I link Balak, the seventh portion of the biblical book Numbers, to the eruv as a conceptual and kinetic art form that symbolizes community honoring individuality. It is read in synagogues in Israel on Shabbat, July 16, 2016, and in USA on July 23, 2016.
The eruv creates a communal public space that permits observant Jews to carry on the Sabbath. Most cities and villages in Israel have an eruv surrounding them constructed of poles linked by a string or wire. Jewish communities in the Diaspora, generally define space by linking things already there, such as telephone lines, electric wires, river banks, and the backs of buildings,
The eruv changes in seven-day cycles like a kinetic artwork. To observant Jews who are carrying, it acquires the properties of a stone wall from sunset on Friday until stars appear in the sky on Saturday night. During the other six days of the week it serves no religious purpose. It is as if it disappears. Although the eruv exists in space and defines it, its actual significance is in time. Like the Sabbath itself, the eruv is architecture in time. The eruv creates a dialogue between the invisible and visible, conceptual and real, space and time.
I first recognized the eruv as conceptual and kinetic art in the 1970s when I was art professor at Columbia University and living in Teaneck, New Jersey. I was on the Eruv Committee of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun building the first eruv in the state. We negotiated with the municipality and the electric and telephone companies to modify their poles in accordance with requirements discussed in the Talmud. In anticipation of other towns’ requests to build an eruv, PSE&G electric company and New Jersey Bell printed “Eruv Forms.” On July 15, 2016, I accessed 19,000 sites when I typed into Google “eruv new jersey.” In 1999, a year after the founding of Google, there were only two sites.
BALAK (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
Balak son of Tzipor was then king of Moab…. He sent emissaries to Bilaam to summon him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt…come and curse this people for me.” Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes and the divine spirit was upon him…. He declaimed his parable and said: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel, stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars by water. Water shall flow from its wells and his seed shall be by abundant waters.” (Numbers 22:4, 5, 6, 24: 2, 3, 5-7)
What is good and what God requires of you: Only to do justly and love kindness and walk humbly with God. (Micha 6:8)
When Solomon, descendant of Ruth the Moabite, was king of Israel, his wisdom linking eruv and n’tilat yadayim elicited Divine rejoicing. (Talmud: Eruvin 21b and Shabbat 14b)
An eruv is a boundary integrating private properties into a joint communal domain that makes life more pleasant for Sabbath observers.
N’tilat yadayim is a hand-washing ritual performed each morning to celebrate the wonder of wakefulness and before meals to sanctify life.
An eruv creates community while n’tilat yadayim is a private act of holding up hands to reveal fingerprints that highlight individuality.
Balak is a descendent of Moab, son of Lot who separated from his uncle Abraham to live in Sodom where contempt for human diversity was policy.
We surrounded a hill at the site of the demolished evil Sodom with an eruv constructed from 7 telephone poles connected by rope lintels.
Along the hill’s ridge, 10 different hand-washing vessels created by Miriam’s students reflected the distinctive vision of each student.
Our environmental artwork teaches that the highest good is reached when we create community that honors what is unique in every person.
Creating community that pays tribute to the emergence of individuality and facilitates its free expression invites God’s highest joy.
Rabbi Avi Weiss points out that we have come full circle. Ruth takes heroic strides to embrace Abraham’s family that Lot had left for Sodom.
ERUV AS CONCEPTUAL AND KINETIC ART
(From the catalog description of my artworks in “The Poetics of the Eruv” exhibition at Yale University Art Galleries as abstracted from my book, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press.)
The significance of King Solomon’s wisdom linking eruv to the hand-washing ritual of n’tilat yadayim appeared to me as I stood in the heat of the day at the lowest spot on Planet Earth, at Sodom, the desolate site of the notorious biblical city of ill fame. Before me was a hill from which two distant purple mountain ranges arose. To the south was Edom, the biblical home of Amalek who attacked and murdered the straggling Israelites. The range to the north was Moav, the birthplace of Ruth, progenitor of kings David and Solomon.
I had been invited to create an environmental artwork at Sodom for the public to see on Purim. Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is a reincarnation of Amalek. Contemplating links between the two biblical books named for women, Ruth and Esther, made it clear to me that my artwork should bring together Sodom and Purim by linking eruv and n’tilat yadayim. Building an eruv is a communal act that creates community while n’tilat yadaim is the private act that highlights individuality revealed in the uniqueness of fingerprints. The denizens both of Sodom and of Haman’s Persia idolized bureaucratic standardization that denied individuality.
I surrounded the hill at Sodom with an eruv constructed from seven telephone poles connected by rope lintels. Ten sawed-down poles were planted along the ridge of the hill. The short poles served as pedestals for ten one-of-a-kind ceramic vessels filled with water for hand washing. From a distance, the vessel-topped poles looked like a minyan, the quorum needed to create a community of worshippers.
I felt on that scorching day at Sodom that my artwork could disarm Amalek and Haman in all their reincarnations; it could teach that the highest good is reached when we create community that honors what is unique about each person. To create community that pays tribute to the emergence of individuality and facilitates its free expression invites God’s greatest joy.
MIAMI BEACH ERUV
The Miami Beach Eruv is the largest environmental sculpture in America that can be perceived as both a kinetic and a conceptual artwork. The Miami Beach Eruv runs for twenty miles around all of Miami Beach. It carries a spiritual message while meandering through the gross material world, passing between the colorfully painted Art Deco buildings on Ocean Drive and the beautiful models sunning themselves on the beach. It is constructed of poles linked by a string. Traffic passes under its string lintel hovering from pole to pole over the causeways to the mainland of North America.
The kinetic eruv changes in seven-day cycles. To observant Jews who are carrying, it acquires the properties of a solid wall from sunset on Friday until stars dot the sky on Saturday night. Although the eruv is visually transparent, it becomes conceptually opaque. Yet during the other six days of the week it serves no halakhic purpose. It is as if it disappears. Although the eruv exists in space and defines it, its actual significance is in time. Like the Sabbath itself, the eruv is architecture in time.
I created a painting of an eruv passing above a generic Art Deco building in Miami Beach. It was exhibited in “The Poetics of the Eruv” at Yale University. A digital version hangs in the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School.