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Posts Tagged ‘Elijah’

What Does It All Mean?

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

The continuation of my column on the power of prayer was ready to go – but then tragedy hit. Tragedy of a magnitude none of us could have envisioned.

New York City, the capital of the world, is shaken to its core as buildings tumble, electrical power is lost, highways and neighborhoods are flooded, bridges and tunnels are closed down, cars float away, people lose their homes and even their lives.

What are we to do? How are we to understand this?

As readers know, whenever suffering befalls us I search our holy books to find illumination and guidance. I turn to my most loyal friend – a friend that has always been at my side and given me comfort and strength and never betrayed me – my sefer Tehillim, my Book of Psalms.

The psalms were written by King David, who experienced every type of pain and suffering that can befall mankind, and so each word is drenched with his tears and speaks for all eternity and for all mankind.

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy began on Monday, October 29, the 13th day of the month of Cheshvan. The psalm designated for the 13th day of the month is Psalm 69. I opened to it and the words jumped out: “Save us, oh G-d, for the waters have reached onto my soul.”

There is more. This psalm does not leave us in the cold – it also provides our remedy, our answer: “But as for me, my prayer is to You, Hashem.”

Yes, we must turn in heartfelt prayer to our Heavenly Father and beseech His Mercy, His Salvation.

I looked at the weekly parshah and read how our father Abraham, whose hospitality had no bounds, opened his home to strangers. That which our forefathers experienced and shaped their lives has become part of our DNA.

I think of all those who lost power or were left homeless. I know of a woman who stood in her home, waist deep in water, desperately searching for photographs of her father and mother who are no longer here. Who can comprehend the pain?

And I think of all the wonderful people who opened their homes just like our father Abraham. I am one of those people who had to evacuate and I too have benefited and continue to benefit from that hospitality.

The Rambam taught that when suffering is visited upon us we are commanded to cry out and awaken our people with the sound of the shofar. Everyone must be alerted. Everyone must engage in self-examination and ask, What is my life all about? How would I rate if I were given a “neshamah checkup”? What does my Judaism, my Torah, really mean to me?”

The Rambam wrote that if we regard the tragedies that befall us as simply the way of the world, natural happenings, we are guilty of achzarius (cruelty). At first glance it is difficult to understand why Maimonides would choose the term “cruelty” to describe those who see trials and tribulations as the way of the world. They may be unthinking, apathetic, foolish, obtuse or just cynical, but to accuse them of cruelty seems rather farfetched.

The answer is simple. If we regard our pain and suffering as “mere coincidence” and feel no motivation to examine our lives, abandon our old ways and change, then indeed such an attitude is cruel, for it invites additional misfortunate upon ourselves and others.

Great Torah luminaries of recent generations told us we were entering the final stages of history, a period called ikvsa di Mashiach – footsteps of the Messiah. So how can we remain silent? Would that not be the ultimate cruelty?

Ours is a generation that has been challenged again and again. We have had so many wakeup calls – some terrifying, some more subtle – but we have remained indifferent to them all.

I will not go back to the time of the Holocaust, though by every right I should – for if that didn’t shake us up, what will? Even the terrible events of 9/11 are no longer vivid in our minds and the fellowship and the kindness that ensued in its wake are all long gone.

Five Terms Of Endearment – So Why Only Four Cups Of Wine?

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

The number four seems to play a major role in the Pesach Seder. We have four questions, four sons, four terms of endearment and, of course, one of the major features we soon will be enjoying – the drinking of four cups of wine.

The Mishnah is very specific about those four cups, requiring the community to see to it that even the poor have them, even if it comes from public charity (Pesachim 10:1).

Since the Torah says nothing about wine in describing the Pesach ritual, the question arises as to the origin and meaning of this practice. Why wine at all and why four cups?

To begin with, wine does appear in the Torah in ritual contexts. It was used as libations on the altar (Exodus 29:40) and was considered a special drink that caused people to rejoice.

As we read in Psalm 104:15, “And wine makes the heart of man joyful…” This is why it was taken from the Temple rite into the synagogue and the home, so that Kiddush is recited over it, as are Havdalah and the Birkat Hamazon. Weddings are also solemnized with wine and it is used in the ceremony of the brit milah.

It would only have been natural, then, for the festive Pesach meal, like any holiday feast, to begin with wine and conclude with it. Two cups.

However, at the Seder the third cup is associated with maggid – the telling of the story. The fourth cup is recited over Hallel and is a special addition unique to the Seder.

Different explanations were offered in the writings of the sages, the gaonim, and the later rabbis as to the significance of the number four. Among them are: four expressions of redemption, four empires that oppressed Israel, four cups of punishment of those empires, four cups mentioned in connection with Pharaoh, four cups of fury, four cups of salvation, four decrees of Pharaoh against Israel, four exiles.

The most popular and most generally accepted explanation was that the four cups stand for the four promises of redemption that God uttered: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements, and I will take you to be My people (Exodus 6:6-7). The Hebrew words are vehotzeiti, vehitzalti, vegoalti and velakahti.

Once these four promises had been accepted as the reason for the four cups, the question arose about the fact that there was a fifth expression of redemption in Exodus 6, verse 8 – “And I shall bring you to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” – veheiveiti.

And so Rabbi Tarfon taught, “On the fifth cup one finishes the Hallel and says the Great Hallel (Psalm 136).” This is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim 10:1, and also in the manuscript reading of Pesachim 118a.

This is also probably the origin of the Cup of Elijah. Since not all were agreed that we should drink a fifth cup, it was set aside until Elijah would come and decide that issue and all other halachic issues. It may be that the majority of the sages demurred because that promise was painfully unfulfilled after the exile of the year 70 CE. That may also explain why in the verses elucidated in the Haggadah, the verse “He brought us to this place and gave us this land” (Deuteronomy 26:9) is absent.

Both Rav Amram Gaon and the Rambam mention using the fifth cup, though they see it as optional but not required.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher, in his edition of the Haggadah, strongly advocates the drinking of the fifth cup. The Cup of Elijah can be passed to all the participants as the fifth cup.

Rabbi Kasher believes we have been privileged to live in a time when the fifth expression of redemption has actually come to pass, as the Jewish people have returned to their own land and established the state of Israel. Therefore, it is right and proper that we drink a fifth cup to recognize that reality and express our gratitude and thanksgiving to God for it.

Considering that so great a sage as Rabbi Tarfon advocated the fifth cup and that such great authorities as the Rambam and Rav Amram Gaon permitted it, it would seem that not to drink the fifth cup would be an act of ingratitude to God for the partial redemption represented by the state of Israel.

How many cups does it take to express our gratitude to God at the Seder? I believe the answer is five.

By Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Bank of Israel Commemorative Coin Wins Coin of the Year

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

The Bank of Israel’s “Jonah in the Belly of the Fish” two shekel commemorative coin won the Coin of the Year award in the annual competition sponsored by the Krause Publications, the Bank of Israel said in a press release on Monday.

The coin was chosen from among 95 coins by a panel of judges who are experts in the field, including writers, editors, and members of the American Numismatic Association.

The “Jonah in the belly of the fish” coin is the sixteenth commemorative coin in the Biblical Art series issued by the Bank of Israel. The series has included coins such as, “Elijah in the Whirlwind”, “Samson and the Lion”, “And the Waters Were Divided”, and others.

Listening To The Paint’s Music: Marilyn Banner’s Encaustics

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

My Space on 7th, Non-juried,


Group Exhibition, 50 Local Artists


Touchstone Gallery


406 7th Street NW 2nd Floor, Washington, DC


http://www.touchstonegallery.com


 


Marilyn Banner’s encaustic painting “Listening” (2008) at first appears to be ironically titled. One would expect a painting with that name to be calm and pretty, with pastel colors and an aura that would be compatible with a hospital’s waiting room. Instead, “Listening” is a very dramatic work, with thick paint, bold strokes, and text that seems cut violently into the surface in some areas, and smeared elsewhere almost to erasure.


 


The square painting could be interpreted as a flag or a landscape with deep-blue mountains and a body of water, but if it does depict a natural setting, a storm has already begun to overcome the landscape. What relevance could the term “listening have to such a loud and overbearing piece?

 

 



“Listening” 2008. Encaustic on wood, 12×12.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.


 

                     


As Banner describes it, she created the work while listening to a “beautiful” tune, “In the Garden of Shechina” by songwriter Hannah Tiferet Siegel. Then, in residence at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for the eighth time, Banner wrote the text of the first two verses of Siegel’s song onto “Listening,” which is one of 24 pieces of hers that recently hung at the Touchstone Gallery in Washington. Siegel’s verses read as follows:


 


Born from the earth


Breathed by the air


Healed in the water


Kindled with prayer,


I walk through the fiery sword of truth


And listen


With all my heart.


 


I am the Tree of Life


In the Garden of Shechina


Singing a psalm of wonder and love


Ki hi m’kor habracha [because it is the source of blessing].


 


After examining the text, viewers can begin to approach the work with a different sort of listening – perhaps the kind the prophet Elijah came to practice.


 


In the Book of Kings I (Chapter 19), just after he defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel when a divine fire came down to consume his sacrifice and just after he prophesized that rain would finally come to the famine-struck region, Elijah found himself fleeing for his life from Ahab and his wife Jezebel. In the desert, Elijah grew so hungry that he was ready to give up his life, much as Jonah had desired when the sun bore down too heavily on him outside Nineveh. But an angel directed Elijah to eat, and he then encountered the Divine Presence on a mountain.


 


Like much of the prophetic experience, Elijah’s encounter with G-d carried a strong aesthetic component. First a powerful wind struck the mountains and decimated the rocks. Then, an earthquake struck, after which a fire appeared and scorched whatever had survived the wind and the quake. But, the Torah explains, G-d was not in the wind, the rocks, or the fire. Instead, G-d’s voice came in a form that was not pretentious and dramatic: a “kol d’mamah dakah,” a thin, soft voice.


 


Elijah came to see that divinity and greatness were not necessarily embedded in loud noise (neither rock concerts nor construction workers’ drilling seem to have a monopoly on theology). It is possible to “listen” to Banner’s painting and hear a soft, beautiful song emerge even from the expressionistic and stormy surface.


 


In fact, even Banner’s materials involve a complicated process that is both bold and soft.


Encaustic paintings are very different from standard oil paintings, in which the artist simply puts brush to canvas and adds marks. Encaustic, which is an ancient technique that has often been employed in a religious context, essentially involves taking wax, often beeswax, with pigments mixed into it and layering it on the canvas.


 


The painter also uses damar (sometimes called dammar gum), a resin binding agent that hardens the materials and holds them together. The wax, the brushes, the paint, and the surface must remain warm throughout the process, and the layers of paint must be close to 200 degrees to “stick” to the other layers. Given the elaborate technique, Banner not only included the song text in her work, she actually wrote it into wax.


 


The 24-piece series at Touchstone is called “I Listen with All My Heart.” In her artist’s statement, Banner says the entire series is “based on my response to being in nature and listening to music.” The series is hung together on one wall as an installation in the far corner of the gallery.

 

 



“Serious”  Encaustic on wood, 12×12.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.


 

 


Over e-mail, Banner elaborated on the series. “It is about connection to the earth and spirituality, as you can probably tell,” she said. “I may have written out the whole poem in there, but as I work kind of in a trance, I don’t really remember. Whatever came out of my hand is what’s in there, some buried, some visible. It was as if my heart was singing it and the words just went into the paint.” She added that “it’s one of those things that when a group sings together, you’re on another plane.”


 


Banner is not just an artist who paints music. She is also co-founder and co-director of Washington “Musica Viva,” a musical, poetic, and visual art performance series, which she began in her studio in Kensington, Maryland. She was also the regional coordinator of the national organization, No Limits for Women in the Arts, as well as a board member of the DC board of the Women’s Caucus for Art.


 


The pieces in “I Listen with All My Heart” relate to these other experiences through the inclusion of texts and references to Banner’s life, early music experience, and poetry. “Serious,” “Dance of Joy,” and “Blue Sound” all reference music directly. In “Serious,” a young girl playing a violin is so immersed in her music that she closes her eyes. The background is a mixture of cool blues and greens, and except for a few carefully placed black outline marks, it is difficult to tell where the girl ends and the background begins. Banner has also added a G-clef and musical notes in black, so the girl’s left side and left arm merge with the lines of music. Both performer and music have become one within the painting, just as they are literally fused together in wax.

 

 



“Blue Sound” 2005. Encaustic on panel, 11×14.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.


 

 


“Blue Sound” swaps the performer for four cellos (one in relief). Banner has “written” the words “The Sound” over two of the instruments, and about 10 scores of sheet music are visible in the background. The forms of the scores mirror the strings on the cellos, and the entire surface of the paintings seems like it could yield a sound if it were plucked or played.


 


In “Dance of Joy,” viewers can discern two musical scores, but the piece is much less literal than “Serious” or “Blue Sound.” The painting reads as a landscape, perhaps a jungle scene, with thick tree trunks and thick foliage. In the right side of the work, an outlined figure dances with head thrown back and arms raised. The figure wearing a dress, has a musical score vertically written across her body, and is perhaps a self-portrait or even a personification of music herself. As in “Serious” and “Blue Sound,” Banner’s composition in “Dance of Joy” defies conventional approaches to foreground and background. The figure encroaches on the setting, and the setting engulfs the figure.

 

 



“Dance of Joy” 2006. Encaustic on wood, 9×11.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.




Although Banner probably had neither Elijah nor the prophetic experience in mind when she created the series, the model of the soft voice emerging from the storm proves a good model for engaging her work, even her more “realistic” works like her other series on angels and messengers (including several versions of the burning bush), the “Song of Songs,” “The Presence of Spirit,” and “Soul Ladders.” Banner’s uses the medium to her advantage to not only metaphorically show connections between the physical and the spiritual, but also to literally bond the two together in hot wax.

 


For more information on Marilyn Banner and her work, visit her website, http://marilynbanner.com/.


 


MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Good Morning, Elijah: Amos Oz Does The Peace Tour

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

      I have long believed the world would be much better off if Hollywood airheads would stick to entertainment and never pretend to be intellectuals, spouting off with their “ideas” about politics, diplomacy, etc. I am no less convinced that popular literary figures do little more than embarrass themselves when they attempt to serve as political commentators.
 
      Amos Oz is arguably Israel’s best-known writer and at the same time the leading member of Israel’s Literary Left. Proudly declaring himself a major thinker in the “peace movement,” Oz celebrates his political biases openly.
 
      I am in the large hall of a Belgian university to listen to a speech by Oz, who is to receive an honorary doctorate and meet with students and faculty. Oz’s books have been translated into many languages and he is well known in Europe. He has been invited to speak about literature to the university audience, but devotes the entire speech to politics, without mentioning literature even once. Oz is an eloquent speaker, but there is an enormous gap between his command of words and images and the depth of his understanding of political reality.
 
      There is an old saying that a shallow moral symmetry is the hobgoblin of small minds. Oz is the master of shallow moral symmetry. The Arab-Israeli conflict (which he invariably calls the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which it is not) is neither black vs. white nor good against bad, he tells his listeners, but rather a conflict between two goods, even if the behavior of both sides is often that of two bads. He condemns Israeli “oppression” and mistreatment of Palestinians as morally symmetric to Palestinian terrorism and xenophobia.
 
      Oz is at his silliest when he tries to distinguish between stark unequivocal moral choices and complex ambiguous ones. “You Europeans have a tendency to frame everything in simplistic good vs. bad terms,” he says. “This is OK for some conflicts, like that between fascism and anti-fascism, or that between colonialism and anti-colonialism, or that between the U.S. and Vietnamese, but the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not that.”
 
      Of course, the allegedly simple moral conflicts offered by Oz tell us more about him than about the conflict. Anti-fascists have at times been worse than fascists; anti-colonialists generally were far more savage and brutal than European colonialists; and Oz’s insistence that the U.S. was the unambiguous evil power in Vietnam is little more than the attempt of an Israeli leftist to pander to fashionable anti-Americanism, to ingratiate himself with those who imagine Europe is the moral superior of the U.S. – something Oz tries to do repeatedly throughout the evening.
 
      The other problem with Oz’s silly characterization of moral clarity vs. ambiguity is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is actually as morally unambiguous as was World War II. Yes, Allied troops sometimes conducted acts of injustice and, yes, German and Japanese civilians were often killed as the war was fought out, but that changes nothing about the moral unambiguousness of that conflict.
 
      The Arab-Israeli conflict exists because the Arab world, controlling 22 states and territory nearly twice that of the United States (including Alaska), is unwilling to allow the Jews to enjoy any self-determination or control over even a tiny piece of territory. Ultimately, the tremendous damage that Oz and his kind have done has been in muddying what should be a clear moral understanding of the Middle East war, all in the name of the sanctity of moral symmetry, and this muddying has undercut Israeli willingness to resist and fight.
 
      Oz devotes his entire speech to promotion of the “two-state solution,” by which Israel will withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, removing nearly all settlements, making way for a Palestinian state. This solution is not liked by either side, says Oz, but perhaps 80% of those on both sides declare they expect that this is what in fact will happen. That of course is not exactly the same as accepting a plan or policy as legitimate, and Oz diplomatically skips over the inconvenient fact that nearly all Arabs see this “solution” as a temporary stage in the process of destroying Israel. Oz declares over and over that the bulk of Palestinians understand that Israel is “here to stay” – something that would come as a great shock to them.
 
      In reality, Israel’s decades-long pursuit of a national policy of surrender, cowardice and weakness has convinced virtually all Palestinians that the Jews are on the run and that achieving their dream of exterminating Israel is now within their grasp. Oz declares that less than 30% of Palestinians support Hamas, and the audience smiles approvingly at this complete lie.
 
      Very few in the audience know that two partitions for the purpose of creating “two states for two peoples” have already been attempted. The first was the detachment of Eastern Palestine in 1921 to form Transjordan, a step that was supposed to make a Jewish homeland in all of Palestine west of the Jordan possible. Then, in 1947, the UN proposed a new partition of Western Palestine, creating an Arab Palestinian state in one half and a Jewish one in the other. The Arabs reacted by attempting to commit genocide against the Israeli Jews.
 
      No one in the audience thinks to ask Oz about the total failure of his “ideas” in the Gaza Strip (in a sense, a third partition). Almost immediately after Gaza’s Jews were expelled and the territory turned over to the Palestinians, Sderot became the first Israeli Guernica, bombarded daily by rockets; Ashkelon is now well on its way to becoming the second. In other words, Oz’s lovely “two state solution” was already implemented in part in Gaza, and it produced the worst terrorist bombardments of Israeli civilians in history.
 
      Oz is at his most “Peresian” (Peres-like) when he insists over and over that history is irrelevant, that there is nothing to be gained by trying to dredge up the past, to draw lessons from it. An inverse of George Santayana, who wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”Oz tells the audience that his dream is to disconnect all the microphones whenever Arabs or Jews start to mention the past.
 
      “I refuse altogether to look at history,” he says. Of course, learning from the past might allow na?ve audience members to pick out Oz’s factual errors or to understand how his “two-state partition” will achieve nothing more than a new all-out Arab war against Israel.
 
      A few years back, a group of Israeli Jewish literary figures met in Haifa with Arab writers to discuss politics. Each of the Jewish writers – good doves all – got up and declared that he accepted the legitimacy of the Palestinian people, supported their right to a state, and acknowledged their having as much moral right to independence as that of the Jews. (I believe Amos Oz was one of the people present.) They waited for the Arab writers to get up and make similar statements about the legitimacy of Zionism and Jewish self-determination. Not a single one did.
 

      A slang expresion among Israelis is “Good Morning, Elijah.” It is a sarcastic statement, roughly analogous to the American “Well, duh!” It is a wonderful literary summation of Israel’s obtuse literary leftists.

 

      Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/good-morning-elijah-amos-oz-does-the-peace-tour/2008/05/21/

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