Moadim L’simcha! Happy Holidays! I hope your holidays are replete with meaningful prayer, lovely sukkot and luscious festive meals with family and friends.
One of the great pleasures of the Jewish festival liturgies is Hallel, the cycle of six consecutive psalms, 113-118, that is sung during shacharit, morning prayers. Each of these poems, like the rest of the 150 Psalms, are complex texts evolved over a centuries-long Temple tradition, and express a wide spectrum of aspects of the love between God and Israel, praises of God, and the divine ability to rescue us from our troubles. I explored many of these themes in my 2007 work, I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, presenting paintings and commentaries interpreting an anthology of 36 of these liturgical poems that form the root, trunk and branch of Jewish and Christian prayer. A full exposition of even these six is far beyond the scope of this essay; however, there is a subtle, but clear path through the Hallel psalms that we can explore here, tracing Israel’s trust in God from the level of the individual, to the nation and to offering its faith to all nations.
Psalm 113 begins the festival Hallel cycle, telling us that the troubled, perhaps humiliated individual may trust that “the Lord … raises the poor from the dust, lifts the needy from the refuse heap to set them with the great,” and finally, reminding us of the divinely-aided births of Isaac and Samuel that echo through the High Holidays, “he sets the childless woman among her household as a happy mother of children. Hallelujah!” The Hebrew painting depicts one man pulling another, crumpled on the ground, up to stand,
while the English painting focuses upon a woman dancing her new baby in the glow of sunset. The golden floral border surrounding each painting offers imagery of caper branches, the same plant that springs from the Western Wall and rocky walls and wadis throughout Israel. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a discussion in which several rabbis compare a small group of plants and animals to qualities of Israel. The last plant they puzzle over is the caper, which was then farmed commercially for its buds, fruits and the green growth tips of its branches. This humble, thorny plant, one rabbi reminded the others, could root in the harshest, rockiest places with neither food nor water, and still flourish, putting forth a fresh bud and blossom daily, with no visible means of support, resembling, he insisted, Israel’s ability to persevere through adversity with only the support of God’s unseen hand. The areas surrounding the arches contains a chaos of Hebrew and English letters highlighting the letters of the words “hallel” and “praise,” alluding to the humanity’s power to celebrate God in human language.
Having established that the individual can trust in divine nurture, in Psalm 114 the psalmist raises his assurances to the national level. Just as in the earlier poem “He raises the poor from the dust…to set them with the great,” here, the enslaved “Israel went forth from Egypt…Judah became His holy one, Israel His dominion.” Just as God nurtures the downtrodden individual, He rescues His nation, Israel. In the illuminations, the verses stream through waters connecting imagery of the two great water miracles of the Torah, alluded to in the Psalm:
the parting of the Red Sea, and the miracle at the Jordan, when God stopped the river’s flow so that the Priests might carry the Ark of the Covenant into the now-passable river, leading the young nation into the Land of Israel. The micrography surrounding the paintings presents verses from the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), that first great water miracle by which God redeemed Israel from slavery.
Lest we forget who brought us out of slavery, in Psalm 115 the Psalmist reminds us, in verses that echo through midrash and folk tale, that pagan idols are nothing more than impotent chunks of stone or wood—that only Israel’s God in heaven can truly bless his own beloved people. Tumbling through the Hebrew painting I show a beaten gold Canaanite female deity figure from Gezer, statues of deities from 34th and 19th century BCE Mesopotamia, and a statuette of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. Opposite, on the English page, the grapes and wheat remind us of divine providence and sanctification, while the almond branch recalls both the miracle by which God told Jeremiah of his election as prophet, and the miracle described in Numbers 17:21-16, when Aaron’s lifeless wooden staff became a flowering almond branch, signaling the authority of his priesthood.
In Psalm 116, the psalmist recognizes that deep pain and fear can exist even in the face of confidence in God’s ultimate providence, that we may need to plead, “O Lord, save my life!”
And, conversely faith persists in the face of torment: “I trust, out of great suffering, I spoke.” I illustrate the persistence of faith in the face of fear with imagery drawn from two of Jewish histories darkest challenges. At the outer edges of the two paintings I offer imagery of a Kiddush cup and Shabbat candlestick, the former used in the Nazi concentration camps by a woman who was later rescued by a Polish woman, the latter made and used by a woman who perished in the Gurs concentration camp in northwestern France.
The image of flaming scrolls is drawn from the tale of the Ten Martyrs, rabbis of the Mishnah who were murdered by the Roman government; Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion was burned wrapped in his own Torah scroll, stuffed with wet wool to prolong his suffering. When his students asked him what he saw in his final moments, he cried out that he saw letters of fire rising to heaven. Yet, despite the darkest terror, Jews “raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of the Lord.”
Having nourished our faith that the Almighty will ultimately redeem, Psalm 117 returns to ecstatic praise of God—now reaching out to all nations to join in radical awe, to use Heschel’s phrase, of Israel’s God. Sheer graphic excitement express the awe and joy of the brief verses, while the gold and graceful curves suggest the brilliance and generosity of Israel’s, indeed the whole world’s, providential God. “Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol Him, all you peoples, for great is His steadfast love toward us;
the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Hallelujah!
Finally, Hallel ends as Psalm 118 retraces the steps of the previous five Hallel psalms, summarizing their themes of God’s lifting up of the downtrodden, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The psalmist reiterates that only Israel’s God has the power and will to rescue us as individuals and as the Nation of Israel— and transports us directly into the Temple. “May he who enters be blessed in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the House of the Lord.”
The illuminations celebrate the victorious entrance into the Temple by imagining the regal portal to the golden house of the divine king. Rising above the smoking ashes of burned thorns symbolizing the fate of Israel’s enemies, two pillars recall the pair of columns named Boaz and Jachin that Solomon erected in front of the Great Hall of the Temple. The columns are decorated with a palm motif adapted from an ivory plaque found in nearby Samaria, contemporary with the
building of Solomon’s Temple, and corresponding to its descriptions in I Kings and II Chronicles. There, sheltered by the wings of the divine presence—now inherited by our synagogues, we “praise the Lord for He is good, His steadfast love is eternal.”
I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms is officially out of print now, but I have a very limited number of copies available, that I would be very happy to sign and dedicate for you. If you live within the continental US, please click here to purchase and e-mail me with your dedication request, otherwise, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Limited edition prints of most images are also available.
Moadim l’simcha and Shabbat shalom,
Psalms translations herein are from the TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation according to the Traditional Hebrew Text (1985), and are used by permission of the Jewish Publication Society.
Copyright © Debra Band 2016. All rights reserved.