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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Shapiro’s Midrash


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The parting of the Red Sea in the exodus from Egypt is related as a simple miracle.  And yet even the Torah itself ventures an explanation; first relating the means of the miracle; (Exodus14: 21) “…and God moved the sea with a strong east wind all night and He turned the sea to damp land and the waters split.”  And yet one wonders how wind alone could render a sea into dry land.  Shapiro offers a disarmingly simple image of the feet of three individuals appearing to walk on water in the midst of a reed swamp.  In his text he explains, “In the Okefenofee Swamp in Florida, grasses have grown over deep water to form what appears to be a land mass.  This will support men and women walking in an orderly fashion.  However, when the Egyptians, using …a metal chariot…it is only a matter of time before the whole mass collapsed and horse and chariots…dropped like a rock into their watery grave below.” Aha.

The visual midrash of Shapiro’s painting expands well beyond the biblical text into a contemporary American experience that nonetheless represents text in a deeply convincing manner.   Walking on dry land indeed!

(2010), oil on canvas, 30×30 by Brian Shapiro.”](2010), oil on canvas, 30×30 by Brian Shapiro”]

Moses on Sinai [detail

The character of Moses is seen in a set of five images in this exhibition. Moses on Sinai depicts a determined Moses climbing Mount Sinai clasping his sapphire rod inscribed with the Ineffable Name and the Ten Plagues.  According to the Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezer, this staff was “Created at twilight before Shabbos, it was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden…[and it was passed on to Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, who brought it to Egypt and gave it to Joseph and finally Yisro who stuck it in the ground in his garden in Midyan; after that no one could extract it.]…Moses came and read the Hebrew letters on the staff and pulled it out readily. [Therefore Yisro knew Moses was the redeemer of Israel and gave him his daughter Tzipporah in marriage].”

Apart from the detailed rendering of the sacred inscription, Shapiro’s painting is notable for the depiction of the vast Israelite camp far below Moses, giving us a dizzying perspective of being actually alongside Moses up on the mountain.  Significantly this gives us a glimpse into the lawgiver’s personal experience; he is driven and transfixed by his awesome mission to meet the Almighty yet again.

The Sinai experience appears again in Moses and the Golden Calf, now depicting Moses’s reaction to that tragic sin.  Here we are looking down at the Children of Israel dancing around the golden statue while legions of Levites and women line the hills in the distance with their backs to the mob below, refusing to participate.  As the Gemara describes that moment, the holy letters on the tablets flew off as Moses approached the sinful encampment and in anger smashed the tablets.   While the midrashlater tells us that God approved of Moses’s rash action, it is still deeply shocking for him to destroy such a precious gift from the Almighty.  The expression on Moses’s face reflects his anger and pain, as if the letters are being ripped from his own flesh.  In an amazing insight the artist has depicted Moses’s anguished reaction as if it were our own reaction of shock and dismay of such faithless behavior on the part of the Children of Israel.

Moses and the Golden Calf (2010), oil on canvas, 30x30 by Brian Shapiro.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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