Posts Tagged ‘Yitro’

Between The Lines: A Conversation Both Holy And Profane

February 11, 2013

Imaginarius-2013-Mishpatim

When we are told a story, whether true or fictional, we hear and feel it in the words and body language of the speaker.  Yet even as the experience provokes a direct reaction, we may be thinking of how we can share it with others. Except for people with eidetic memory skills, a story is rarely remembered verbatim. Rather, it is verbally and physically paraphrased to fit the recipient and the circumstances of its retelling.

Whenever I read last week’s Parashah Yitro and the current Parashah Mispatim, in which Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, it is difficult not to picture these scenes as portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1954 film of The Ten Commandments. Having seen the film’s premiere as an impressionable child, I barely appreciated the enormous implications of that divine event beyond the ‘silver screen’ until many years later. When the heavenly fireworks that accompany the giving of the Torah terrifies everyone gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai and Moses ascends to the summit to accept it as an intermediary for his people, the idea that Moses was to make this vast trove of information accessible to them in a language and form they could comprehend was stunning.

There has been much speculation as to the form of that divine transmission, from questions concerning the original ‘language’ to the method of delivery to the mental and physical qualities that distinguished Moses for this task. Popular writers and university scholars have collaborated and done well promoting the idea of ‘bible codes’, prophetic information encoded in strings of letters. Yet, scintillating as this notion is, solid proof remains elusive. And perhaps it should be, if faith is to flourish in the face of scientific scrutiny.

Considering Moses’ pivotal role in this dramatic narrative, a few questions arise. Was Moses chosen for this task because of a natural ability for opening his mind and heart to this divine body of knowledge, or were these qualities acquired from his early experience as a prince of Egypt and subsequent discovery of his true identity as an adult? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but until someone invents time travel, these arguments remain philosophical conjecture. From a slightly different perspective, I like to imagine that Moses’ ability to receive G-d’s transmission is a metaphor of ‘tzimtzum’, G-d’s contraction of His Essence, permitting Creation to occur from the dark void. My logic may be fuzzy, but when Moses becomes instrumental in the creation of the nation of Israel out of a nation of slaves, he seems to mirror that ‘tzimtzum’ on a micro-level.

Designing the illustrations to embody these ideas for my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), brought me to a major contextual impasse. Representing G-d in any form is prohibited in the second commandment, but I intended no offense when I drew upon the kabbalistic idea that Hidden One may only be perceived behind an ethereal mask. I imagined Him emerging from between veils of light and darkness with the intention of letting Himself be known to us, but shielding us from a force that we, in our frail forms could not endure ‘face to face’. Consequently, in the illustration above, I have portrayed Moses as a sofer, a Torah scribe in an intimate conversation with G-d through His Mask*. Wielding a reed pen, Moses is writing the word ‘Amalek’ a great enemy of Israel, then crossing it out three times. This part of the transcription process has since become the traditional first step a Torah scribe takes when beginning to write a new scroll. In this way we are meant to understand our history; to do good and not evil.

And now we understand that Moses is also more than just an ‘envelope’, so to speak, for the divine message. As ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’, Moses our teacher, he has becomes a timeless example of how the we and the Torah must become one in both spirit and practice.

*A more detailed explanation of the four-pronged letter ‘shin’ is found in the AfterImages section of my book on pp. 148-149

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com

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A Covenant Of Fire

February 11, 2012

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro honors Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite chieftain and an unusual man whose wisdom and generosity were key in shaping the future of the Israelites under his son-in-law’s care.  Acting on his concern for Moses’ health and the well-being of his family, he advised the establishment of a prototype for the timeless judicial system that has been co-opted globally, if not without controversy, remaining in place for nearly 3,000 years. I’ve envisioned Yitro here for reference, but have chosen to focus visually on the larger part of the parashah that encompasses the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. This covenant of fire would become the core event in Jewish history, unsurpassed for its drama and future ramifications for the cultural development of individuals and entire societies.

When the shofar was sounded at Mt. Sinai to summon the Israelites, the volume and duration of its notes was amplified and extended to emphasize the significance of receiving the Law at Sinai. This thought led me to model the shofar after the mystical ram’s horn that binds heaven and earth, heralding the arrival of the Moshiach (The Messiah) the Alef-Tav: the Beginning and End of Days. The shofar is also a vehicle for the ten sephirot that enclose the Ten Commandments and ascribe multiple levels of meaning to each of these ‘Words’ or ‘Utterances’. In addition, the man is bound to his instrument as Isaac was bound to the altar in the Akedah and as we are bound to our genetic inheritance. By enfolding the ten commandments within their corresponding sephirot they have acquired color values that further illustrate the depth of meaning in each of them. The equivalences according to one source, ‘The Gates of Light‘ by medieval Sephardic kabbalist Rabbi Azriel of Gerona are as follows:

1.  You shall have no other gods besides Me                                       Keter                                 white

2.  You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image…              Chokhmah                        composite/all colors

3.  You shall not swear falsely…                                                           Binah                                 yellow/green

4.  Remember the Sabbath Day…                                                        Chesed                               silver/white

5.  Honor your father and your mother…                                         Gevurah                            red/gold

6.  You shall not murder…                                                                     Tiferet                                yellow/violet

7.  You shall not commit adultery…                                                    Netzach                              pale pink

8.  You shall not steal…                                                                          Hod                                     dark pink

9.  You shall not bear false witness…                                                 Yesod                                  orange

10. You shall not covet…                                                                        Malkhut                             blue   

These are deceptively simple ideas and questions still surface in countless interpretations. With the false confidence bestowed by our sophisticated technology, we may often ignore them, feeling beyond the fear of divine reprisal. Yet on some days, I think the world has not become a better place for it. Look around; has our stewardship of this planet and socio-political condition truly reflected the trajectory envisioned by our ancestors standing at Mount Sinai? Perhaps Conan O’Brien, signing off the Tonight Show, January 22, 2010 said it best: “If you work hard and are kind, amazing things will happen.”