Latest update: November 21st, 2011
Returning to the text, one cannot avoid deeply disturbing questions. Why would God ask his beloved servant Avraham to sacrifice the son he had been promised for so many years? How could Avraham have complied without an argument or objection? What were the consequences of this test on Avraham and Yitzchak; and finally, how does Avraham’s test affect us today?
The merit of Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is no less than the very foundation of the Jewish relationship to God. While the liberation from Egyptian bondage and the subsequent acceptance of the Law at Mount Sinai are the operative mechanisms of Jewish belief and practice, it is the Binding of Yitzchak that sets the standards and expectations of faith. In the flowering of Jewish visual arts following the destruction of the Second Temple seen in surviving synagogue mosaics, the Binding of Yitzchak is the only narrative depicted. As the central motif in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is the central biblical episode that we celebrate and effectively present to God when we ask Him for forgiveness of our sins. We confess our failures to properly keep God’s commandments, bemoan our inadequate merits and repeat over and over again that we only ask God to forgive us and grant us blessing in the year to come in the merit of Avraham’s faith and courage in being willing to sacrifice his son. And even though the sacrifice was halted and never happened, we refer in the liturgy to the “Ashes of Yitzchak;” the willingness was equivalent to the act itself. The heart of Jewish faith is deeply rooted in the Binding of Yitzchak.
For more than two thousand years religious thinkers have pondered the meaning of the Akedah. Kirschbaum brilliantly suggests a radically different reading of the episode. Through a ten-part process he narrates how the encounter with the Divine in the Akedah leads to a revelation, mystical disintegration and finally a possibility of entrance into another realm.
Kirschbaum’s Akedah images are sequentially numbered with gaps in the numbering representing images he has chosen not to exhibit. Akedah #39 begins the narrative showing three ovals floating above the central space as an elemental rectangle emerges from the bottom center of the image. It is the beginning of the construction of the altar built by Avraham in order to slaughter his son. In the flurry of dark marks that come together in the center of the image, the first suggestions of encounter appear atop the altar. In the next painting, #40, the altar is fully formed with a broad base and square top, silhouetted against a brooding sky. Paradoxically for an abstract image, the altar’s depiction is so realistic that it casts a shadow. In the next two paintings the altar, here thought of as the paradigmatic place of meeting between Avraham, Yitzchak and God, seems to take over the image. Foreboding traces of red and orange reflects the bloodletting commanded.
Suddenly the fifth painting is radically different, with ten squares appearing in a vaguely familiar regular pattern. Each square is composed of nine smaller squares, the classic nine square grid. According to the artist, it expresses a typical division of sacred space reflecting a realization of Yechezkel’s vision of the Third Temple in addition to the ancient expression of the golden rule of balance. For him each is a self-contained universe. Not accidentally the entire design of these floating squares depicts the ten sefirot of Kabbalah.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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