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March 7, 2014
Illustration as Interpretation
Torah Portion: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
Haftarah Portion: Isaiah 43:21-44:23
"Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you."[i] Specifically, one man... Leonardo da Vinci. Although we cannot claim him as a M.O.T. (a "Member of the Tribe"), certainly counted within the Jewish fold are Marc Chagall with his mystical illustrations of biblical scenes, Yaakov Agam and his experiential optical and kinetic art, as well as C. Mattison and her D'rash Design Project, which she describes as "scriptures in pictures with a tribal twist!"[ii]
In fact, all visual attempts to illustrate the exceptional, holy nature of our world can be said to have their origin in the written Torah. Beginning the book of Leviticus this week, we read, "Vayikra/And, the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: 'Speak to the Israelite people...'" (Leviticus 1:1-2) Interestingly, here, the last letter of Vayikra - the Aleph - is written smaller than the other letters of that word or any other word in Torah.
Why? Rabbi Shimshon Ostropoli said it was out of Moses' humility. In minimizing the Aleph, the remaining word - vayikar - means "a chance encounter," implying God could have approached anyone.[iii] Others, like Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said it represents God's constant yet often silent Presence in our lives.[iv] In fact, there are countless commentaries like these, all insinuating that this scribal irregularity is not a mistake but an interpretation through illustration.[v]
And, it did not stop there. By reducing or enlarging, rotating or breaking some Hebrew letters, our ancestors added a layer of meaning to the biblical text.[vi] One of the most dramatic occurs in the book of Numbers.[vii] To restore order among Israel, Pinchus kills an Israelite man and a Moabite woman. Subsequently, he is awarded the Pact of Peace/Shalom. But, shalom's Vav is purposely written in two pieces, so to teach: "violence can never be a path to complete peace."[viii]
Then, upon this early innovation of illustration as biblical interpretation, our later Sages placed restrictions. Based upon the prohibition against "graven images," the Shulchan Aruch states this applies to "images of people, angels or heavenly bodies... except for educational purposes."[ix] Because, while the major concern was idolatry, the Sages understood that any illustration can unintentionally place limitations on how one may envision and thus engage with the sacred texts.
Can't that be said for any form of commentary, whether verbal or visual? Don't they all, whether by the writer's pen or artist's paintbrush, steer us to relate to the text in a particularly way? Sure they do! So, what then can the illustrated word or letter give us that the word or letter alone cannot? Answer: a way to not only think of the text differently, but a way to see the text differently and, God willing, allow us to more easily see our place therein.
This became clear with a Bar Mitzvah student of mine. Like many, he was having trouble with his d'var Torah (his sermon). After many weeks of studying the portion together but seeing little progress in writing the sermon between sessions, we both started to feel the frustration. And, I wondered, how was I ever going to reach this student? How could I enable him to break through this barrier?
Then, on one of our weekly Skype sessions, I noticed something on the wall behind my student, something I had not seen before: a mural. I asked: "Did you do that?" He said, "of course," as if we all could create such beauty. Then things began to connect in my head and I asked: "Do you think you could draw the meaning of your Torah portion, which we've been discussing for weeks?"
His eyes widened really large. "What? Is that possible?" I explained to him that it was. I explained to him that "our people have a long history of illustrating the various meanings of Torah's words either by altering the depiction of certain letters or drawing diamonds above them, or even creating fully illustrated texts. After all, art is just another form of human expression, is it not?"
He not only agreed, he showed how truly fluent he was in this form of creative human expression. On the Bar Mitzvah day, his art sat on the bimah, covered. When the time came to deliver his sermon, he whipped off the cover to the great awe of the congregation, explaining how the art related to the portion. He not only delivered one of the clearest sermons ever heard, but one of the most colorful!
Indeed, at some time or another, God's constant yet often silent Presence in our life will break; and, the Holy One will vayikra/call out to us, as God called out to Moses. At that time, we'll be challenged to understand and respond to the Eternal's word. Yet, let us not be dismayed if we do not have the words to call back, for the Holy One has given us another medium of expression: art, a way to convey our comprehension in more dynamic, colorful fashion. Amen v'amen!
May you have a peaceful Sabbath!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
Director of Rabbinic Department
Please share this message with family and friends, especially those who do not have access to email, and when your congregation gathers for services I invite you to read this Taste of Torah from the bima. As always, please be in touch. I'd particularly appreciate hearing about simchahs, moments of joy, [i.e. births, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, graduations] or illnesses or other challenges in your family or community.
[i] Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, writers. "Mona Lisa." Sung by Nat King Cole on Captain Carey, U.S.A. Paramount Pictures: 1950.
[ii] In full disclosure, C. Mattison is my wife: Christina Mattison Ebert, artist/illustrator/designer. You can see her work at cmattisonillustration.com.
[iii] "Our Sages tell us that Moses was extremely humble and wished to write the word without the Aleph. This way it would read vayikar, the same word used when God appeared to Bilam (Numbers 23:4,16) and one which implies a purely chance event. Though, God insisted that the word be vayikra - "and the Lord called" - to show God's love of Moses. As a result of this conflict, a compromise was reached: the aleph was left in place but it is written smaller than the other letters." [Rabbi Shimshon's commentary is provided by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg in Torah Gems: Vol. II. Chemed Books and Co. Inc.: Tel Aviv, 1998. p. 241]
[iv] Rabbi Elyse Frishman. "Who's Calling, Please?" in Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, ed. Jewish Lights Publishing: Vermont, 2012. pp. 113-114
[v] Another interesting one comes from Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, who provides a possible historical explanation for the small Aleph. He writes: "The Sacred Text was in ancient times written in a continuous row of letters, without any division (i.e. spaces) between the words. When the last letter of a word was the same as the first letter of the next, as is here the case, one character would often serve for both. When at a later time both letters were written out, one of them was in the smaller size to show that it did not originally occur in the Text - an illustration of profound reverence!" [J.H. Hertz. Penateuch & Haftorahs. Soncino Press: London, 1971. p. 410
[vi] An example not mentioned above is the Declaration of Faith from Deuteronomy 6:4, where the Ayin at the end of shema and the Dalet at the end of echad are enlarged for emphasis as well as together they spell the Hebrew word eid, meaning "witness."
[vii] See Numbers 25
[viii] Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: "In the text of the Torah scroll [Numbers 25:11-12], the letter Yod in Pinchas' name in verse 11 is written smaller than the other letters. When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the Yod in us (standing for the name of God and for Yehudi/Jew) is diminished thereby. In verse 12, the letter Vav in shalom in the Torah scroll is written with a break in its stem. Thus is interpreted homiletically to suggest that the sort of peace one achieves by destroying one's opponent will inevitably be a flawed, incomplete peace." [Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary. Rabbinical Assembly: New York, 2001. p. 918]
[ix] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 141:1-7