Posts Tagged ‘Zohar’

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

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Omer, Emor & Zohar: Of Stars & Seasons

May 11, 2012

This year’s observance of the Lag B’Omer holiday began on Wednesday evening and continued until sundown on Thursday. Accordingly, the Torah portion from the Book of Leviticus/VaYikra that will be read tomorrow is named Emor and addresses the significance and structure of the seasons of our year.

Parashah Emor, meaning ‘speak ‘in Hebrew is one of perceptive contrasts. Although the festivals of the Jewish year are introduced in the book of Exodus, they are reprised in this section of Leviticus to include the laws applying to Kohanim, the priests of Israel. While these laws serve to set the role of the Kohanim apart from the community, they also teach us that even in times of great misfortune and sadness, it is important to retain holiness and joy in life by the regular observance of festivals and holy days. Our calendar is an important means for the understanding and intelligent use of time. It allows us to set aside our daily routines and enter a state of transformation leading to spiritual growth. For example, the search on the eve of Passover to remove traces of bread (chametz) from our homes equates with a search and examination of our own imperfections. Judaism employs a luni-solar calendar in which the year corresponds with the solar calendar and its months match the lunar calendar. Since the twelve months of the Jewish calendar are about eleven days short of a 365-day year, a leap month is added to the calendar on a 19-year cycle. The Hebrew zodiac in the illustration illuminates this concept.

The parashah focuses on the observances and performances of good deeds (mitzvot) for the festivals of Passover (Sefirat ha’Omer or Counting of the Omer), Shavuot (Shtei Ha’Lechem or Grain Offering), Rosh HaShanah (Yom Teruah or Blowing of the Shofar), Yom Kippur (Fasting) and Sukkot (Sukkah Booth & Arba Minim or Four Species). In choosing images for this parashah, I’ve focused on the ‘Counting of the Omer’ that occurs during the 49 days between Passover (The Exodus from Egypt) and Shavuot (The Giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai). ‘Omer‘ is the Hebrew word for ‘sheaf’, an offering of grain brought to the Temple in hopes of a healthy barley harvest. For a seven-week period, one ‘omer‘ is set aside and counted on each of the 49 days. This practice commemorates the length of time taken by the Israelites to reach Mt. Sinai from Egypt after the Exodus. According the Zohar, a collection of classic Jewish mystical treatises, this is also a period recognizing their transition from spiritual impurity to becoming a people in a profound relationship with God inaugurated by their receipt of the Law on Shavuot.

For those of you who have not seen it, the illustrations for this parashah are adapted from my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)* as is the interpretation above. Between the zodiac of the Hebrew year and a grid depicting the counting of the omer with a sprig of barley, the young boy holding a small etrog (citrus) tree reflects a custom among Orthodox Jews that is observed on Lag B’Omer. Until he reaches the age of three, a child is considered unable to interact fully with this world, as he is deeply absorbed in building his spiritual infrastructure. After this time, his family and friends stage an ‘Upshernish‘ or formal haircut celebration to initiate his ‘entry into the world’. If a child’s birthday falls between Passover and Lag B’Omer when hair is not permitted to be cut, the event is postponed until Lag B’Omer. Having attended several of these events, I am always touched by the tender poignance radiating from the child and parent who supports him. The tiny etrog tree and the letter aleph are included here as symbols of the Torah learning and mitzvot that the child will begin to experience. It is heartening to know that we too, can observe this time cognizant of our journey towards fuller spirituality. Hag Sameach!

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

An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence

April 19, 2012


A favorite trope of philosophers and religious scholars from ancient times to ours has been the concept of free choice. Does it exist as a vague tenet of traditional religious entitlement so we may feel free to question our ‘destiny’? Or is it merely a glib, convenient dodge for questionable behavior? Either way, acting upon it is never without consequences for the present or the future, both of which we like to think we can influence even if that influence may be illusory in itself. One of the stronger arguments for the consequence of interpreting the concept of free choice is found in Parashat Shemini, this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

In the illustration above, called Choice & Consequence, a scale is suspended from a mystical winged yad (Torah pointer). One pan holds the sephirah of Chesed (lovingkindness) that has been damaged and unbalanced by the sephirah Gevurah, (strength and power) in the other pan. The status of these qualities lies beneath the many vivid examples of victory and tragedy in the Torah narrative. One of most heartbreaking events was the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, High Priest of Israel. The young men were also godsons of Moses, Aaron’s brother. The Talmud and Kabbalah offer multiple interpretations of this incident. The most familiar is the brother’s unauthorized offering of incense or ‘strange fire though not requested to do so. According to Louis Ginzburg’s Legends of the Bible 1, they were killed upon their offering by two filaments of fire that flashed from the Ark in the Tabernacle. These split into four flames, pierced the nostrils of the young men and incinerated their souls. The bodies are shown intact for the legend also claims that after the event, no external injuries were visible. My imagination rode this story back to an earlier example of an unacceptable sacrifice; that of Adam’s son Cain, his rejected harvest offering and subsequent murder of his brother Abel. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering makes this tale equally tragic despite God’s vague attempt to justify his action to an angry and vengeful Cain. Though the later sacrificial system was designed to short-circuit the expression of these emotions, the loss of these young lives remains a scar on our history. One of the stranger postscripts to Cain’s murder of his brother is that God chose not to destroy Cain for his misdeed. Instead, he was condemned to live with his crime for an extraordinarily long lifetime while bearing an enigmatic stigma. Rashi, the medieval French Torah commentator asserts that this ‘mark of Cain’ was a horn that protruded from his forehead eventually causing his death by a hunter who mistook him for an animal. Another interpretation in the Zohar(Book of Splendor) associates this mark with the Hebrew letter ‘vav‘ because the name Cain or ‘qayin‘ in Hebrew, means ‘hook’.2 Was this ‘vav‘ or ‘hook’ meant to connect Cain to God during his journey towards spiritual redemption? Since both of these assertions intrigued me, I decided to combine them in one image showing Cain’s horn emerging from the ancient Hebrew letter ‘vav‘. The design of his horn was suggested by the ‘horns’ of the mizbeach or sacrificial altar.

I often marvel at how everything is connected in strange and subtle ways. Though created as a stand-alone post, last week’s drawing, ‘Innovasion'(detail shown above) whimsically explored the theme of unusual eating utensils. Coincidentally, the other important theme in Parashat Shemini, happens to be the laws of kashrut (kosher eating practices)regarding animals; laws that clarify which animals may and may not be eaten with any utensils. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the illustration for this section of Parashat Shemini, called Sanction & Censure was my final choice for the book. Yet, I thought it might be interesting to show an alternative option I considered at the time.

By way of explanation, the diverse array of creatures categorized in Parashah Shemini as kosher and unkosher provided an intense artistic challenge. As I began to draw these creatures, I was as delighted as a child to be depicting representatives of the vast array of life forms inhabiting our planet. Digging further into the laws of kashrut, however, these restrictions seemed way too complex to be arbitrary. I wondered about their true meaning for us beyond straightforward obedience. Though I personally understand and observe the basic tenets of kashrus, my imagination is simultaneously attracted to the esoteric. So, upon closer examination, if the animals I have drawn seem to have unique personalities, they do. Their ‘personalities’ were suggested by the Hasidic idea that each creature deemed ‘kosher’ contains ‘sparks of holiness’ and that when properly blessed and eaten, those ‘sparks’ are released, inviting the Divine Presence into our material world. Accordingly the creatures appearing fully colored underscore this idea. Those appearing in neutral grey tones within the black chessboard grid are considered inappropriate to be eaten and for the performance of commandments (mitzvot). Surrounding the ‘chessboard’ are emblems representing four of the spiritual worlds (atzilus,beriyah,yetzirah,asiyah) and elements associated with them (air, water, earth, fire). I thought these should remind us that free choice may not exist merely to reassure our need for independent thinking, but rather we should understand it as a way to reaffirm our connection to creation and to each other.

Emor, Omer & Zohar: A Spiritual Evolution

May 6, 2011

This week’s Torah parashah, Emor, is one of insightful contrasts. It emphasizes the observance and performance of good deeds (mitzvot) for the festivals of Passover (Sefirat ha-Omer or Counting of the Omer), Shavuot (Shtei ha-Lechem or Grain Offering), Rosh HaShanah(Yom Teruah or Blowing of the Shofar), Yom Kippur ( Yom Ta’anit or Day of Fasting), Sukkot (Chag Ha Succot or Festival of Booths). My images for this parashah focus on the Counting of the Omer which occurs during the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot (remembering respectively the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Law at Mt. Sinai). Omer  is the Hebrew word for ‘sheaf’, an offering of grain brought to the Temple in hopes of a healthy barley harvest. For seven weeks, one omer is set aside (today, this is done symbolically) and counted each day. The practice commemorates the length of the Israelites journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai.

According to the  Zohar (a collection of classic Jewish mystical treatises), forty-nine days is also a period recognizing the transition from their spiritual impurity to the Israelites’ comprehension of their profound relationship with God upon receiving the Law on Shavuot. The candelabra, beneath a vignette of the night sky with three stars, announces the onset of the Sabbath, considered the most important religious observance throughout the Jewish year. Below the candles a sheaf of barley represents the omer offering and below that is a colorful grid that I designed for counting the omer. Each numbered space in the grid contains two Hebrew letters, one nested within the other. They connect the seven weeks of the omer to the values of seven of the sefirot, or sacred energies: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malkhut. Through meditation, we can incorporate these values into our lives to facilitate spiritual development. Each letter encloses a second one to illustrate that each day of the omer count encompasses all the other values. Below the omer grid is a blessing recited on the Sabbath and during Festivals. “Blessed are You, O Lord, who sanctifies {the Sabbath and} Israel and the Festivals.”

Besides these images is Shimon Bar Yohai, the revered rabbi, scholar and alleged author of the Zohar. It seemed appropriate to include him on this page because he is said to have died on the thirty-third day of the omer count. Behind him is Psalm 67, traditionally recited on Lag B’Omer. The psalm consists of seven verses with forty-nine words mirroring the count of the omer in appreciation of the earth’s bounty by all who partake of it.

Below this page is a detail from the facing page of the spread for parashah Emor. It is called Of Stars & Seasons and is my interpretation of the ancient Hebrew zodiac, which is based on the Jewish luni-solar calendar. In this system the year corresponds to the solar calendar while the months follow the lunar calendar. Since the twelve months are about eleven days short of 365, a leap month is added to the calendar on its nineteen-year cycle. Accordingly I have merged the sun and moon and surrounded them by the holidays corresponding to the signs of the zodiac. The Shehekhianu blessing for praise and thanks to God is recited at the first candle-lighting for each festival is seen at the core of this celestial calendar.

Additional information from my interpretation for parashah Emor may be found on pages 159-161 in the AfterImages portion of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

To Order:

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