Mishpatim: Pavement of Sapphire Below, Consuming Fire Above

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under his feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank….the cloud covered the mountain….Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
–Exodus 24:9-18, parashat Mishpatim

ZachLynch_Mishpatim

Multi-media work by Zachary L. Very Special Arts-DC ARTiculate Program. June 2011. NOTE: viewers can see themselves in the reflective surface atop the mountain.

Zachary L. was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on Shabbat Mishpatim 5771 (Jan 29, 2011). His Torah reading included the verses above. A skilled artist, Zach extended his learning by using images from the Torah portion to complete a multi-media work, “Mt. Sinai.” This new visual midrash, commissioned by and installed at Temple Micah (DC), was created through the ARTiculate Studio of Very Special Arts-DC.

ARTiculate

VSA Washington D.C. was launched in 1981 and forced to close, due to financial difficulties, in 2011. It was a community-based non-profit developing, implementing and supporting arts-integrated education and employment programs for youth and adults with special needs. VSA-DC was a local affiliate of “Very Special Arts: the International Organization on Arts and Disability,” founded 40 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.

Along with a gallery, an arts-based charter school and other programs, VSA-DC offered “ARTiculate,” designed to help individuals with disabilities or other disadvantages develop vocational, social and life-management skills. ARTiculate worked to increase participants’ independence, productivity and inclusion into their communities through creative learning activities that integrate adult education with art experiences.

Locating Psalm 30, Redux

In the divisions of psalms for weekly or monthly recitation of the book, the ring of psalms we’ve been exploring is split over two days. Neither recitation cycle is my practice, so I don’t know how the pause affects reading. (If any reader has a weekly or monthly recitation practice, please let us know your thoughts.) And I don’t know of meditations or other teachings that focus on the daily groupings. (Anyone have resources to share?) But I do spend time with the Raphael Abecassis paintings which divide daily readings in this Sefer Tehillim.

“Firmament Between the Waters” for Day Two divides Psalms 28 and 29 from Psalm 30.

Abecassis

from “Firmament Between the Waters,” by Raphael Abecassis

Apropos of the ring of connection between Psalms 28-30, this painting offers an interesting link between “The God of glory thunders” (Psalm 29:3) and “Therefore, Glory will sing praise to You, and will not be silent” (Psalm 30:13).

insetFirmament

detail: R. Abecassis, “Firmament Between the Waters”

More about Abecassis and his artwork.

28 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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NOTE:
Psalms, Paintings: Raphael Abecassis, MOD.
(c) 2002. All rights reserved to the Ministry of Defense, Israel. ISBN 965-05-1179-2.
In addition to illustrated borders around psalms and prayers, the book has paintings to introduce each of the seven weekly divisions of psalms as well as a smattering of smaller illustrations and elaborate end papers.

MOD_Psalter

There is a larger, bilingual volume called “The Psalms of David” that appears to have similar illustrations.

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Babylon: the Earthling and the Tower

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.2

What did the Talmud mean by calling an apparently obscure town in then-contemporary Babylon the source of the first human’s “buttocks”? And what, if anything, can we learn from the remark?

Babylon makes several appearances, directly and indirectly, in the early chapters of Genesis:

  • Bavel” first appears directly in a genealogy list identifying Nimrod, descendant of Noah through Ham, as the founder of Babylon (Gen 10:10);
  • the Tower of Babel story appears in Genesis 11:1-9, with the name “Bavel” linked to God’s confounding of language and scattering of peoples;
  • as discussed in “Babylon and the Beginning,” the Babylonian Captivity, that is, exile of Israelites during the 6th Century BCE, is read into Gen 1:2; and
  • Babylon, as a geographic and cultural location for rabbis of the Talmud, enters commentary on the creation of the first human (Gen 2:7-8):

 

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: The dust of the first human [adam ha-rishon] was gathered from all parts of the earth, for it is written, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance” [N1], and further it is written, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro through the whole earth” [N2]. R. Oshaiah said in Rav’s name [N3]: Adam’s trunk came from Babylon, his head from Eretz Yisrael [N4], his limbs from other lands, and his buttocks (Soncino: private parts), according to R. Aha, from Akra di Agma [N5].
— Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 38a-b
adapted from Soncino translation
Notes below


The Earthling

Rabbi Meir’s comment — specifying the dust used to create ha-adam (Gen 2:7) and explain where the earthling was before being placed in the garden (Gen 2:8) — is frequently cited to support the egalitarian message that all humans, from whatever land, come from one source. It also celebrates both diversity and unity of humanity.

Rav’s further specifics — from a time when Babylon was growing in importance as a center of Jewish life, while Zion was still the metaphorical “head” — can also be understood more generally to speak to our divided, or blended, natures.

Similar concepts are found in the 12th Century Yehuda HaLevi poem, “My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West,” and even 20th Century pieces, like “I left my heart in San Francisco” (Cory/Cross, 1953; popularized by Tony Bennett). The quintessential verses of Psalm 137, with its many interpretations over the centuries, continue to add layers to the idea that portions of our being remain in Babylon and Zion.

Before getting to R. Aha’s comment, here is an attempt to illustrate some of the divisions and blends we might embody in Exploring Babylon. This is the second project I’ve posted based on ideas in Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry; here’s the first. And here is a completely different visual approach to Torah.

earthling




Notes:

N1: Ps. 139:16. Many commentaries relate Psalm 139 to the creation of the first human; some attribute the psalm, or part of it, to Adam.
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N2: “The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth,” is similar to language in Zech 4:10 —

עֵינֵי יְהוָה, הֵמָּה מְשׁוֹטְטִים בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ.
which are the eyes of the LORD, that run to and fro through the whole earth.

— and identical to part of 2 Chronicles 16:9 —

כִּי יְהוָה, עֵינָיו מְשֹׁטְטוֹת בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ
…for the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth…

The Soncino translation cites Zechariah. The Koren/Steinsaltz translation cites Chronicles.

The Soncino notes add that, perhaps, this teaches “‘equality of man’, all men having been formed from one and the same common clay.”
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N3:Rab, or Rav (Abba Arika), was a leading teacher in 3rd Century CE Babylon. He came from a prominent family in Jewish Babylonia and was a disciple of Rabbi (Judah the Prince, or Yehuda ha-Nasi), redactor of the Mishnah and major leader of Jews under Roman occupation, before returning to Babylon to teach. Rav founded the academy at Sura and helped establish what became Babylonian Judaism. The other major academy of the time was at Pumbedita (see N5 below).
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N4: The Soncino notes that Eretz Yisrael was considered “the most exalted of all lands,” and so is linked with the head, as the “most exalted” body part.
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N5: A Babylonian town (also spelled: Akra d’Agama, Akra de-Agma), which some sources situate near Pumbedita, where a Talmudic academy was established in the 3rd Century CE. Also possibly a low-lying area, and/or in the south of Babylon. More on this town and R. Aha’s comment…
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Akra de-Agma in the Notes

Louis Ginzberg’s reference to the above passage includes a parenthetical remark: “Akra de-Agma (a town in Babylon, notorious on account of the loose morals of its inhabitants).” The Soncino notes on Sanhedrin 38b quote this remark without elaboration or any further source. (See Legends of the Jews, Vol 5:15, Jewish Publication Society, 1925). Meanwhile, numerous teachers of the last century cite this remark on loose morals of Akra de-Agma as fact, but I can’t find any independent sources that suggest anything of the kind.

The name “Akra di Agma” appears also in Baba Batra 127a, while “Akra” and “Agama” are mentioned as two neighboring locales in Baba Metzia 86a. Both of these passages mention the place(s) in the context of rabbinical life, without any commentary on the morals, loose or otherwise, of the inhabitants.

Steinsaltz adds this marginal note to San 38b:

Akra de-Agma. This is apparently the name of a Babylonian city, perhaps in the south of the country. According to the [Shulkhan] Arukh this was a lowly place, either from a physical or ethical standpoint, and for this reason it is said that from here the dust used to create Adam’s buttocks was taken.

Combining the Soncino and Steinsaltz notes might suggest that Ginzberg was relying on, or extending, something in Shulkhan Arukh (16th Century code of Joseph Karo). But it still seems like something else might be going on with Akra de-Agma.


Three hypotheses:

On the one hand, this teaching is so specific in its place names. And, we know Akra de-Agma is near the academy at Pumbedita, while Rav’s academy was based in the town of Sura. So, I can’t help wondering if there’s some sort of in-joke involved in identifying ha-adam‘s buttocks (or “privates”) with a rival academy — like Harvard students calling New Haven a hick town or Howard alumni talking trash about Hampton.

On the other hand, this teaching is speaking of ha-adam and so suggesting what it means to be human in a wider sense. In this more symbolic context, I wonder if Akra de-Agma somehow became a synechdoche for the many ways Babylon itself — by the time of the Shulkhan Arukh and later centuries — came to mean danger and wildness, particularly of a sexual nature.

Finally, George Carlin’s “FM & AM – The 11 O’Clock News” comes to mind:

It’s 8 O’Clock in Los Angeles
It’s 9 O’Clock in Denver
It’s 10 O’Clock in Chicago
In Baltimore, it’s 6:42!

Could it be that Akra de-Agma was the Baltimore of Babylon?

In that case, I think, the composition of ha-adam rishon, the first earthling, might be tied up with the Tower or Babel theme: Will humanity be of one speech or idea — “devarim ahadim,” as at the start of the Babel story — or be “scattered over the face of the earth” as the people fear and ultimately experience, at the close of the story?

What can we take from the story of ha-adam rishon and the Tower of Babel to help us avoid either extreme?

Stay tuned. And share your thoughts, too.

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On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression

The Passover journey is launched in “not knowing” — as when a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph (אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף, Exodus 1:8) or God (לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-יְהוָה, Exodus 5:2) — and it aims for “knowing”:

…You shall know that I am YHVH, your God…
וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Exodus 6:7).

The Exodus experiences and our travels in the wilderness are meant to increase our knowledge of the divine so that we can better serve God. (See Silber “Rereading the Plagues”).

A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:

Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.
Thoughts and sources welcome.

JourneyOmer

Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.

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Pekudei: Something to Notice

The colors.

Before we complete the Tabernacle and leave Exodus/Shemot, I must pause to consider the oft-mentioned color trio: “tekhelet, v’argaman v’tolaat shani.” These colors are central in the tent instructions/construction and appear throughout the priestly garments. The same colors are, of course, prominent in contemporary Jewish textiles and other arts.


Tekhelet — Blue, Sky Blue or Indigo.


Argaman — Purple.


Tolaat shani — Scarlet or Crimson.

“Blue Wheat,” “Ode to Overturning Bowers vs. Hardwick” and “Pink Pomegranate” (looks scarlet to me) — above — are all works by DC-area artist Judybeth Greene.


The quilt below was made by Amy Leila Smith, of Blue Feet Studio in Maine, for the National Havurah Committee.

…seems fitting closure for a portion which focuses on weaving, long a woman’s art. See, e.g., Women’s Work, the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (Norton, 1994).

For more on the special history of tekhelet blue, see Ehud Spanier’s history (details in Source Materials).

[CAUTION on print and internet sources focusing on these three colors, especially tekhelet: Many involved in reconstructing exact colors of the Tabernacle and related work are deeply concerned with preparing for the Third Temple.]

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Tetzaveh: Language and Translation

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly [ner tamid]. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain which is over the Pact, from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

[Note:] Kindling lamps regularly. The lights were to be kindled on the lampstand previously described. The translation of [ner tamid] as “perpetual light” or “eternal light” is grammatically inaccurate and is also contradicted by verse 21. (The so-called ner tamid of the synagogue is of much later origin.) — Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21, JPS/Plaut* and commentary

Cassuto* says that tamid is “intrinsically capable of two interpretations: it can mean ‘continuously, without interruption’ — that is the lamps would never be extinguished, either by day or by night; or it can signify ‘regularly’ — that is, the lamps would burn every night; on no night would its light be wanting — as in the expression [olat tamid, ‘continual burnt offering’].” He concludes that the “second sense is more probable” from context.

In addition, Cassuto says that “ner [‘lamp’] is used here in a collective sense: ‘lamps’ or ‘candelabrum.’

For more on the ancient lamp(s), see, e.g., Wikipedia’s article.

Here’s a quick reference on the later, synagogue “ner tamid.” To the right is an example of a new photovoltaic “ner tamid,” designed to save energy; this one was installed at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL.


*Please see Source Materials for complete commentary and Torah/translation citations. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Terumah: A Path to Follow

As for the tabernacle, make [ta-aseh] it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yards, with a design of cherubim worked into them….Five of the cloths shall be joined to one another. Make loops of blue wool…make fifty loops on one cloth, and fifty loops on the edge…And make fifty gold clasps, and couple the cloths to one another with the claps, so that the tabernacle becomes one whole. — Exodus/Shemot 26:1-5

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Yitro: Something to Notice

“All the people witnessed the thunder [roim et ha-kolot ]…” (Exodus/Shemot 20:15)

The odd phrasing, that the people “roim et ha-kolot” — “saw the voices,” has been noted by many commentators through the centuries. Here’s some traditional commentary and visual midrash on this verse.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin has written about this verse in two of his books, which I recommend — although not as Torah commentary in the usual sense of the term. He notes in The Burnt Book that Hebrew, using an alphabet, rather than pictograms as other ancient cultures did, meant that people who saw alphabetic writing, representing sound instead of ideas/concepts, “saw the voices.”

The following is from Mysteries of the Alphabet:

The transformation of proto-Sinaitic into proto-Hebraic… is the result of several complex factors, one of which is particularly important. The discovery of monotheism, and the revelation and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, introduced a new and important psychological element that may have produced a profound cultural change.

The second of the Ten Commandments states: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens or above or that it is in the earth beneath…” This prohibition on the image forced the Semites, who still wrote their language in a pictographic writing, to rid themselves of images. The birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the giving of the law. In his book Naissance et renaissance de l’ecriture (Birth and rebirth of writing), Gerard Pommier wrote: “To make the jump from the hieroglyphic to the consonant, from polytheism to monotheism, a frontier had to be crossed. An Exodus was necessary…

The Hebrews left Egypt and received the tablets of the law in Sinai, the law that enabled them to create a social structure, the law of which one of the consequences was the birth of a nonpictographic alphabet….

–Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mysteries of the Alphabet: the Origins of Writing. Ouaknin, Marc-Alain. Translated from the French by Josephine Bacon. NY: Abbeville, 1999. p.46-47.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Warp and Weft Sunset

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This visual midrash combines the sentiment of Debbie Perlman’s new psalm, “Thirty Nine: For Consolidation,” and the text of the yizkor prayers, which ask that our departed loved ones be “bound up in the bonds of life.” It uses a design created by one member of Fabrangen Havurah to “bind up” the memorial threads of hundreds of participants in high holiday services.

YizkorEmbroidery

It began at Fabrangen’s yizkor service on Yom Kippur 5764 (October 2003). At that service, participants were offered an embroidery thread and asked to recall loves ones, calling to mind ways in which our lives already reflect — or might better reflect — what they taught us.

Using a common tune for the “Achat Sha’alti” verses of Psalm 27, we sang the final verse of Perlman’s poem:

You are the warp and the weft;
Braid in this slender thread upon Your loom.
You are the texture and the smooth cloth;
Form me in a running stitch to you.

Each person was asked to “choose at least one action you do or plan to do in memory of a loved one.” Memorial threads were gathered, with the promise that they would be woven into a “a memorial piece, thus weaving those precious, personal memories into a precious, public memorial, as we together seek a ‘pattern of holiness, bound tightly to God’s design’ for ourselves and our community.”

“Warp and Weft” Sunset

Following the service, Fabrangen member Dottie Weintraub drew a colorful sun reflecting on water as it sets as the model for the embroidery. Skilled and novice stitchers began weaving those threads to match the picture. Several of us gathered to recall loved ones while we took turns stitching. Many others took long solo hours working on the sunset.

For several years, the partially completed version graced Yom Kippur services. Finally, Dottie took the piece with her, when she moved to California, finished it, had it framed and shipped it back to DC. The “Warp and Weft” Sunset appeared at Yom Kippur services in 5770. It has since resided at the home where Fabrangen West meets and makes periodic trips to other Fabrangen service locations when yizkor is recited.

At the Yom Kippur service which first included the completed embroidery, Deb Kolodny led us in singing

I’m holding on
Got my eye on the road and my heart in a song
Whatever happened is already gone,
I won’t let go.
I won’t let go
— Sonia Ruttstein

With deep gratitude to Dottie for the final effort — she didn’t let go — and to Deb who helped launch the effort, co-leading the 5764 service, to every member of the community whose original promises of action went into those threads, to all who added their loving stitches and to all whose memories form the sunset and its reflection…

UPDATE: Deb Kolodny, now a rabbi living in Oregon, can be found here, and Dottie Weintraub and her artwork can be found in California, here, for example.

The less mobile Memorial Quilt continues to honor the memory of departed Fabrangeners and loved ones.



Debbie Perlman (1951-2002)
“Thirty Nine: For Consolidation,”
Flames to Heaven: New Psalms for Healing and Praise

Twine my life to life, O Eternal,
Plied strength on strength,
To nurture my heart and renew my soul.

Join me in a partnership with You.
Tightly wrap my days in duties for Your sake.

Spin around me the worlds of Yours sages,
The dreams of Your children,
Rub my face with the rough weave of women’s stories
To strengthen my faint pulse

Bind me to Your Torah,
Four bright blue corners
Knotted together for Your glory.

You are the warp and the weft;
Braid in this slender thread upon Your loom.
You are the texture and the smooth cloth;
Form me in a running stitch to you.

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