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September 17, 2014 / 22 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Eretz Yisroel’

Shabbos – A Day With Hashem: Shabbos and Chanukah: It Is Good to Praise Hashem!

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

If you ask ten people what the main focus of Chanukah is, nine would probably answer, “lighting the menorah.” While that is certainly an integral part of the chag, the Gemara (Shabbos 21b) tells us, “The next year they established these days as a Yom Tov, l’hodos u’lihalel – to thank and praise.” What an eye opener! There is more to Chanukah than lighting the menyorah, playing dreidel and eating latkes? Yes! These are days established primarily to thank and praise Hashem!

The connection between Chanukah and our series on Shabbos is now clear. Thanking and giving praise to Hashem is a main theme of Shabbos as well. As we have mentioned previously, on Shabbos morning we add a pasuk to the bracha of yotzer ohr: “V’yom hashev’ee mishabeach v’omer mizmor shir l’yom haShabbos, tov lehodos l’Hashem – And the seventh day praises and says: ‘let us sing a song about the day of Shabbos – It is good to praise Hashem!’” Let us understand why giving thanks is an integral part of both Chanukah and Shabbos and how we can fulfill this obligation with joy.

The Darkest Exile

The Torah relates (Bereshis 1:2) that in the beginning of creation “v’choshech al penei tehom – there was darkness on the face of the depths.” The Midrash says that the “darkness” refers to the Greek exile. Why was this exile considered darker than any of the other exiles?

We explained in our first Shabbos article (Revealing Hashem’s Presence, 11-2) that Hashem has placed a darkness in this world in order to hide His existence. However, with a little bit of effort, we can find the Creator by examining the many different wonders of His world. Why is it then that so many people deny His existence? The number one reason is that they allow themselves to be influenced by science, which does not see past a superficial cause-and-effect system. They fail to realize that Hashem is the true cause of all these phenomena. The founders of this belief were none other then the Greeks. Unfortunately, at that time, most of the Jewish nation got caught up in Greek culture and this mistaken outlook did not leave room in their lives for Hashem or Torah, which reveals His Will. By extinguishing the light of Torah, which shows us how to navigate this world, they left themselves “in the dark.” Thus, the precise description of the Greek exile is “darkness.”

The small handful of Chashmonaim knew that a life without Torah was worthless, and they fought against the powerful Greek Empire. Hashem performed miracles for them, and they won battle after battle. Finally they liberated the Bais HaMikdash and purified it. When they discovered enough non-defiled oil for one day of lighting, Hashem performed another miracle and the oil burned for eight days. The darkness in which the Greeks had placed us was now removed and we “saw the light.” Once again we acknowledged Hashem’s dominion over the world and rededicated ourselves to His Torah.

However, this raises a difficult question. What was the need for the miracle of the oil? Couldn’t Hashem have hidden enough oil for eight days in the same way He hid a single flask?

Oil and Wars

Rav Chaim Friedlander zt”l, Mashgiach of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, answers that the miracles of the war would not have been enough to motivate Bnei Yisrael to do teshuvah. There would always be those who believed we won because of our guerrilla tactics and the fact that we knew the terrain better, etc. Therefore, Hashem performed the miracle of the oil – an open miracle that could not be denied. Only then would everyone be compelled to realize that Hashem is the One Who orchestrated all of the wondrous events that led to their victory. In other words, the clear miracles open our eyes so that we can see the non-obvious ones.

My father, Rav Ephraim Niehaus, pointed out that this lesson was also learnt in our time – the hard way. Initially, most people admitted that the Six Day War was won through open miracles, but soon afterwards, many began to pat themselves on the back. The victory was because of our preemptive strike, our superior weaponry and strategy, and so forth. Hashem, therefore, taught us a painful lesson a few years later with the Yom Kippur War. Many warnings were ignored and we were taken totally by surprise; as a result there were many casualties. It then became clear, to those willing to see, that the victory in the first war was only because of Hashem.

The Three Weeks – Realizing What We Are Missing

Friday, July 13th, 2012

The Geese and the Peasants

The story is told of a Chassidic Rebbe who stayed one night in the attic of a simple farmer. Promptly at chatzos (midnight) the Rebbe sat on the floor and began saying Tikkun Chatzos (a prayer said most nights by pious individuals, mourning the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.) Immediately, a fountain of tears began to flow from his eyes, as he unabashedly mourned our great loss. Soon, his crying became so loud that it aroused the farmer and his wife from their sleep. The concerned farmer quickly knocked on the door and asked if everything is okay. The Rebbe answered that he is simply mourning the Bais Hamikdash. Seeing the puzzled look on the ignorant farmer’s face, the Rebbe began to vividly describe the glory of the Bais Hamikdash and what will be when Moshiach comes. He portrayed all the Jews around the world returning to Eretz Yisroel, unhindered by the influences of the non-Jews. As the Rebbe became more and more excited he grabbed the farmer’s hands and said “Come, let us pray for Moshiach! Perhaps at this moment, the Gates of Heaven are open, and our prayers will be answered!”

“I must ask my wife”, replied the simpleton. He rushed to his wife who looked at him in disbelief. “What?! Leave our farm and our geese and go to Eretz Yisroel?! Absolutely not!”

The farmer returned to the Rebbe with her answer. “Go remind her,” said the Rebbe gently, “about the peasants who are constantly stealing from you and ruining your farm. In Eretz Yisroel you won’t have any of these problems.”

The farmer trudged down the stairs and told his wife the response. After thinking for a moment, her face lit up. “I don’t mind if Moshiach comes, but he should take all the peasants with him to Eretz Yisroel, and leave us with our farm!”

Are we any different than that foolish couple? Each year, when “The Three Weeks” arrives, the time of mourning over the Bais Hamikdash, do we truly mourn the loss, and desire Moshiach’s coming? Or perhaps we just go through the outward motions, and look for legal loopholes. Yes, it is difficult for us to feel the loss, because we don’t really understand what we are missing.

Anyone Who Mourns Jerusalem

Our sages tell us (Bava Basra60b) “Anyone who mourns Jerusalem will merit and see its joy.” The simple implication of “anyone” is, no matter who you are and how little you mourn, you will merit seeing its rebuilding. That means that even now, just by reading these words you have joined the ranks of those who are seeking the redemption! However, this statement is a little difficult. Why is it written in present tense: “he will merit and see its joy,” which implies that right now he will see it. Shouldn’t it have said that he will see it in the near future when it will be rebuilt?

The Mikdash – A Miniature Mount Sinai

In a previous article (The Revelation On Mount Sinai, 5-25) we described how at Mount Sinai we merited the most fabulous revelation in the world’s history. We saw and clearly felt Hashem’s presence and His solitary rule. In addition we merited a feeling of extreme closeness to Hashem. In Shir Hashirim (1:2), the Song of Songs, we yearn once again for that closeness. “Kiss me with the kisses of Your mouth!” This refers to the moment when we heard the Ten Commandments. The Ramban tells us that the Mishkan, which was the forerunner of the Bais Hamidash, was in truth a miniaturization of that spectacular revelation. Meaning, that connection was not a one-time event, it continued in the Mishkan and subsequently the Bais Hamikdash!

When a person entered the Bais Hamikdash he immediately felt and saw Hashem’s presence. There were many miracles that could be instantly witnessed. For example, every morning the Kohen took a small portion of ashes from the altar and threw it on the solid marble floor, where it was swallowed instantaneously, leaving no trace. On the altar was a column of smoke which rose to heaven like a marble pillar. Even on the windiest day, it stayed straight! But that was only a small part of the uniqueness which resulted from Hashem’s presence. Jerusalem (not Disneyland) at the time of the Bais Hamikdash was called “The Happiest Place on Earth” (see Tehillim48). This was because one constantly merited atonement from sins. The joy which resulted from that closeness to Hashem was indescribable.

A Life Of Spirituality

All the above shouldn’t just excite a tzaddik, but every one of us. We know that we were created to serve Hashem, and therefore any spiritual accomplishment brings us more joy than a windfall on Wall Street. And if we lose an opportunity, we are greatly saddened. Even more so, we are saddened by the extreme disgrace of Hashem’s Honor in the world. The power and success of those who profane His name seems unstoppable, and it is extremely painful. Therefore, we yearn for the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash with all our hearts. For then, Hashem’s glory will fill the world, and we will merit to once again be close to Him. All the hindrances in serving Him will disappear and we will soar to great heights of spirituality.

‘The Luckiest Man’

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Throughout their forty years in the desert, the Jewish nation had to be prepared to travel at a moment’s notice. At any time the Divine clouds could suddenly rise and proceed further into the desert. As soon as that occurred the entire nation had to immediately dismantle their camps, gather their children and belongings, and begin to travel in perfect formation along with their tribe.

The Leviim had the added responsibility of dismantling the Mishkan and preparing it for travel. The tribal leaders donated wagons and oxen to the Mishkan which Moshe apportioned to two of the Levite families – Gershon and Merori – to use for the transportation of the Mishkan and its vessels. The third Levite family however – the prestigious family of Kehas – were not given any wagons. The Torah explains, “And to the sons of Kehas he did not give; since the sacred service was upon them, they carried it upon the shoulder.” Since they were responsible for the Aron Hakodesh and the other holiest vessels it was not proper for those vessels to be placed in wagons. Rather, they were carried directly, upon their shoulders.

After Bnei Yisrael had been settled in Eretz Yisroel for a few hundred years, during the time of Eli Kohen Gadol, the Aron Hakodesh was captured by the Plishtim. They held it for a short time, and then sent it back to Israel. For many years after its return the Aron remained in Kiryas Yearim, in the home of a man named Avinadav.

When David HaMelech conquered Yerushalayim he was determined to bring the Aron home. He arranged for it to be transported in a wagon pulled by oxen. Uzzah, the son of Avinadav walked alongside the wagon. At one point, when the Aron appeared to be falling, Uzzah jumped in to straighten it. It was deemed an affront for him to even entertain the notion that the Aron could fall because “the Aron carried those who (appeared to) carry it”. Because of that act Uzzah was immediately killed.

The Gemara asks what wrong David HaMelech had committed that he was indirectly responsible for Uzzah’s death. The Gemara explains that it was retribution for his saying , “Your statutes were music to me in the house of pilgrimage.” It was unbefitting for David HaMelech to refer to the words of Torah as a song. As punishment he was made to forget a law blatantly recorded in the Torah. The verse says that the Children of Kehas were not given wagons because they carried the Aron on their shoulders. Yet David HaMelech placed the Aron Hakodesh on a wagon instead of having it carried upon Uzzah’s shoulders.

HaRav Yonasan Eibeshitz, zt’l explains that the prohibition to place the Aron Hakodesh in a wagon symbolizes that Torah must be studied with diligence and toil. One must exert himself physically and emotionally to attain a true level of Torah acumen. He cannot “set it down comfortably before him as he walks leisurely.” Rather, he must “carry it upon his shoulders,” bearing its full weight with devotion and love.

When David compared Torah to music, he unwittingly implied that adherence to Torah is effortless and can be mastered with nonchalance, much as one sings an enjoyable song. To demonstrate David’s fallacy G-d caused him to forget the law which symbolizes the opposite of his words. Torah indeed requires effort because one can easily forget it and be the cause of serious transgression, as David forgot a simple law.

Rav Elazar Shach zt’l asked that if, in fact, David erred when he referred to Torah as music, why is that verse included in the book of Tehillim?

Rav Shach explained that comparing Torah to music/song reflects two different ideas: First, it suggests that observing G-d’s mitzvos are as simple and natural as melodious music. That is simply not true as it is often challenging to perform mitzvos, and there are often many impediments that one must contend with.

Second, the spiritual pleasure and ultimate reward one experiences through Torah study is so great that no earthly pleasure can measure against it. One who engages in deep sincere Torah study enjoys a feeling of fulfillment and joy that cannot be expressed in words.

Ahavas Yisroel and Compassion for Fellow Jews

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

It is hard to imagine someone else’s pain and react as if we really understand. My first job as a rav was in a nursing home, where I learned powerful lessons on how to react compassionately to the needs of others. Every Erev Shabbos, a woman came to spend the afternoon with her mother, who was suffering the devastating impact of dementia. Upon seeing her daughter, the mother would ask who it was. The daughter would patiently answer, “It’s me, your daughter, Sarah.” The mother’s eyes lit up and she would say, “Sarah, you made my day.” Sarah would spend 15 minutes telling her mother humorous stories about her grandchildren, when abruptly her mother would ask, “Who are you?” Her daughter would once again say, “It’s me, your daughter, Sarah,” and her mother would again beam with delight at seeing her daughter. The cycle continued for long periods of time. When one of the nurses asked Sarah how she had the patience to continue with this charade for so long, Sarah said it was her pleasure to be able to give her mother so many “first time” visits in one afternoon. “Besides,” she continued, “can you imagine how hard it must be to live in her state of mind; the least I can do is temporarily end her confusion and bring some happiness into her life.” As frustrating as it must have been for Sarah, sacrificing for others means understanding their needs and mustering the resources to help provide a solution.

We grow from our responses to difficult situations. When we make the proper decisions and use our potential to help others, we fulfill our purpose in this world. Esther was also known as Hadassah, as the verse tells us (Esther 2:7) “And he reared Hadassah, she is Esther.” The name Hadassah comes from the myrtle plant Hadas, which has an olive color similar to Esther’s complexion. The hadas plant is used by many as the besamim, spices, for Havdalah, as it has a beautiful sweet fragrance. This unique smell can only be released from the myrtle when it is squeezed hard and crushed. This symbolically represents Esther’s inner strength which emerged when she was being crushed by the pressure of Haman’s plans and the risking of her life to save Klal Yisroel.

We often hesitate to respond and react when we see others in trouble, in order to avoid the accompanying pressure and stress. The greatness of a Jew, however, is in being able to see others in difficult situations and respond by feeling their plight – and not remaining silent. The Talmud (Sotah 11a) tells us that Pharaoh had three advisers: Yisro, Iyov (Job) and Bilaam. Although Iyov did not want Pharaoh to destroy the Jewish people, he remained silent and neglected to voice his opposition to the plan. Perhaps he had a good reason for doing so; perhaps he was waiting for a more opportune time to intervene. Nevertheless, some say that he was punished for his silence because if he really felt their pain he should have screamed. I cry out in pain if someone steps on my foot; I should also cry out in pain if someone steps on my friend’s foot.

There are many possible reactions we can have to the many situations or little tests that occur over the course of a day. Each scenario is a nisayon, or test, that presents us with an opportunity to make choices and achieve growth. There are three levels of responses that could occur.

We could act out of habit or rote, without thinking, a response that generally does not allow us the opportunity to infuse meaning into our interpersonal interactions. For example, the feeling that so many are left with when we ask, “How are you doing?” and move on without waiting for a response, leaving the other party with the feeling that we don’t really care. Instead, we should give a warm and personal greeting and wait for a response to our caring inquiries.

Or we could do what we are supposed to be doing, but without the zerizus, alacrity, and exuberance.

However, the third and highest level of motivation occurs when the action is performed with a palpable level of excitement, enjoyment and meaning. For example, the same basic greeting will be performed at this level when we meet our future daughter-in-law for the first time.

This choice of “meaningfulness of response” can be seen each time we have the opportunity to do an act for others that requires our time or resources. Chazal tell us that we can increase the level of the mitzvah of charity by giving with a smile or warm comment, instead of simply, silently handing over the money. Many people in need of financial assistance would prefer receiving a little less while being treated with warmth and respect.

As A Friend

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Beads of sweat were forming on my hand as I held the warm phone and listened to the rings one by one. RING… I tried staying calm as I waiting for the answer. RING… I looked down at the phone. My finger makes its way to the red button on the right. Should I just press end? RING…

“Hello?” a distant voice answered sounding busy and tired.

I took my finger off the end button. I took a breath, “Hey, its Ari.”

There was a pause, a silence that seemed to last hours. Did he hang up? Was he that angry? Were my actions that bad?

“Yeah, I know,” he finally answered.

“I was calling to say -” I began, as I paced to the other side of the room.

“Well, you don’t have to,” he interrupted quickly, sounding sharp. I bit my lip anxiously. Did I really hurt him that much?

“Listen, I want to talk,” I persisted, something inside pushing me further.

Again there was the empty silence. I ran my fingers through my hair, the gel beginning to fall in the front. My breathing was getting heavier.

“I’m sorry, Yehuda!” I quickly added trying to sound gentle but only coming across as violent.

“Sorry isn’t -” he interjected in a harsh voice he never used before. Was this the same guy who was my best friend in Junior High?

“Look, I want to talk it over,” I interrupted. I had to apologize to my old friend who had chosen the right path, the school’s prize masmid, while I spent my high school years in the halls and principal’s office. “I know sorry won’t help. It won’t fix anything.”

“Then don’t say it,” he snapped. “I’m busy now.” Now I was getting frustrated myself. Couldn’t he give me a minute? I wanted to work out my mistake so we could continue – the way it should be.  He sounded heartless as he bluntly ended, “I don’t have the time to talk right now.”

“Dude, I want to talk it out,” I insisted. “We’ve got to work it out!”

“Hello, I really don’t have the time right now,” he almost shouted but with a slight trace of anxiety in his voice. In the background there were rushed voices calling his name. He reluctantly concluded, “I’ll try to call you back later.”

“Can we just talk now?” I asked, my patience failing. I didn’t hear an answer. There was no answer. He had hung up.

I threw my phone down onto my bed, cracking my knuckles and cursing under my breath. I sat down and shoved my hand into my pocket, fishing for the pack of cigarettes I had grown addicted to during the recent turn of events.  I clamped the poisonous thing between my teeth, lit it, and breathed in what could potentially kill me. Slowly I let memories float back into my mind.

 

After spending my parent’s money in Eretz Yisroel during my free, post high school years, while not actually learning, I once again bumped into my old friend. Our lives had grown hopelessly different, and I had never expected to speak with Yehuda Cohen again. In a small summer community, hidden in the Catskill Mountains there was no way for our paths not cross. Polite “hellos” and friendly handshakes soon became forced nights together. Because his mother was in her final stages of cancer, he would often confide in me. I thought he was looking for a friend, but sometimes, from the tone of voice, the way he avoided my eye and only wanted to talk about his problems I felt that I was merely a guy for him to talk to.

Meekly he approached me after Maariv, “Have a minute?” he finally spit out. I nodded, and we moved to the side of the entranceway in the old shul.

            “What’s up?” I asked.

            He gulped awkwardly, “I know you’ve got a lot going on.” I waited for him to continue. “Look, I need your help.”

            I asked in a confused tone, “Help?”

            “I need help,” his voice was hardly audible.

            I furrowed my eyebrows. “Help?” I repeated.

            “As a friend…” he croaked pleadingly.

            I couldn’t tell where this was coming from, but all at once the bottled up feelings I had kept corked up spilled out. Was it anger? Maybe I was just so tired of hearing these loathsome stories? I just couldn’t hold back the words I had never thought to say.

 “Friends?” I asked. “We’re friends? We were friends in seventh grade, but that’s over now. You chose to lose touch with me.” I glanced at him. “Wait, do you think we’re friends? I thought we were but the last few nights… I don’t know. Friends? That was years ago. We’re not friends now.”

Being the Best, Being Me

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

I am the best! You are the best too! There were over 600,000 neshamos at Har Sinai, and each one was different. In order to be inspired to grow we must sense the best in ourselves; in order to be a mentch we must see the best in others.

Success for every person is different because every individual is a world unto himself. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 37a tells us, “ Man was created alone in order to teach that destroying one life is tantamount to destroying an entire world, and sustaining one life is tantamount to sustaining an entire world.” When we recognize that each person is special, unique and a world unto himself, then we have helped “create” his world.  An empowering teacher and parent makes each child feel like he is “the best,” special and unique in his own way, even among many classmates or siblings.

Our schools and families have become dens of competition, whereby we use “cookie cutter” techniques in an attempt to generate success, instead of nurturing the child based on what makes him unique and special. Every child must feel that his parent loves him the most and every student must feel that as well. We honor the child who is smart and gets good grades. Oftentimes, however, the children with poor grades deserve equal or more praise. The child who is naturally bright and gets straight A’s feels good about school and learning because he is good at it; he receives the accolades and is honored as valedictorian. How about the child who is not academically gifted and would naturally get a 40% on his test, yet he exerts himself and earns a 60%… gets tutored and puts forth supernatural effort and gets an 80%? Does he not deserve an award and our praise for his accomplishments? If he stretched himself and expended his greatest effort to earn that 80, shouldn’t he earn that same recognition? I believe that in the eyes of Hashem, he too is valedictorian; shouldn’t we feel the same?

During a recent visit to a school, I noticed the bulletin boards in the hallway proudly displaying row after row of tests with marks of 100%. What message does that give to the child who tried his hardest and earned an 80%?  Maybe he deserves at least the same or more praise as the bright child who achieved 100% with minimal effort? When a teacher returns the marked tests, congratulating the children who earned high grades, while allowing the students to see the low grades of others as the tests are passed to the students, he has “created” the world of the high achievers while destroying the world of those who did not numerically succeed.

We learn this important lesson from Nachshon ben Aminadav. He is eternally respected for jumping into the Sea, resulting in its splitting. According to the Midrash, the Red Sea was predestined to split from the time of its creation. Even though it was destined to split on its own, Nachshon, unaware of the destiny of the Red Sea, gets credit for splitting it. Let us ask ourselves—had 12 people demonstrated bravery by jumping into the sea, would they have also received the same level of acclaim? The answer is yes, a lesson that is also taught by Nachson. When Nachshon and every other Nasi brought korbanos, the Torah lists each and every one of korbanos, even though they were all essentially the same. The Torah is conveying the lesson that each person can achieve personal greatness, even if many individuals are doing the same good deed. Each person brings his own intentions, thoughts, and personal challenges to the situation, and the same act, regardless of how many times it has been achieved by others, is a meaningful accomplishment for each person who does it. When a child comes home from school with a 95%, his success should be celebrated regardless of his class rank and how many other students achieved that score—because he is special! The Rambam teaches in Hilchos Teshuvah (5:2) that each of us can be as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest leader! Righteousness is developed by overcoming the challenges we encounter in life; in our own unique ways, we can achieve personal greatness.

An individual, with his infinite value, has the capability of sustaining the entire world by refining his character and actions. The ego concept of “Bishvili nivra ha’olam,” that “the world was created for me,” is only half the truth. The world was also created for everyone else and we should try to make others feel that the world revolves around them as well. When I make a bracha on a piece of fruit, I could enhance the experience by thinking how special it was that Hashem made this beautiful fruit for me. Even better–if I cut the fruit in half and share it with you, allowing my special world and your unique world merge for one special moment. Eating an apple gives one enjoyment for a few minutes; sharing it with others creates an eternal chesed. Greatness isn’t “having” more; it means making other feel like more. Every child should feel that he is “the best,” with the security of knowing that it is okay if everyone else is also “the best.” I was once privileged to drive Rav Elya Svei zt”l home from a Torah U’Mesorah convention, planning to sleep in a motel after bringing him home. After dropping off his bags at 5:00 a.m. I headed back to my car. He asked me to wait, and the elderly Torah giant prepared a bed for me and insisted that I sleep over.  More than 20 years later, I still feel the warmth of the bed and the breakfast that he later prepared for me. Greatness is giving to others in a way that makes them feel special.

Landscapes for Humanity: Paintings by Batya F. Kuncman

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

Congregation Rodeph Shalom

615 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123

Monday – Thursday 10 – 4pm; Friday 10 – 2pm (215 627 6747)

info@rodephshalom.org  Until November 22, 2010

 


The world is complicated.  Surely it seems that Divine justice is elusive.  God’s role is frequently masked and our human situation is terribly fragile. Yet according to artist Batya F. Kuncman our condition is “most promising.”  Her optimistic artwork is designed to illuminate this shadowy nature of our existence and strives for clarity and ultimate closeness to God.  In “Landscapes for Humanity,” currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, images of infants are the tools she uses to explicate her belief.


In this highly original series of 12 paintings, created over the last four years, she has explored the vicissitudes of the human condition through the dual lens of Torah and human infancy.   Her exploration has been shaped by the narrative of the Garden of Eden and a belief that each baby she depicts is a unique being, echoing the Torah view that “each soul is an entire universe.”  The very nature of an infant is that it has unlimited potential that, once applied to a specific conceptual premise, can generate an extremely fruitful artistic expression.

 

 


Offering (2010) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

 

 

The complexity of each image is immediately apparent in the signature painting of the exhibition, Offering (2010).  The reference is to the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) with the emphasis on Isaac’s strength of faith and courage, in conjunction with Abraham’s quality of kindness which he seemingly forced himself to overcome to obey God.  We find these notions in the kabalistic structure of the s’firot and the artist relies on them to contextualize her paintings.  This amazing child-Isaac is seen from above reaching up toward us and the heavens beyond, filled with optimism and strength.  What is immediately apparent is the disjunctive scale of the giant baby in relation to the islands and turquoise green seas behind him.  He looms gigantic in size, and in importance, as this 4 x 6 foot painting demands our understanding that this most primal offering defines all subsequent attempts to draw close to our Creator.

 

 



Believer (2010) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

 

Initially more modest, Believer (2010) lures us into a child-like view of the universe.  A little babe is standing chest-deep in what appears to be a river, transfixed by an orange butterfly fluttering just out of reach.  The innocent child reaches up attempting to grasp at the elusive creature or perhaps to set it on its journey of freedom.  And therein lies the tension and mystery of Jewish prayer.  The artist maintains that we must see this image as an expression of Hannah’s seminal prayer (1 Samuel: 1:10).  Indeed the methodology of “service of the heart” is her gift to us, captured in the image of a child grasping at the wonder of a fleeting creature.  Our attempt to connect with the Divine is elusive and filled with wonder, just as this child grasps and yet does not connect.  Prayer is mysterious.


While these oil paintings are extremely realistic, the children and their surroundings rendered with startling detail, they are actually highly conceptual works of art deeply dependent upon biblical texts and explanations to properly contextualize the images.  Their meanings are only discernable in the interplay between text, image and concept as supplied by the artist along with her artworks.

 

 


The Great Communicator (detail – 2006) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

 

Kuncman ups the ante in The Great Communicator, a startling image of a full figured infant on a sandy seashore.  His hands are held together in concentration as he tilts his enormous head to glance at the viewer. Behind him is a rich green ocean as the presence of Divine authority that supports this powerful infant.  This child, surely inarticulate and yet intrinsically filled with wisdom and strength, represents no less than King Solomon, the paragon of all human wisdom.  And yet, this child carries his kingly burden without a care, filled with humility. In his dream Solomon responds to God’s offer of limitless bounty with modest insight; “I am but a little child therefore give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, to distinguish between good and evil (1 Kings 3:7).”  More than any of the other images, this brown-eyed child looks us right in the eyes, his penetrating gaze searching out our understanding and intentions.  Will we respond to his needs as he grows and assure that he reaches his full potential?  The answer and outcome is surely in our hands.


As is more than obvious, the Israeli born Kuncman’s work as a conceptual artist is far-reaching.  She considers herself a multidisciplinary artist and two works she is currently showing in the Hartford, CT exhibition “Seduced by the Sacred” (Charter Oak Cultural Center, www.charteroakcenter.org, until November 22) validate that claim.   These manipulated photographs introduce Torah texts into the very fabric of life.  Sacred Ground is simply an image of an Israeli beach that fills most of the rectangle, surmounted by a thin strip of sea and a narrow expanse of cloud-filled blue sky at the top.  Then you notice the text faintly written in the sand, the first two paragraphs of the Shema written in formal Torah letters.  Once you understand what the text reads the artwork leaps alive; image, text and title percolating into a new meaning of how Eretz Yisroel is literally infused with the holy script.

 

 


LeAhava, photograph by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Charter Oak Cultural Center

 

Her companion photograph, leAhava, reveals a similar meaning in a shockingly personal way.  We see a close-up of one person’s left eye.  The eye is open looking straight at the viewer, framed by its upper and lower lids.   Irregular eyelashes punctuate the exposed eyeball.  Only once you notice the Torah letters inscribed neatly across the light brown iris does the image become considerably more than a portrait of one eye.  Indeed in making out the text one can only see a cropped view of three lines of the second paragraph of the Shema.  While leAhava is legible as is most of naf’shehem only a bit of d’ganechha appears around the lower edge.  Somehow this bizarre image concretizes the realization of how we indeed internalize the words of Torah and how deep within us our acceptance of mitzvos should and can be.  Here the text operates as an engine of meaning, proclaiming that the commandment to love God (l’Ahava) must infuse our very souls (nafshehem) and to do so results in our sustenance (diganechha).  The experience of realizing what the artist is getting at is electrifying.  In one image she has restated the fundamental meaning of this essential Torah passage.


By insisting on linking the power of the visual image with complexities of sacred text, literally brought into the image, Kuncman has raised the dialogue between the observant community and the visual arts to a new level of sophistication.  Once the text operates this way, as partner to the visual, it cannot be relegated to the role of ancillary reference.  Similarly the visual cannot operate as mere illustration of sacrosanct holy writ.  Both elements are forced to work together, commenting on and strengthening each other in a powerful visual/textual partnership.  The new and exciting meanings that come out of this union are part of the inspired future of Jewish art.


 

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/landscapes-for-humanity-paintings-by-batya-f-kuncman-2/2010/11/03/

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