Posts Tagged ‘Torah’

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.

Acts Of Kindness: States Of Grace?

March 30, 2014

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In our visual media-oriented world, we often encounter posters, bumper stickers or heartwarming newspaper columns that urge us to ‘Perform Random Acts Of Kindness’. When these first began to appear around 1982, it might have been in reaction to the pervasive emphasis on individual needs and rights that characterized the ‘Me Generation’. Even today, with so much news of domestic and political strife reported in that same media, it seems we still haven’t learned how to do so easily.

Isn’t it strange and sad that we should need to be reminded? But given the complex duality of human nature, the need to be reminded is nothing new. Morality stories dominate the Old and New Testaments with the patriarch Abraham most commonly cited as the archetype of kindness for his hospitality to three Angels in human disguise. For this next page in An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially thought to present his story for this blessing, but for the reasons explained below, decided that the tiny tent above the Hebrew text would suffice as a meme for it.

The concept of kindness was later refined and codified in the Book Of Ruth (Megillat Ruth).* Upon being told to return to her people after being widowed, Ruth, a Moabite woman insists on remaining with her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Her statement, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” became the takeaway message that defined love, loyalty and the sincere concern for another human being’s welfare. It also painted Naomi as possibly the best mother-in-law in history!

I decided to illustrate this story not only because it exemplifies our capacity for personal empathy, but because it also references the concept of ‘gleaning’; a mandated** act of kindness towards the entire community of impoverished men, widows and orphans. Gleaning is the practice of allowing these individuals to reap the corners of one’s fields and orchards following the initial harvest. The stone wall (which represents the parameters of a field) behind Ruth and Naomi, the sprigs of barley, olives, figs and grapes are memes for this idea, as are the sheaf of wheat and pomegranate branch in Ruth’s hand. I included the pomegranate here for two reasons. First, because of its association with fertility. In the story, Ruth will enable the continuation of Naomi’s line, becoming great-grandmother of King David. Second, because of its decorative presence throughout Judaic art and history. With its alleged 613 seeds, it serves as a metaphor of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that we are expected to perform throughout our lifetimes. Through performing these mitzvot, often referred to as ‘sparks’ (nitzotzot) we collectively ‘lift them up to light and repair the world’ (tikkun olam).

The additional significant image in my illustration is the small Hebrew letter ‘chet’ (pronounced gutturally) formed by three sheaves of wheat that hovers above and between the two women. This letter is from one of the Hebrew alphabets that I designed in 2012 called ‘Shefa’(abundance) shown below:

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The letter chet begins the words ‘chittah’ (wheat) and chesed which means kindness or benevolence. It suggests the limitless loving-kindness that characterizes G-d and which, by extension, suffuses all of creation. The verse from Pirke Avot 1:2 (Ethics of the Fathers) attributed to the Second century High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon The Righteous) makes this clear: “The world exists through three things: Torah, Avodah (Temple service) and acts of loving kindness.” No matter how small or insignificant these may seem when they occur, each one is ultimately a part of the larger purpose for which we were created.

I am reminded here of the phrase ‘a state of grace’, which in Christian theology denotes an absence of sin in an individual. From my perspective, while Judaism dwells less on sin and redemption than on ‘kavanah’ or intention, this phrase can also describe the ideal, altruistic state of mind surrounding the performance of a mitzvah, an act of loving kindness.

May you be blessed with abundant mindful opportunities to fulfill and receive acts of loving kindness and, if you’ll permit me a bit of wordplay, a ‘taste of grace’.

* found in Ketuvim or the Writings volume of Torah.
** “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus/Vayikra 14:9-10

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

A Blessing For A New Life

February 8, 2014

ImageThe arrival of a new baby universally inspires joyful celebrations for the parents and community with festivities unique to every ethnicity and religion. In addition to an array of rituals and special foods, these festivities are marked by prayers and blessings offered to The Source of Life for the divine protection, good health and honor of this child.

However, because the essence of these events is the wondrous fact of a new life; an entirely new world of hopes and dreams, in the form of a tiny human being, I wanted to illuminate this blessing for a new baby to emphasize this idea alone. This would mean limiting my choices of traditional Jewish iconography that normally characterize my work. Since this cultural iconography often contains wonderful folkloric themes such as fanciful astrological imagery to promote ‘mazal tov’ or good luck, this was quite a challenge for me as an illustrator; I am accustomed to crafting my images with much narrative detail.*

Nevertheless, I determined that in addition to the sleeping newborn child and colorful daffodils (which signify rebirth and new beginnings), I would limit my choice of iconography to the wimpel (or vimpel). This is a banner-like length of cloth that is wrapped and tied to secure the Torah scroll.

According to Philologos writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, “it is a tradition that began in late medieval times in the Rhineland city of Mainz, where the rabbi was then the renowned Ya’akov Segal (1360–1427). One Sabbath, so the story goes, a circumcision was under way in Mainz’s synagogue, when it was discovered that the mohel (an individual especially trained to perform this ritual)had forgotten to bring a diaper in which to wrap the newly circumcised child. Inasmuch as carrying was forbidden to pious Jews on the Sabbath, there could be no question of sending anyone to fetch one — and so the rabbi ordered the child swaddled in an avnet that was removed from a Torah scroll. Afterward, when asked if it could be laundered and used as an avnet again, he ruled that it could be, inasmuch as it had not been profaned but had merely gone from one sacred use to another. In memory of the event, the Jews of Mainz took to donating the swaddling cloths from their circumcisions for avnetim, which they called Wimpel (the German plural is the same as the singular).” Instead of the customary decorative imagery applied to wimpels by families who donate them to the synagogue, mine simply displays two Hebrew prayers, one traditional and one modern.

Independent of its ethnicity or religious identity, the birth of a child begins a new page in the story of humanity. With this child, we have a new window into the mind and heart of the One whose children we will always be and Who will always cherish us.

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*In my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), both the brit milah (circumcision for male children) and the pidyon-ha-ben (redemption of the firstborn son of descendants of the Tribe of Levi) were presented in detail. (I did not present the brit bat ceremony for the birth of a daughter in this context because these celebrations were developed in post-modern times, long after the writing of the Torah.)

A Blessing For Trees: Poems Upon The Skies

January 25, 2014

BlessingOfTheTreesModel3ALike the universal languages of music and art, trees speak to us without words, inspiring us to describe them with our own words and visual expressions. In Deuteronomy (Devarim) 20:19-20, we learn that even in wartime is life precious and that trees are essential to our continued existence: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy its trees by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayst eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by thee?…” Equally eloquent are the words of the late Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in his collection of aphorisms, Sand And Foam: “Trees are poems the Earth writes upon the sky…”.


I was reminded of these ideas during our recent observance of Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat on the Jewish calendar), the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates the renewal of trees (particularly in Israel) and the abundant gifts they provide for us. This year on January 16th, as I enjoyed some dates, figs and pomegranate seeds from among the fruit significant to Israel, I decided that I would illustrate the Blessing Of The Trees (Birkat Ha’Ilanot) for my next page in An Illumination Of Blessings. Although trees are spoken of in the blessing for certain fruits, I chose to work with a blessing for trees that also delight our sense of smell with their beautiful fragrance.


The tree shown here is an imaginary one that integrates both qualities, bearing several varieties of fragrant fruit and their corresponding flowers. Nesting at the apex of the tree is an ornate golden Torah crown and in place of its trunk is a yad (Torah pointer). Unlike the traditional single-handed instrument used for reading Torah, this one has two hands. Together, these images remind us of our stewardship of this planet. In this, we are partners with the Source of Life Who has given us trees not only for our sustenance but as a model and source for the ‘etz chaim’ or Torah staves that support our ‘Book of Life’, an eternal symbol of Earth’s partnership with Heaven.

 

 

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mezuzah: A Blessing Between Worlds

December 25, 2013

When we enter or leave a space through a doorway, most of us rarely wonder about the evanescent consequences of doing so. Yet, without considering that doorway as a bridge between worlds, we remain unaware of subtle changes in ourselves with relation to those worlds through the nature of our experiences on either side of it. In that sense, mezuzot (plural of mezuzah), those ubiquitous little boxes (attached to doorposts of traditional Jewish homes to guard them from harm) serve as memory tools for our awareness of these transitions and of the eternal unity of G-d. This tradition has defined the Jewish people since the early Israelites marked their doorways for protection from the tenth plague* during the first Passover in Egypt over three thousand years ago.

Mezuzot are made in various sizes of materials from clay to wood, metal or glass  and are often beautifully crafted works of art. Marked with either the single Hebrew letter shin or with the three Hebrew letters shin, dalet, yud that represent one G-d’s holy names, the box encloses a tiny rolled parchment (klaf) inscribed by a kosher scribe (sofer*) with two verses from the Torah; Deuteronomy (Devarim) 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. These verses are written in 22 equally spaced lines, as are the verses in Torah and tefillin**. This parchment must be placed upright under the Hebrew letters in the box so that the prayer will appear correctly.

When we occupy a new home, a mezuzah is installed on its doorpost. It is held in place at the upper right-hand side tilted toward the inside of the home. But before it is secured to the post, a special blessing is recited, as shown in the illustration above. This procedure is repeated when a mezuzah is installed at each doorway in the home except for the bathroom. Entering and leaving those spaces is then acknowledged with a touch to the mezuzah followed by a brief kiss to the hand that touched it, invoking G-d’s blessing and protection on our comings and goings. It is important to know that over time, the parchment (klaf) may become damaged and so should be periodically examined by a sofer who can repair any broken letters and preserve its effectiveness.

But the protective energies of the mezuzah have not always gone unchallenged in Jewish history. In Talmudic times, mezuzot were attributed with powers to ward off evil spirits, but by the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Kabbalah’s esoteric knowledge, names of various angels and magickal phrases (sometimes accompanied by mystical diagrams) were added to the Torah verses. This latter practice slowly lost momentum when the RamBam (an acronym for the 12th century French Rabbi and Talmudist Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon) asserted that no harm could come of writing Hebrew letters on the outside of the mezuzah case and the prescribed verses within, but those who wrote angelic names or other formulae on the inside would lose their share in The World To Come (Olam Ha-Ba).

So, for this 17th entry in my book An Illumination Of Blessings, the mezuzah in my illustration displays the Hebrew letter shin on the outside and only the Torah verses on the klaf within. For clarity and artistic intent the 22 klaf verses also appear in the background.  The tiny gold pomegranate suspended from the mezuzah signifies abundance and its seeds, said to number 613, represent the categories of mitzvot or the  commandments we are required to fulfill. For decorative purposes only, an equally tiny hand with an apotropaic eye crowns the mezuzah.  This is called a chamsa, inspired by those ancient devices employed to ward off evil throughout the Middle East.

On a personal note, though I’ve always had mezuzot in my home, it was only some years ago during and after a health crisis that I thought to have them checked for damage. Indeed, the sofer informed me, several critical letters had become damaged and the klaf needed to be repaired, a pronouncement that caused chills to run down my spine..

* Death of the Firstborn

*A sofer is a Jewish individual who is educated to transcribe Torah scrolls, **tefillin (two small leather boxes essential for prayer rituals per commandments in Deuteronomy (Devarim)  6:8 and mezuzot. More detailed information may be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofer and at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10774-mezuzah

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…

The Seventh Blessing: For Life & Love

September 25, 2013

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The Seven Blessings, or Sheva Brachot are a lovely old tradition, each one recited under the Chuppah (Marriage Canopy) by chosen friends and family at Jewish weddings. The Seven Blessings begin with the blessing over wine (‘pri hagofen’) followed by praise and gratitude to the Source of Life for our creation, for our existence and for our ability to thrive through time. They also address the binding of the couple, wishing them a life of love, joy, peace and friendship from the Biblical perspective; that their union should mirror the happiness of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. Finally, the couple is made aware that as they rejoice in each other, their union will also bring joy to the world . Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests that Jewish weddings reflect the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai symbolizing the wedding of Heaven and Earth.

For the eleventh blessing in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially attempted to work all seven blessings into the illustration, however after further research and several iterations, I came to the conclusion that the seventh blessing really encompasses the other six and is therefore essential. This idea was suggested by an interpretation in Kabbalah which explains how each of the seven blessings corresponds to seven of the sefirot, or the energies that are the foundation of Creation.

Although there are actually ten sefirot, the interpretation posits that the three remaining sefirot do not correspond to their own blessings because two of them, Keter (Crown representing ethereal consciousness) and Chokhmah (representing Wisdom) are contained in the sefirah of Binah (Understanding) and the last one, Malkhut receives all of those above and before it. The Hebrew language in the Seventh Blessing also contains ten words or synonyms for happiness, peace and friendship, all of which lead to joy. In this sense, it corresponds to all ten sefirot as well as the ten phrases by which the world was created and the Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai. These ideas prompted me to place the letter Bet (for Binah) in the space above the Chuppah for these values must guide all that we do. The commentary at the end of the book will provide explanations of the symbols that appear in the illustration.

Shown above is the finished illumination for the Seven Blessings and below is one of the iterations.

Image

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

On The Pragmatism Of Prayer…

April 19, 2013

TheFlightOfAPrayer

In light of the national media babbling 24/7 about the fear and trembling amidst heightened security measures that have overtaken the Boston environs in the wake of the Marathon bombing, I thought about all the prayers that go out both to comfort ourselves, each other and perhaps in attempt to stanch the rising panic over the still at-large bombing suspect. In doing so, I offer these questions for your comments:
 
1. Can prayers be understood as pleas for protection from evil, or for those more philosophically inclined, can they be seen as praise for a G-d whose will in all things is inscrutable?
2. What about the concept of prayers as a way to understand that the balance of good and evil must, however costly to life and property, be maintained for some larger cosmic purpose?
3. Could these prayers relate in some obscure way to the intent of sacrifices in ancient times? In other words, did we perform sacrifices and offer prayers as a tribute to the greatness of G-d, to assuage our fear of His/Her potential anger or a little of both?
 
In Acharey Mot, this week’s Torah reading, although the above questions are given no definitive answers, we learn how the qualities of good and evil inform a duality in our concept of G-d that inspires the custom of absolving communal sin by sacrificing two goats.
 
The illustrations below are details from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). We can see one animal lying trussed and wearing an inscribed boxwood lot dedicating it to G-d. The other, marked as an offering to ‘Azazel’ will be the scapegoat sent into the wilderness.  The term ‘Azazel’ has various connotations. Medieval commentators have referred to it as a desert cliff in the Sinai from which a goat was thrown on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of Israel. But In his commentary on Leviticus 16:8, the Spanish Talmudist Moses Ben Nachman Gerondi (Nachmanides) described Azazel as a goat-like desert god or demon. The image of a demon has long been associated in mythology with evil, sexual misdeeds and the fearsome forces of nature. Merging the two ideas produced the portrayal of Azazel as a winged demon pictured in a barren desert setting. The string tying the lot to Azazel’s goat is partly colored scarlet to recall a custom in the Temple. A red cord was hung in the Temple porch for all to know that a goat had been sent to Azazel. The amount of time needed for the goat and its escort to reach the cliff was calculated and when the sacrifice was deemed complete, the cord allegedly turned white.
 
Perhaps this elaborate, dramatic ritual, was in itself an answer to my questions? If the Torah had not told us that we were made in “…Our Image”, how else would it be possible for us to understand that God may inspire both joy and
heartbreak?
Imaginarius-AchareyMot