Posts Tagged ‘sun’

Sunrise, Sunset, So What?

May 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Day Into Night: The Wisdom Of Perception

March 9, 2014

ImageOrdinarily, I like to deny subscribing to coincidence, but I must stand corrected on account of this week’s installment from An Illumination Of Blessings.

Anyone of middle-age and beyond will readily admit that as we age, time seems to pass more quickly, yet we only recognize that deceptive phenomenon in retrospect.

Last week, when I chose to begin work on this blessing for the wisdom to distinguish day from night it did not immediately occur to me that coincidentally, we were about to begin the ‘spring ahead and fall behind’ cycle for one hour semi-annually in the parlance of daylight saving time.

Today, it began around 2AM this morning and though I can always feel the transition instinctually, the fact of it never fails to take me by surprise.

This tradition began centuries ago as an informal observance of the Earth’s rotation in relation to the effects of the sun and moon cycles on agriculture, lifestyle and human productivity. It became progressively codified and enforced well into the twentieth century but today, there are groups advocating for its eradication in the interest of simplifying travel, scheduling, commerce and environmental conservation. The latter justification is ironic considering that daylight saving time was initially instituted as an energy saving measure!

However, since daylight saving time may have derived from our ability to distinguish and contemplate the differences between day and night, it is only marginally related to today’s blessing essay. So to learn more about it, you can find a detailed history of daylight saving time and the arguments against it at: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time and at: http://www.standardtime.com/proposal.html.

As for the blessing itself, you might notice a tiny rooster perched on the roof of the medieval-style house in my illustration. This refers to the blessing’s original title, ‘The Wisdom of the Rooster’. It is unique among the many we have for expressing appreciation for our physical, mental and environmental gifts. Why? Because instead of thanking our Creator for our own ability to distinguish between day and night, we offer praise for “giving the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.” Rabbi Michael Gourarie* explains:

“Although a rooster crows at the beginning of each day it actually happens some time before it gets light. When it senses that dawn will break soon, and light is on the way to substitute for the darkness, he emits the crowing noise that became the ancient alarm clock.

In every day there are periods of light – clarity, blessing, peace of mind and prosperity; but there are also sometimes patches of darkness – challenge, confusion and difficulty. It takes special strength not to be caught up in the moments of challenge. It takes maturity to look beyond the darkness and see the light that awaits us. A wise person learns from the rooster. He/she knows that the darkness is only temporary and that light is on the way. The rooster is symbolic of an attitude filled with optimism, hope and belief. The rooster teaches us to envisage and celebrate blessing even before it comes.”

In addition to the rooster, the other elements in my illustration are arranged around a sort of cosmic hourglass. Suspended within their separate spheres, our sun and moon are poised to reverse their positions in a dance designed at the time of Creation. I wanted to symbolize our understanding of these celestial bodies with regard to our environment and our lives (trees and houses) by placing them within a man-made timekeeping device. The sprinkle of stars that inspired the signs of the Zodiac on the hourglass are there to remind us that while our acquired knowledge is of great value, the light of that value darkens without the wonder and faith that guide it.

*http://shiratdevorah.blogspot.com/2011/08/wisdom-of- rooster.html

Blessings Both Hidden And Revealed

December 15, 2013

ImageAt first glance, the blessing traditionally recited prior to reading the Torah appears to be merely a formal expression of respect for this foundational document of Judaism. But it’s much more. I’m including it in An Illumination Of Blessings because it is a way we can express our gratitude to the Source of Life for the opportunity of partaking in this sweet and savory feast for our minds, bodies and souls.

With this blessing, we honor the moment when Moses descended Mt Sinai with the divine gift of our ‘spiritual DNA’; a gift of timeless and inestimable value. I like to think about this gift in the metaphoric terms of information science, where data is transmitted to its destination via virtual electronic ‘packets’. Similarly, the Torah can be seen as a compilation of concise ‘packets’ of instructions for how to live and steward our planet embedded with the assurance that the Source of Life would bless us always; if and when we accepted them.

Extending this idea, we can think of each encounter with Torah as akin to meeting a person for the first time. Although we recognize that Hebrew is the language of Torah and that a person’s physical features define them as human, how do we account for our immediate physical and/or emotional reactions to them? It may be that Information and impressions are transmitted between individuals in virtual packets via a delivery method we do not yet understand or control. Only thought and time spent with that individual allow us to ‘unfold’ these ‘packets’ to understand our initial reactions and determine the character of that relationship. In the same way, the Torah reveals her meanings to us gradually through time and thoughtful study as we learn to see between her lines.

Perhaps the oddly-named scholar and convert to Judaism, Ben BagBag, quoted in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) said it best: “Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.”

The Torah is masterwork of infinite, unfathomable depth; a virtual blueprint of Creation. Though we cannot fully decode its mysteries, it will always be there to keep our curiosity and questions alive and to help us maintain our dialogue with the Source of Life. Indeed, my five and a half year experience with Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) was an exercise in humility, for I realized how very much there is yet to learn…

For An Illumination Of Blessings: A Blessing For Here & Now

August 26, 2013

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For my Kickstarter backers of An Illumination Of Blessings and all readers of  Imaginarius, here is my interpretation of the Shehekhiyanu blessing for your viewing pleasure. The following explanatory text is from my Update page at the Kickstarter site:

Most of the twelve months of the Jewish year are distinguished by a day or more of holiday observance and/or a major festival that preserves and celebrates our history and culture while bringing them forward to our present and future. Although the liturgy for these holidays addresses them individually within their duration, there is one blessing called the Shehekhiyanu that is traditionally recited during candle-lighting on the evening preceding each of the major holidays and festivals with the exception of holidays that commemorate sad or tragic events such as Tisha B’Av.

The Shehekhiyanu is the tenth blessing that I have completed to date. It is a blessing of thanks in acknowledgement of special occasions and life-cycle events such as weddings and bar mitzvot. It is also appropriate for new or unusual experiences such as tasting a first fruit in season, meeting an old friend, or acquiring a new home or clothing. ‘Shehekhiyanu’ is Hebrew for “Who has given us life” (and brought us to this moment). This blessing originated in the Mishnah and is cited in the Talmud, the collections of Jewish laws, interpretations and observances set down after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE (of the Common Era).

My interpretation of the Shehekhiyanu blessing is relatively straightforward, showcasing symbols of the Jewish holiday cycle which are clockwise from the top: Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Passover, Lag B’Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah and Chanukkah. The commentary at the conclusion of An Illumination Of Blessings will detail the significance of each holiday symbol. This ‘cycle of life’ is supported between the sun and moon in reference to the Hebrew lunar-solar calendar that determines when each holiday begins and ends. In this system, the year corresponds with the solar calendar and its months match the lunar calendar.

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!

The Game Of Life: Cosmic Jeopardy?

May 30, 2013

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Last night, while searching for a drawing reference, I revisited some of my former selves via the thoughts, sketches and the flotsam and jetsam of memory in the small journals I’ve kept for years. This is rather like re-reading a favorite book and finding new insights between the lines. By default, time is a great teacher because in the periods that elapse between readings, our minds have a chance to integrate what we’ve experienced since our first reading into our subsequent ones. This idea also extends to my art. It’s why I think that a work of art is always a work in progress; it sits waiting patiently for you or someone else to impart new insights upon each viewing thereby enriching the presence of that artwork and lending a depth to its purpose that the artist may not have originally understood.

All of this musing leads me to offer you one of these little philosophic tidbits that I found in a journal entry of 24 February 1999. Though it was a stand-alone observation at the time, I now realize that it was the perfect accompaniment for the 1986 watercolor drawing shown above: The Game Of Creation.

“Maybe life is a game of cosmic jeopardy in which we are all players. Experience provides the clues to our existence, but it is our task to formulate questions to comprehend their meaning.”  

There are probably no satisfying answers, but the questions lead to wonder and perhaps that gift of wonder is an answer in itself…

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The original framed painting or giclée prints of it may be purchased through The Magic Eye Gallery where you will find further details. (www.magiceyegallery.com)

The Challenge Of Change

June 21, 2012

Though  I am not fluent in French, the classic aphorism, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they remain the same) seems particularly relevant with regards to Korah, the Torah portion from the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) that will be read this Sabbath. This particular parashah is memorable to me personally, as it marks the Bar Mitzvah of my eldest son in 1988 and the beginning of the thought process and research that would become my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). As the story recounts the challenge made by the Levite Korah to the divinely ordained authority of his cousins Moses and Aaron, it reminds us that the often smarmy dynamics that characterize ‘modern’ politics has barely changed in 2.000+ years. From the AfterImages section of this book which also includes footnotes for the sources, here is an excerpt of the interpretation for the illustrations shown above and below:

“In The Price Of Power, we see the blue-robed Korah ben Izhar, a wealthy, prominent Levite. Despite his influence as cousin to Moses and Aaron, he craved more power and determined to challenge the authority assigned to them over the Israelites. He gathered 250 men with ambitious agendas of their own, and outfitted them in luxurious tallitot (prayer shawls) made entirely of blue wool. In a mockery of the ‘one-cord of blue’ commandment (Shelakh-Lekha), Korah, exhibits a serpents’ forked tongue as he and his party arrogantly confront Moses and Aaron with a cunning argument for the equal holiness of all the Israelites.

Yet, for such a clever man, he seemed unaware that challenging God’s wisdom would have dire consequences. The Mishnah  describes the violent ‘earthquake’ that swallowed Korah and his men as the ‘mouth of earth’, one of ten mystical things created before the first Sabbath of the world. The copper firepans (upper left) had once held incense offerings. These were obligatory when Korah requested the meeting with Moses and Aaron. They were all that remained of Korah’s party. The firepans were later gathered by Eleazar, Aaron’s son to be melted into plating for the sacrificial altar– a legacy of this tragic event. Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Bible suggested the disgruntled sun and moon. They, too, challenged God and refused to voluntarily perform their duties if He levied punishment on Korah and his men. Ever after, sun and moon must be prodded into their daily cycles. With linguistic irony, the three Hebrew consonants in Korah’s name translate as ‘kereach’ or’ice’ and also as ‘bald’, both meaningful descriptions of his nature. The ‘ice’ refers to his cold, logical approach to spiritual matters while the ‘bald’ recalls the ‘bald spot’ he left among the Israelites when the earth swallowed his followers. 

When Korah challenged the right of Aaron to be High Priest, The Ark Of Judgment was employed to provide a test of faith in response. One of its k’ruvim sits on top of the Ark holding eleven barren staffs, each carved with the name of a tribe. The other keruv holds the staff of the tribe of Levi, which has put forth almond blossoms and fruit, confirming the choice of Aaron as High Priest of Israel. Aptly characterizing this tale is an unusual feature of Aaron’s staff: its dual fruits of bitter and sweet almonds. One variety begins sweet and turns bitter, like most disputes while the variety that begins bitter, but yields sweet fruit is akin to the achievement of peace. The motif on the shekel coin below commemorates the miracle of Aaron’s staff. The almonds in the hands below Aaron’s crown demonstrate that their name in Hebrew, ‘shaked’ is a permutation of ‘kodesh’ meaning ‘holy’: proof that God had chosen Aaron to bring holiness to the world.”

So where does that leave us now? In a metaphorical desert, I suppose; forced to define our own sense of morality in the face of our own media-driven misinformation campaigns. Then, as now, personal wealth and smarmy charm were exploited to secure a position of leadership with intentions that were far more self-centric than concerned with the spiritual and physical well-being of those who would be led. The major difference between now and then is the absence of a Divine Presence to dramatically balance the scales of justice, unless you naively believe that those who would rule us have a hot-line to Heaven.

The Odds Of March

March 19, 2012

ate one night, near the end of February, the rooster-less weather vane spun madly atop the Inn Of The Four Winds. Perhaps it was anticipating the outcome of the wager within…

Beneath the iridescent glow of a crystal chandelier, March’s fate lay in the cards. Would the month begin with the icy breath of a roaring storm or with the gentle bleat of a spring breeze? Excitement ran high among those with stakes in this annual game, for the cards were to be held by those famous adversaries, the Lion and the Lamb. The game required a curious playing deck consisting of three hundred and sixty-five cards (with a wild card thrown in for leap years). Its four suits distinguished the deck, each representing one of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. On the cards within each suit, specific weather conditions such as thunderstorms or clear, blue skies were depicted. But these magical cards were more than just pretty pictures. As they were selected in the game, each image exuded its unique sounds, sensations and smells!

A dealer was appointed to divide this enormous deck into twelve stacks of cards, corresponding to the months of the year. From those stacks, he then dealt each player twelve cards. The remaining cards were tossed into a barrel and shuffled so they could be reassembled into one large stack at the center of the ornately carved table.
The rules of the game decreed that neither the Lion nor the Lamb were to see each other’s hand, but were to select cards in turn from the center stack, rejecting unwanted cards back into the barrel for next year’s game. Then, by means of dealing, trading and bluffing (if necessary), each player must build a complete hand of thirty-one cards (corresponding to March’s thirty-one days) whose suits and weather conditions matched their own meteorological vision.

If the Lion expected to win, his hand must consist of thirty-one cards depicting only fierce weather conditions; while the Lamb would need to collect thirty-one cards displaying only fair weather symbols for her victory. The first player to collect a complete hand would win the honor of deciding whether March came in like a Lion and went out like a Lamb, or vice versa! Although the weather was enigmatically commanded by the powers that be, ancient wisdom held that this annual match exerted its own mysterious influence…

The large hall of the Inn was crowded with spectators and speculators proclaiming their wagers and noisily debating the fate of March. Among these were the weather vanes’ Rooster, the Groundhog, the Dove and the Monkey. By virtue of their special interests in the resolution of the match, the four were permitted to surround the principal players.
The Rooster, having abandoned his weathervane for this event, anxiously hoped for an early spring in March. He was a proud fellow, but he was exhausted after a long winter of announcing early sunrises and taming temperamental winds. An early spring would allow him to do his tasks a wee bit later in the morning. And so he crowed enthusiastically for the Lamb.

The Dove cooed for the Lamb, too. As the messenger whose task was to let other birds know when the ice and snow would end, Dove’s sentiments were also personal; she dearly missed all of her friends who flew south for the winter.
The Groundhog, charged with predicting the fate of winter for humans, had grumpily crept out of his burrow for this game, grunting in favor of the Lion. He wished to enjoy his winter nap for just a little longer.

And the Monkey, gifted with a special knowledge of the language of plants and trees, was entrusted with bearing the tidings of spring to jungles and forests everywhere. In recognition of her intelligence, she was appointed to act as dealer. This obliged her to remain neutral, though she secretly hoped for an early spring. There was nothing she liked better than swinging lazily on a thick vine and munching an early crop of mangoes.

When the table was prepared and everyone had settled down, the Lion and the Lamb entered the room, greeted their audience, and took their seats. While the Monkey dealt their cards, the players exchanged menacing glances and crooked smiles, each determined to emerge victorious from the match.

As the game proceeded, the Lion could barely suppress his little rumbles of delight; for the majority of his cards depicted his signature storm symbols: lightning, thunder, snowy blizzards and hurricanes. Smugly, he glanced around the room and then at his opponent; a clear gesture that he held the winning cards. On the other hand, the Lamb, with her gentle features drooping, seemed to be down on her luck this year. Shivering from her handful of wet, cold, windy storm cards, she desperately wanted to declare an early spring, and hoped that some of her beautiful sunshine and flower symbols would turn up soon.

Suddenly, as if the powers that be had heard her wish, the stack of cards at the center of the table began to yield one springtime card after another! Growing more excited with each turn, the Lamb could nearly taste her victory as her fans cheered her on. The Lion began to growl in frustration, his whiskers wrinkling at the scent of the spring grass and crocus cards, which kept cropping up. Peeved by the waning encouragement of his supporters, the big cat was not a good loser. But he did have a flair for drama.

Narrowing his big green eyes, he stood up as if about to stretch, letting loose a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a roaring yawn. The startled Lamb gasped and dropped her cards, then bleated accusingly at her opponent for cheating. The Monkey, who had just reached out to straighten the center stack of cards, trembled, scattering the remainder of them all over the table and floor! To make matters worse, the crowd had begun to panic. What would become of the month of March?

After a few moments, the Lamb’s natural grace and charm returned, and she giggled as she regarded the mess on the table and floor. “Oh, well,” she shrugged philosophically, ” I was getting tired of this old game anyway!” The Lion, somewhat abashed by the Lamb’s swift recovery, felt a slow smile creeping across his chops. “So am I,” he agreed, nodding his shaggy head. “Besides,” he added slyly, ” I’ve heard there is a cheap flight to Paradise this weekend. Would you like to join me?” Fluffing the curly wool behind her delicate pink ear, the Lamb glanced flirtatiously at the Lion, and happily accepted his offer.

The crowd of spectators and speculators had finally regained their wits and were so busy arranging their wagers for next year’s game, that they never noticed the Lion and the Lamb waltzing out of the Inn’s doors locked in an embrace.

The powers that be rolled their collective eyes indulgently as they helped a very sleepy Rooster back to his weathervane perch atop The Inn Of The Four Winds.

This year, for a change, March would have to take care of itself.