shechinah (female aspect of the Divine Presence).

Although Rosh Hodesh celebrations have an ancient history, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that such celebrations became popular. They were one of the ways in which Jewish women could explore and express their own spirituality while enhancing their communal roles. These events gave birth to support groups for various lifecycle issues and forums for women’s studies.

In my illustration for The Blessing of the Moon, I have visually addressed both the Rosh Hodesh and Kiddush Levanah rituals. The sun has just set beyond the distant mountains and on a hillside above the sea. A woman wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl is dancing to the rhythm of her tambourine as she raises a cup of water in tribute to Moses’ sister Miriam and to all women among the Israelites who crossed the Red (Reed) Sea after the Exodus from Egypt. It was the first performance of a song-prayer, Shirat HaYam (Song Of The Sea) that is now part of the morning prayer services worldwide. The letterforms on the cup spell ‘Miriam’ in paleo-Hebrew, an early form of modern Hebrew.

I’ve shown four phases of the moon as it turns from new to full, from darkness to light, tracing its path along the ethereal form of a nocturnal quadrant, used in medieval times for astronomical navigation, perhaps on a ship like the caravel that is arriving with the tide. The ship and quadrant represent the human curiosity and ingenuity at the core of both science and religion while the woman on the hill knows deep within that love, peace and gratitude will mitigate their conflict if only we pay attention to the gifts we have been given.

* head of the new (month)
** except for work which cannot be left over for the following day, (ex.child care)
*** Chapter 45 in this collection of Torah exegesis and folklore
     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirke_De-Rabbi_Eliezer
**** More information on Kiddush Levanah may be found at these links:

http://www.chabad.org/library/  article_cdo/aid/1904288/jewish/The-Sanctification-of-the-Moon.htm

and http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/607391/jewish/Thank-G-d-for-the-Moon.htm

Kickstarter Update #4: An Illumination Of Blessings: Sabbath

July 3, 2013

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Dear Backers and Backers-To-Be:

Wow, with 64% funding and three days to go, I am really getting into the rhythm of An Illumination Of Blessings! Yesterday and today I’ve been working on this new illustration; the blessing recited when lighting the Sabbath candles. At this rate, I feel confident that the book will be done on schedule if not before!

Here you can see a woman (who could be any age) blessing the two candles she has lit to usher in the Sabbath, the twenty-four hour period of rest from sundown to sunset that is a central tenet of the Jewish faith for it mirrors the completion of Creation and defines a place in our lives in which we can cease our week’s efforts, open our senses to those things that we rush past during the week and achieve a sense of accomplishment for when we resume our activities afterwards.

On her lace tablecloth is a kiddush cup filled with wine and two challahs that has been baked fresh for the Sabbath. Blessings for these items appear in this book as well. The spirit figure in the background represents the Shekhinah, or the feminine aspect of our Creator whom we welcome into our homes for this brief time each week. I will be sharing additional thoughts on these images in the book’s commentary.

As always, your questions and comments are welcome!

To those of you that kindly and generously pledged your support to bring me to this point in my campaign, I thank you unreservedly. To those of you who are on the wire trying to decide if this is worth your investment, worry  no more. You’ve spent plenty of money on all kinds of stuff, but what can you count among your possessions to prove you’ve taken a journey through my imagination? I mean, how many artists devoted to high quality spiritual art can you call yourself a patron of? Here’s the link, hop to it!!

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings

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.

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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Celebrating Schadenfreude?

February 3, 2012

In a musical rendition of the celebratory ‘high-five’ gesture, Parashah B’shallakh offers the ‘Song of the Sea’ following the safe crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Israelites upon their departure from Egypt. I have always had a problem with these somewhat self-serving verses, and prefer not to read them during the morning service. Although I think I understand the need for them in the aftermath of horrific events in our history, still, the gloating tenor of them seems a bit much like schadenfreude. Moreover, I wonder: could the brief echoes of that song via the appearance of Moses’ sister Miriam and ‘all the women’ be just another patronizing plot device to drive the Exodus narrative forward? To be sure, unlike the cameo roles of other women in the Torah, it was a rare display of solidarity among them considering the often bitter rivalry and cattiness displayed by some of the other matriarchs. Nevertheless, because of that brevity and the body of literature she has since inspired, Miriam and her intelligent influence among the tribes has become a powerful role model for women through the  generations. For this reason I’ve chosen to make her the focus of my illustrations for Parashah B’shallakh in Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate 2009) along with the prophet Elijah, her unlikely male counterpart whose appearance in legend and symbolic presence at Passover seder tables is traditional.

A detailed commentary on The Song of the Miriams details that appear throughout this post can be found on page 147 of the AfterImages section of my book. As always, I invite your thoughts and questions and look forward to a continuing conversation.

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

Between Choices And Chosenness

September 15, 2011

Human sentience and survival may be characterized by our ability to perceive choices, act upon them and experience the consequences. This is amply demonstated in Ki Tavo, this weeks’ Torah portion. The image above is comprised of details from the full illustration that accompanies the parashah in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate 2009). The AfterImages portion of the book offers my interpretation of these images:

Ki Tavo, meaning ‘when you enter’, instructs the fledgling ‘chosen’ people regarding their physical and moral behavior as they enter and settle the land  that has been divinely promised to them. In doing so, it clearly defines the concepts of good and evil through the mnemonic device of blessings and curses. Here are a man and woman each wearing a prayer shawl (tallit) that can be seen as a mnemonic device for remembering the commandments. Through the use of gematria, the Hebrew system for number interpretation, the medieval French Rabbi, Shlomo Itzhaki (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 to a value of 600, to which 8 and 5 (representing the strings and knots respectively) are added for a total of 613. Two of the major sefirot are represented on the man’s tallit; black for Gevurah or strength and white for Chesed or lovingkindness. The shadowy wings within the woman’s tallit are meant to symbolize her spiritual connection to the Shekhinah, or the feminine aspect of God. Behind the woman and man stand representatives of each of the twelve tribes who have been instructed to position themselves- six representatives from each, on two facing mountains (Mts. Ebal and Gerizim) 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, with Ark of the Covenant in full view, they are able to hear Moses and the priests call out to them, alternating between blessings and curses to reinforce their understanding of good and evil and to ensure that the boundaries between them are never breached. This understanding is a major prerequisite for settlement in the Promised Land.

The two keruvim (cherubim), each holding a tree, hover above this tableaux. Unlike their position on the Ark of the Covenant, they are facing away from each other 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.

It is only when we make those choices that are equally cognizant of our faith in God’s beneficence, of our own needs and those of our compatriots that we deserve to be not the ‘chosen people’ per se, but the people who understand how to live with the consequences of each choice.

Reflections In The Mirror Of Heaven And Earth

September 1, 2011

As the Hebrew year turns towards its own renewal and the High Holiday cycle begins, we are given yet another opportunity to reflect on personal and public events that have transpired and on our reactions to them. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is approaching as our political system and economy continue to decay. Collective tides of anger become chaotic outbursts that loudly and messily continue to replace intelligent discourse and the media is a glutton at this smorgasbord. The environment, like the skin on our bodies tells its own tale of woe as it hosts one natural disaster after another. Our religious liturgies conveniently offer lengthy poetic formulae and intricate acrostics with which we can communally express our feelings, but I often wonder how mouthing these familiar verses composed so long ago relates to who I am now and how I have lived this year? Have my choices largely demonstrated mindfulness, indifference or willfulness? Have I tried to express myself creatively or have I automatically repeated clichéd pleasantries in response to casual encounters? Have I listened well and learned anything? Moreover, is God listening and to what extent are we being observed and judged? Will my name remain listed in that legendary Book of Life? These and other sober concerns lend gravitas to this time of year. Perhaps that is why Parashah Shoftim is read early in the month of Elul, for it gives us some historical, legal and spiritual perspective on who and why we are.

In the calendar, Elul precedes the month of Tishrei when judgment for our deeds of the previous year is rendered. Traditionally, we express our wishes to retain life in good health that we may continue to perform mitzvot or good deeds. Though many powerful ideas are presented in this parashah, I purposely chose the quotation pertaining to justice for this visual interpretation.

‘The Mirror Of Heaven & Earth‘, shown above reflects a commentary in the Talmud and a further interpretation by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) in the Tanya (the foundational work of Hasidic philosophy) regarding how a negative event can be rendered positive upon consideration. I like to think that as we are partners with God in Creation, so are we empowered to collectively change our world for the better. This drawing features a celestial looking-glass, the metaphor of a window to our world through which God may view the consequences of His/Her Creation and we may imagine glimpsing the duality of justice that exists in both dimensions. This may be the basis for repeating the words, “Justice, Justice”. Although the parashah emphasizes the appointment of authorities to administer the laws and specifies the consequences of disobedience, I am drawn to the philosophical interpretation that applies these laws to our physical bodies as microcosmic versions of Creation and Torah.

In ‘A Balance Of Powers‘, shown below, one of the key players in the process of judgment is the prophet, standing to the right of the Shekhinah, or feminine aspect of God.

He is included because his divinely inspired words are associated with world events, both present and future. He and the artifact shadowed behind him are modeled after the prophet Ezekiel and the mystical vision he experienced during the Babylonian Exile in 593 BCE.

The Kohen Gadol or High Priest standing to the prophet’s right holds a small model of a Levitical city of refuge. These properties were given to the tribe of Levi instead of farmland so that their designated roles as Torah scholars and teachers to the Israelites could be performed without domestic distractions. The Shekhinah is shown with a set of scales that represent the qualities of justice and mercy. The fire in the left pan surrounds the Hebrew letter ‘tzadee’ that begins the word ‘tzedek’ for justice. In the right pan rests the Hebrew letter ‘resh‘ for ‘rachamim’ or mercy with a dove holding a lily. The dove, although it is the familiar symbol of peace also addresses the quietude needed for objective decisions.  The lily was chosen for its association with purity and for its six petals shaped in the form of a six-pointed star. In Hebrew the flower is called ‘shoshan‘, from the root word ‘shesh’ or the number six. And on the sixth day of Creation, we came to be; for better or for worse, but somehow gifted with hope that always shows us the potential of ‘better’.

These images are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher: http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon,  amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will find several reviews.

The Mystery of Faith And Fortitude

August 18, 2011

This week’s Torah reading, Parashah Eikev addresses the dramatic destruction of Canaanite pagan culture while symbolizing the spiritual fortitude required to do so. It stresses the importance of strengthening and maintaining our faith so that we may partake of the abundant gifts of the Promised Land. Today’s illustration,  A Partnership of Faith‘, is a detail from Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary.  Here, a mezuzah amulet, similar to the one in Parashah Va’Etchannan reappears, now as a symbol of protection for settlement in Israel while presenting examples of the seven species of produce that will be found there.  Blessing this process is a vision of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. The bird perched on her elaborate crown of pomegranates is a hoopoe. In addition to it being selected as the national bird of Israel on the country’s 60th birthday in 2008, the hoopoe was chosen to compliment her presence because of its legendary filial devotion and gratitude, caring for its parents as they age. This relationship is the metaphor of our partnership with each other and with God. The Hebrew quotation below her from Parashah Eikev, Ch. 8, v.7 translates as: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill…” This image is my response to the essential dual dynamic of hearing and being heard, that in turn validate each other.  Once, long ago, I received a large conch shell as a gift. Holding it to my ear, I heard the expected rush of an ocean tide, but my imagination overlaid that sound with the notion of a mysterious communication originating from somewhere deep beyond the interior spirals of the shell. To this day, that communication remains a mystery, but the experience inspired the images in this image of a grandfather and granddaughter sharing a moment of mystery and faith that is older than memory. The timeless  message in Parashah Eikev seems especially relevant now, drawing our attention to the dangers in our media driven culture and political climate that are characterized by those who only wish to speak while forgetting to listen.

This excerpt is from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher, http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon,  amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will find several reviews.