As we noted last week, Elul is the Jewish month of love—the name itself is an acronym for “ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine,” the celebrated verse in The Song of Songs. Every week as we prepare to welcome the Sabbath Bride, we sing Yedid Nefesh, Soul’s Beloved, a song about many kinds of love shared by God and the soul—always returning to the voice of romantic love. My illuminated paintings of the song from my new book, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification meditate on some of these kinds of love. The full text of the Song of Songs—allegorized in midrash as the love song between God and Israel, held in Kabbalah as the declaration of love among the ten emanations, or sefirot, of God—winds through the two paintings, heightening the romance of this piyyut of human love for the divine.
Atop the Hebrew painting we see an image of a gazelle nestled in the forest floor beside a flowing stream. Drawing upon the manner in which the young lovers of the Song of Songs compare one another to a deer or gazelle, the Jewish poets of medieval Spain, such as Yehuda Halevi, used the delicately lovely animal as a metaphor for both their divine and human beloveds. Here, I depict the human soul as a gazelle, resting safely in the bountiful natural world whose creation we celebrate as Shabbat arrives. The gazelle’s surroundings were inspired by a tiny stream emerging from the rocks and ferns that I spied while walking near my parents’ country home in a northern Vermont forest.
The stream, flowing with the water likened to divine wisdom and Torah, calls to mind Jeremiah’s prophecy, “their soul shall be like a watered garden,”(Jer 31-11); the lover of God thus rests securely within the embrace of the natural world whose physical evolution and biology our God-given wisdom enables us to understand and protect.
The image of a father cradling his baby on the English illumination—that I painted more than a year ago—has suddenly become especially powerful for me, as I now watch my elder son cradling his newborn daughter. The image of a father holding his new baby at the Shabbat table reminds us of our love of our children, our ambition to raise them within Jewish tradition, and the notion of God as the supreme parent. The tiny painting of the text of Aishet Chayil, “A Powerful Woman” to the father’s left suggests the role of the mother, her essential role in child-raising, and her mystical role in conveying divine wisdom into the human realm (and my daughter-in-law will do all of this). The stalk of pink lilies suggests not only the beauty and color appropriate to any well-dressed Shabbat table, but also, as in midrash, the value of the Ten Commandments in the imperfect human world. The two palm trees allude to a passage in Psalm 92, the special Psalm for Shabbat, comparing the righteous person to a tall, straight palm tree, not simply planted in the natural world, but transplanted into and flourishing within the very courts of the Temple.
Palms take on another meaning in these paintings. Both the Hebrew and English illuminations of Yedid Nefesh surround the text with a border of palmettes. This ancient motif, ubiquitous in design across the entire ancient Mediterranean basin, takes on a special meaning in the context of ancient Israel. Kings I and Chronicles mention palmette decorations throughout Solomon’s Temple and palace. The pattern I present here is modeled on an ivory furniture plaque found in Samaria from the period of Solomon’s Temple. Given art history of the era, it is reasonable to wonder whether this pattern is the very one that decorated these great Jerusalem buildings. I introduce this palmette pattern to symbolize the transference of the sanctity of the now-destroyed Temple to the Sabbath home, suffused with love—human and divine.
Follow me in this blog for further adventures exploring the Jewish spirit through visual midrash! Full discussions of the poetry and paintings above may be found in Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, which was just published on September 6, the 3rd of Elul. The book may be purchased at your favorite book source, or by clicking here. You can find out more about my Hebrew illuminated manuscripts and book-talks at www.dbandart.com.
Also—Joanne Palmer of the Teaneck, New Jersey Jewish Standard-Times of Israel has just published an interview with me, and review of Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification! We had a delightful conversation. If you happen to be in Potomac, Maryland on Thursday night, September 15, please join us for the formal book launch event; click here for information.