Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Don’t Forget That Bugs and Birds Were Created Before You

The fourth portion of Leviticus, Tazria/Conceives, is read from the Torah scroll on Shabbat, April 9, 2016.

See “Don’t Blame the Bugs,” the blog post in which my wife Miriam and I link this Torah portion to our life together in our “Torah Tweets” blogart project: .

My new book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life offers the background for the “Torah Tweets” blogart project that explores the interface between the biblical narrative, the wisdom of kabbalah, and digital technologies. It demonstrates how to create a blog by photographing God revealed in everyday life while crafting a dialogue between the blogger’s story and the biblical story. See praise for my book at


Tazria/Conceives (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

“When a woman conceives and gives birth.” (Leviticus 12:2)

“Just as the creation of human beings follows that of all of the animals, so Torah laws pertaining to humans follow those of animals.” (Rashi on Leviticus 12:2)

In last week’s portion, we learned about all kinds of animals, permissible and forbidden. Tazria begins with laws about human behavior.

Humans following after animals remind us when we become too proud that even the gnats preceded us in both creation and legislation.

Unlike gnats, cockroaches and sowbugs that can do no wrong, human beings have free will to choose between right and wrong.

Don’t blame bugs for bugging up the works. They’re innocent. Like computer bugs, people mess up their lives by their inner failings.

There are two faces of humanity (Adam in Hebrew). Adam is formed from the dust of the earth (adamah). He is lower than bugs.

On the other hand, Adam is created in the divine image to be God’s partner in the ongoing process of creation (adameh – resembling God).

“If a man wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must be a creator of worlds. If a man never creates, never brings into being anything new, anything original, then he cannot be holy unto his God.” (Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man)

A few months ago, we saw artist Eva Avidar (Mel’s colleague at Emuna College) studying cockroaches under a magnifying glass in her studio.


We marveled at her creation of a ceramic cockroach, the highlight of the Biennale of Israeli Ceramics at the Eretz Israel Museum.

The roach, helpless on its back, light pulsating from its eyes, reminded us of the man who turns into a cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

For Mel’s 60th birthday, Miriam made him a large ceramic sowbug. The ecology of sowbugs was the subject of Mel’s research as a biologist.



This post begins with the “Torah Tweets” for the Torah portion Tazria that tells us not to forget that bugs were created before human beings. It continues below describing the spiritual power of communicating with an avian species created a day before humans, on the same day as bugs.

“Flying creatures shall fly over the land, on the face of the heavenly sky…. It was evening and morning, the fifth day.” (Genesis 1:20, 23)


Miriam and I were standing on a windswept hillside on the edge of the Galilee town of Tzfat at the gravesite of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as The Ari, one of the greatest kabbalists of the past millennia. I copied the eulogy written by his student, Chaim Vital, inscribed on a standing marble slab. It said that The Ari was filled with Torah like a pomegranate and that he was expert in conversing with birds and angels.

My description of my conversation with a barn swallow is adapted from the “Learning through Awesome Immersion” sub-chapter in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersection of Art, Science, Technology and Culture (intellect Books/University of Chicago Press)

My integration of art and science had its origins in the summers of my childhood when I was set free among the sowbugs, salamanders, and swallows of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. I filled my days studying the behavior of the creatures of the forests and ponds and making drawings and paintings of them interacting in their natural habitats as well as in imaginary worlds of my creation. Intellectual curiosity and zealous observation coupled with creative encounters and intimate friendships with these creatures made boundaries between science and art diaphanous. I had no clue that science and art were not one integrated human endeavor.

As I lifted a log beside a pond deep in the forest, I saw salamanders and centipedes scramble as sowbugs stopped in their tracks to roll up into compact balls. A barn swallow swooped down over the pond with lightning speed skimming the water’s surface to snag a fly on wing. With a swift maneuver of its slate grey wings my avian friend flashed the splendor of his orange breast feathers as he soared up across the pond and lighted on my shoulder.

I first saw this magnificent bird as a limp, featherless, bleeding swallow chick that had fallen from its nest in the eaves of my neighbor Ben’s barn. I gently lifted it, cradled it in my palm, and took it home to live in a shoebox in my bedroom. As I painted mercurochrome on its cut that matched its red skin, it opened its flat yellow beak chirping for food. My sister Fran named it Peeper. We read in the encyclopedia that swallows ate bugs rather than seeds like our canary. We spent our days catching flies, small moths, and crickets and digging for worms to feed the insatiable appetite of our small friend as his wound healed.

My drawings of Peeper documented his down growing to cover his nakedness and the splendid sprouting of his feathers. As flying lessons, I would hold him high above my bed and drop him. Days of plopping down onto my bed unaware of the function of his wings inspired me to make imaginary paintings of him flying free. He learned quickly once he discovered what wings were for. What an awesome sight to see him fly through the house at lighting speeds making ninety degree turns around corners. This sleek swallow soon learned to exit from my bedroom window, soar up to towards the clouds and swoop down to the pond behind our house where Fran and I swam with the newts, frogs, and minnows. Our utter amazement at seeing the graceful flight of our wounded swallow was transformed into joy each night when he would fly back to roost on the edge of the shoebox by my bed.

Although I enjoyed making drawings and paintings, I sensed that my artwork of greater significance was the actual act of nurturing a swallow chick on the verge of death and participating in its transformation into a beautiful bird of swift undulating flight. In his book The Blurring of Art and Life, Allan Kaprow contrasts art-like art to life-like art. My life-like art was living with a swallow. My art-like art was documenting my life with a swallow as well as imagining how it could be. My life-like art seemed to reach a higher spiritual plane than my art-like art. Perhaps the biblical injunction against making graven images is a warning to avoid freezing the wondrous and mysterious flow of living life into a static still life, nature morte, dead life.

Albert Einstein proposes in his book The World as I See It that the miraculous encounter with the mysteries of our physical world is the fairest thing we can experience.

“It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer feel amazement is a good as dead, a snuffed-out candle…. But the Jewish tradition also contains something else, something which finds splendid expression in many of the Psalms – namely, a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world, of which man can form just a faint notion. It is the feeling from which true scientific research draws its spiritual sustenance, but which also seems to find expression in the song of birds.”

Daily joy and amazement formed the core of my integral summer learning that was lost in my winter learning in the dreary grayness of Queens. What my winter school in the city forced into distinctly different disciplines had been integrally one in my summer learning in the Catskill Mountains. Thinking the world apart rather than experiencing it holistically broke my soul apart. My soul-soaring summers immersed in creative art-science learning developed into my adult work as biologist and artist.

This experience of awesome immersion in the creative process is powerfully expressed by Abraham Isaac Kook, a down-to-earth mystic who served as Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel during the first half of the 20th century:

“Whoever is endowed with the soul of a creator must create works of imagination and thought, for the flame of the soul rises by itself and one cannot impede it on its course…. The creative individual brings vital, new light from the higher source where originality emanates to the place where it has not previously been manifest, from the place that ‘no bird of prey knows, nor has the falcon’s eye seen.’ (Job 28:7), ‘that no man has passed, nor has any person dwelt’ (Jeremiah 2:6).”

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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