Posts Tagged ‘wings’

On The Nature Of Evil…

May 6, 2019

When news broke of the long-anticipated release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 448 page report on aberrations in the presidency of Donald Trump, I indulged in a bit of schadenfreude, imagining how its evidence of the president’s lies and myriad misdeeds under the aegis of his craven administration might justify the suspicions that have become a noxious atmospheric miasma over us since the 2016 presidential elections.

Even as that report comes closer to the light of public scrutiny, we are still in the dark as to its true content because Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate regarding only his redacted version of it. His four-page version and verbal interpretation appeared manipulated to exonerate the president of treasonous activities. By doing so in classic stonewall mode, he revealed his true role as President Trump’s tool and de facto private attorney. This was made abundantly clear when he then refused to testify before the House of Representatives who had originally requested his cooperation.

While we wait to see whether Robert Mueller will be permitted to present his teams’ original version of their report to Congress and the issue of impeachment is tossed around by both governing bodies like a hot potato, many of us can agree that the reality we’ve always taken for granted is undergoing a paradigm shift.

As we are bombarded daily in mainstream and social media by frightening and often incredible developments in both domestic and international spheres, we are finding it more difficult to maintain our equilibrium and react rationally.

Though I risk sounding melodramatic, some days it feels as though life is coming to resemble a dystopian nightmare right out of those speculative science fiction novels in which the tropes of good and evil are woven into characters to reflect the cycling mores and mercurial nature of human history.

This impression assailed me earlier this week. I was out for a walk when I encountered a neighbor whose character has always been a bit dodgy. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he sniffed the air, then prosaically announced, “the devil is walking among us. Can’t you feel it?” What does one say to that? I just nodded, smiled politely and kept walking, marveling silently at the fragile line between reality and fantasy.

Still, that conversation and others shared with acquaintances in person and online these past couple of years have made me curious; have we been gradually spiraling back to a Dark Age mentality despite our technological advances, or perhaps by virtue of them?

With no offense intended towards those whose deep faith admits only God’s Goodness, I can’t help wondering: is what we know as Evil a sociopathic manifestation of the shadowy face of a God inextricably bound to, yet struggling with its own duality of Good and Evil?

Are our inclinations towards evil (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-ra’) and our inclinations towards good (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-tov’ (inclination towards good) actually two sides of that same ‘face’? Since we are capable of surrendering to both of these aspects with equal passion, we must recognize that we have two tasks to address. Our first task throughout our lives is to choose how we will behave and accept the consequences of our choices. Our second task is to understand how our actions affect that balance and work to heal the damaged before it is beyond repair.

Accordingly, the scale shown above is suspended by a ‘yad’ or Torah pointer whose black and white wings symbolize the duality of good and evil. Its pans support two Hebrew letters that represent the spiritual energies of Strength (Gevurah) and Lovingkindness (Chesed). The former is dragging down the latter indicating that these two energies have come out of balance negatively affecting world events.

This illustration is a detail from Leviticus: Parshat Shemini in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). It has been adapted to serve this essay.

As an illustrator and writer, I primarily draw and write in metaphor. My readings in Holocaust literature where God is alternately blamed and absolved of responsibility for those monstrous events are what led me to these notions.

So I’ve imagined that Evil’s destructive energy seems to emerge periodically throughout time, wreaking terror and havoc among us. When it is quiet, for periods of years, decades or centuries, good, productive energies are free to flourish. Meanwhile, that Evil aspect does not sleep; it is infinitely creative, intricately plotting and setting its compromised players on the world stage in the manner of a chessboard where its next move will again guarantee its own terrible victory over good.

Just as astrologers look to the positions of the stars to explain the vagaries of world events, scholars of Jewish mysticism understand them in terms of the dynamic ten sefirot or universal spiritual energies that underlie all life.

In this post Cold War era, while we sustain horrific memories of World War 2 and the Holocaust, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, we remain entrenched in relentless Middle East wars and diplomatic brinksmanship.

Willfully ignorant, the noisome Trumpian doctrine has emerged, currying favor with dictators, stoking the fires of moral degradation, racism, isolationism and a ‘fake news’ agenda that is encouraging an alarming rise in hate-driven mass shootings, cruelty towards immigrants, and dismissal of the health/welfare concerns of most Americans. These are the rumblings and tremors of Evil preparing its next move; one that will undermine democracy in our generation and become our legacy to our children and grandchildren.

Just yesterday, an illustrator friend whose thoughtful, well-crafted work reflects her own perceptive view of our current new-world order,** suggested that we may be living in a 21st century version of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Can we single out ten righteous men in our administration from the corrupt swamp that is our Republican Party ?” she asked.

She was referring to chapter 18:20-33 in the Book of Genesis where Abraham argues with God who had decided to destroy those ancient cities as punishment for their evil ways. The patriarch challenges God to withhold that destruction if he, Abraham, could prove the existence of at least 10 righteous men within them. Of course we know that the cities were destroyed, but a few individuals were warned to escape and so were spared.

Though her question was rhetorical, neither of us could think of even five people in the administration who fit that description, an idea that doesn’t bode well for our country from a biblical perspective.

The United States has long been a physical and psychological haven for immigrants and refugees fleeing their climate-ravaged and/or war-torn homes. Yet, despite our possession of updated papers and passports, given the machinations of our treacherous administration, where can or should we escape to? Who will offer us refuge?

In discussions with friends and relatives with differing opinions or of like mind, one dilemma seems clear; we cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that currently, life is but a nightmare from which we will eventually awaken.

If we reflexively act on our fears and prejudices, we risk our own safety and that of our loved ones. Rather, we must struggle not to remain quietly hopeless and helpless in the incomprehensible face of forces seemingly beyond our control to contain.

Moreover, if we surrender to those modalities, then destructive forces win by default. History will yet again be written by victors whose glorification of their deeds and questionable motives will leave our descendants to question its veracity and learn from our mistakes if they choose.

We will certainly vote with our consciences and/or our feet in the 2020 elections, even as we continue to struggle with the potentially corrupted results as we did in 2016 since there is talk of foreign governments again moving to interfere in our election process.

But this time we must truly understand that only through our unity and ability to question what we are told instead of grasping blindly to a limited ideology, do we hold the keys to repairing what we have allowed to break (Hebrew:’tikkun olam) and to overcoming Evil’s onslaught against our hard-won democracy.

**https://www.instagram.com/naomialiye/

*https://amzn.to/2VC70I7

Illustration: Between Choice & Consequence ©2019 Ilene Winn-Lederer

 

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Bestiary: An Imaginary Menagerie

October 27, 2016

1-Bestiary-8x10Cover-Recto-FINAL.jpg

In an essay entitled ‘On The Shoulders Of Giants’, posted on May 5th of this year, I offered a glimpse of my new alphabetical book project in progress. Today, I am pleased to let you know that it is now complete! It includes alliterative text and illustrations for each of twenty-six letters, a preface and artist’s notes. On Wednesday of this week, my book proof arrived looking exactly as I’d intended, so I turned around and ordered  my first small edition of twelve, scheduled for delivery early next week. I am accepting advance orders now at The Magic Eye Gallery: http://magiceyegallery.com/BookPage.aspx?id=8 

Here are some thoughts on my process and a bit of backstory:

Ideas are mercurial; they may appear to our imaginations in glorious finished form, awaiting physical birth or, more likely, just float by our consciousness, merely hinting at their potential. The idea for Bestiary: An Imaginary Menagerie simmered slowly on one of my back burners for several years as sketches and project notes in one of my journals. It had begun as a casual suggestion for an illustrated alphabet book from my former agent. Projects like this one can be very greedy with one’s time and generally do not pay the bills! So although I had done a few concept drawings at the time, other less speculative projects continued to demand my attention.

armordillounicornsketch

 

Then, late in 2015, following publication of two other titles (An Illumination Of Blessings and Notes From London: Above & Below), I decided to revisit the alphabet book idea. Paging through that old journal, I paused at some drawings of a unicorn and an armadillo which led me to imagine an alphabet book built around the real and imaginary creatures that have been portrayed in illuminated manuscripts for centuries. These colorful hybrids of letterforms and fanciful illustrations first appeared in the 2nd century Greek Physiologus, a compilation of the ancient wisdom and symbolism of animals mentioned in the writings of naturalists such as Aristotle, Herodotus and Pliny The Elder. Later adaptations from the 11th-13th centuries elaborated on these bestiaries and were flavored with Biblical stories, mysticism and religious doctrine. Bestiaries reached their zenith during the medieval era, when artists were commissioned by nobility and wealthy merchants to interpret their naïve descriptions of strange creatures seen on their voyages to exotic lands. Wikipedia offers a fine, detailed history of bestiaries here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestiary

Eventually, my journal sketches became the basis of the finished illustrations below:ArmorOnAnArmadillo-FINAL.jpgunicornwithuniverseunderumbrella-final

Yet, despite our greatly evolved knowledge of zoology since then, why does this timeless literary art form remain popular among the offerings of contemporary publishers? I propose that it does so because we have yet to fully understand the synthesis of our own evolving animal natures with the gifts of speech, writing and acumen.

That said, I’ve always loved to draw animals and have featured them in many original works of art. However, most of my animals are not portrayed realistically; I prefer to imbue them with qualities that reflect our human fortes and foibles. Those bestiary illustrations in which the animals display such attributes were important inspirations for this book. Their titles along with illustrated excerpts were discussed in my previous essay (http://bit.ly/2fjVcpi).

In designing Bestiary: An Imaginary Menagerie, I’ve framed each illustration with an alphabetical alliteration both for organizational purposes and simply because it was great fun to do! My hope is that my efforts will complement the voluminous body of bestiaries throughout history that are tributes to the wonders of creation and to our human imagination…

 

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

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…

That Was Delicious, May I Have My Check, Please?

October 31, 2013

BirkatHamazonRGB.jpgOutside of those whose regular practice is to recite the blessings after each meal, I suspect that, per the title of this post, more expressions of gratitude for our food go to our servers in restaurants upon receipt of our tab and/or to the chef for a meal well-prepared and thoughtfully presented rather than to the more ethereal Source of Life.

Though I have not always done so, in recent years I’ve decided to try and experience my meals as more than just stuffing my face; whether it is to appreciate the combinations of colors and textures, the unique fragrances of each item on the plate or just acknowledging the complex processes that have made this meal come together as a gift of nourishment for body and soul. This line of thinking and the memories of fine meals past and present led me to choose the Birkat Ha-Mazon or the Blessings After Meals for my next illumination.

Research began with wondering about the origin of this set of blessings and pointed to the reference I found in Devarim or Deuteronomy 8:10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He gave you”. I learned that the lengthy combinations of blessings and songs of thanks consist of four distinct but related ideas expressed in a lovely poetic stanzas.  They are: the Birkat Hazan (blessing for nourishment and praise for the One Who Sustains the World), the Birkat Ha’aretz (blessing for the Land of Israel), the Binyan Yerushalayim (blessing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem), and the HaTov V’Hameytiv (blessing for the One Who Is Good and the One Who Does Good). Following these blessings, a group of short prayers beginning with the word HaRachaman (The Merciful One) ask the Source of Life for compassion.

Although several versions of the Birkat Ha-Mazon can be found within Judaism (Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite), I’ve chosen the Ashkenazic form with which I am most familiar. Accordingly, the illustration includes medieval Jews of Central and Eastern European ethnicity, my own cultural background. The pewter dinnerware on the table are empty indicating the conclusion of a meal. Since the figures portrayed are not nobility, their durable pewter might have been more commonly used than finer metals or porcelain. Above this group are four items reflecting the concepts of the blessing’s four verses; a winged crown, a jar of biblical manna, a lion and a model of Jerusalem surmounted by a living date palm. Each item has it’s mundane and mystical purpose and detailed explanations of these will appear in the artist’s commentary of An Illumination Of Blessings.

So I guess the question I have via this blessing is; do you live to eat or do you eat to live? If your choice is the latter, then maybe a little mindfulness will help us realize how to make everything we eat that much tastier… or as the French Ashkenazim might say, ‘Be’ te-avon’ (Bon Appetit)!

A Vintage Virgo: From The Alchymical Zoodiac

September 12, 2010

Each year at this time, my perceptions and energies seem preternaturally focused. Considering my September 13 birth date, is this a given? Or do we all find ourselves in this state on or around our birthdays throughout the year? Those who subscribe to astrological analysis with an emphasis on sun signs will confidently point to the sign of the zodiac in a certain position over the ecliptic and nod sagely. The history of science credits ancient astronomy and medieval alchemy as precursors to our understanding of the workings of creation and our role in it. While astrology’s readings of our personalities and events have also been part of human culture for millennia, our conventional science has yet to provide proof of this connection and has relegated astrology to the fiefdom of the foolish. Intuition suggests that this categorization of astrology may be premature; there is still much to learn about ourselves if we can move past its early efforts and allow its wisdom to augment our own. These sentiments inspired my creation of The Alchymical Zoodiac: A Celestial Bestiary (Imaginarius Editions, 2009) which may be purchased at my website: http://www.winnlederer.com/zoodiacbook/default.htm

Happy Birthday, fellow Virgoans (August 22nd-September 23rd)!