Instinct of Soul
During the last 75 years, which is three generations’ path that includes an immediate family nucleus of parents, children and grandparents, most of us if not all of us ever live in such weird reality as we were in the year 5780 which is about to end for Jews soon. We will be still living in this new reality for some part, at least, of the new coming year 5781.
Can people get used to what we are experiencing now: isolation and self-isolation, confinement in many senses of the word, constant fear of getting infected or that your loved ones might be, the abrupt end of many of us normal functioning? I do not think so.
What do we do? We are self-hypnotised by waiting for the vaccine to be developed and approved, but we do know that even with it, it is a long way for our lives to get back to normal. If it would return to pre-covid state fully.
Never before during the period that each of us can remember, our expectations for the New Year were so high. It is so very tempting to close one’s eyes, to pray with one’s all fervor, and to expect that on the day opening the new year for us, on the First Day of the new year, our worries will be gone, and we will be rewarded by the return to our normalities. If only.
Many of us have our ‘own’ synagogue in heart which is with us always. Some lucky ones have several of them. I have two, Ari’s Synagogue in Safed and Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. This year, the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem would be closed for High Holiday for the first time during its existence, since 1958. It is almost all my life. It put a wreckage into my heart.
Still, we do hope. I have an university degree in biology and philosophy, and am professionally working in the field of psychology all my life. Despite these facts, I tend to classify hope as a specific human instinct. And I believe that this ‘instinct’ is the one of the strongest indicators of beauty and nobility of human soul.
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Many of us have our spiritual routine prior to Rosh HaShanah, making our personal annual checks and ‘inventories’ . Does it help to enter every next Rosh HaShanah in a better and more promising moral shape? Hopefully, yes. Because it is natural psychologically, to count your own pros and contras, and to think on the balance, and there is no other way of achieving it. Who can possibly do it better for a person than a person him- or herself?
That’s why, because of our all’ probably not the best possible balances, Rosh HaShanah is regarded as a solemn day among our holidays, more heavier one than Yom Kippur.
The one of the core reasons for that is quite a heavy luggage of choices that we have made in the passing year.
Contrary to hope, choice is not an instinct. It is a work of one’s several key faculties: heart, brain, soul, conscience and sometimes, sub-conscience, but intellect and will decides. It is probably the most serious work to which we all are exposed to during all our lives.
Philosophy of Choices
Uniqueness of the first Rosh HaShanah
I tried to analyse it in an artistic way, as well, while creating my The Light of the First Day series. Interestingly, after completing the series, and starting to write the essays for each work there, I understood that this is also about Philosophy of Choices. Not only what, but also what for. Not only why, but also what are the expectations. Not only what were the circumstances, but what are the consequences.
I was interested to see how the most important phenomena in Jewish universe, along with their intellectual content, could be expressed artistically. That was my main drive in creating this special series.
Some of the works have direct connection to Rosh HaShanah, and can perhaps illustrate it in this new way.
The matter of light and darkness in Jewish tradition have one principal difference from many other traditions. We are dealing with light not like with a substance however revered it can be, but like with a condition for life. Predominant condition, and this is a fundamental principle and qualified difference.
The matter of darkness is of such importance that the one of the most touching episodes in the Talmudic writings which is far from being sentimental in a whole, tells about unique Rosh HaShanah, the first one. Was it unique because it was the first? – one might think, with a solid justification for the thought. Was it because the first Rosh HaShanah coincided, not by chance, of course, with the first Shabbat? That would be another substantial reason for such a conclusion. But no, there is something else.
Distinguished collection of aggadic midrash Pesikta Rabbati reveals why the first Rosh HaShanah and the first Shabbat were unique. As Adam was created on Rosh HaShanah, and on the first Shabbat, the Creator was wary that Adam never saw and experienced darkness. In a charming and so very modern – and resonating to us right now and right here – way, our sages wrote back in 835 CE that “ as Adam had never seen the darkness, the God did not want to cause him distress” and “kept the daylight during the first Shabbat and first Rosh HaShanah extra twelve hours by holding back the darkness during that time” ( Pesikta Rabbati, 46:1). Rashi mentions this first Shabbat often in his various commentaries, being clearly captivated by long-lasting effect of it.
So what an awful stress, what an irreversible punishment it was for Adam when, after the end of the First Shabbat, he was expelled from Eden following his own, personal choice. My work Adam’s Exit I is an artistic rendition on that most formative moment in the history of mankind.
While in Eden, Adam and Eve were enjoying not just a mighty, beautiful and sustaining light. According to our Sages, Eden was filled with a special light, different one from the light produced by the sun that appeared during the process of Creation. That special light known as Primordial Light, or The Light of the First Day, is what I call the formulation of light as a life-condition in the essential concept of Judaism. It also spreads from purely theological meaning into its philosophical category and further on, into the metaphor which is possible to interpret artistically, as well.
So, on his way out of Eden, Adam was losing that light, that force of sustenance. Perhaps, it can be compared with the process of us breathing normally without noticing and appreciating an oxygen in the air, until the moment when due to various circumstances, we found ourselves in an oxygen deficiency.
Exiting Eden, Adam was losing the joy and assurance of light behind. He was entering the lower world, our world in which light is not provided for granted. The world in which there is a lot of darkness that can prevail sometimes, quite regularly, as we know. The world in which one has to put a conscious effort in order to get the light and to keep it on.
These efforts of ours, since Adam’s coming to this world, and he was trying hard after the Exit, are illustrated in the second part of Adam’s Exit diptych. To the best of our intentions, the light that we produce and are trying to keep, is still only a part, if not a fracture, of the world around us. This light is the fruit of our choices and our various labours, including the labours of heart, mind, soul and will.
Continuity of the Light
When Adam was about to be expelled from Eden, following the Creator’s order, angel Raziel gave him a precious stone known in the Jewish literature as Tzohar. There are different views among the sages and commentators on the purpose of supplying Adam with the Tzohar while expelling him from Eden. The version which comes most often, almost automatically, if I may, is the one that says that it has been done with the purpose for Adam and Eve ‘to know what they have lost’ .
I prefer the other version that says that Tzohar was given to Adam ‘as the sign of the Creator’s Mercy’, according to Midrash Aggada. To me, it comes in more organic logic with the previous gracious gesture of the Creator to guard Adam from darkness just after his creation.
The story of Tzohar is beautiful as it transmits hope and draws a great line of continuity of Light in the Jewish spiritual tradition. From our scriptures, we are reading about the transfer of Tzohar throughout the generations, from Adam until Joseph. There are also beautiful similar and aiming the same purpose stories about giant pearl shining in a miraculous way owned by Jonah, and that precious oval stone owned by Ha’Ari HaKadosh, the genius of Kabbalah teaching.
In the Torah, word ‘tzohar’ appears just once, in the unmistaken context in the parasha ( chapter) Noach when the Creator commands Noah to take it with him into the Arch. Although, according to Rashi, the translation of the word differs among the commentators, the consensus is that the Tzohar was the thing which enlighten the space inside the Arch and which did help to Noach to distinguish day and night in the clear way: when the stone and the light it produced was dim, Noach knew that it was a day, and when it was shining stronger, Noach knew that it was a night.
The special qualities of the Tzohar did help all of our Forefathers in their own daring circumstances, but most importantly, it was a precious instrument of the continuity of the Light and the embodiment of our integral connection to that primary Light, the Light of the First Day. To this day, Tzohar is the symbol of our direct connection with uniqueness and ultimately good nature of our human origin. Even if metaphorically. Especially if metaphorically.
There is no coincidence in the almost identical name of the main text of Jewish mysticism, Zohar, with the name of the precious stone with which Adam was entrusted to travel to this World, Tzohar. In my artwork, I imagined the Tzohar as having many facets, thus being an eternal counter-point of the principle of light, and a sort of celestial ‘instrument’ for our navigation between Light and Darkness. Such navigation is always individual, and the circumstances of life and times differs too, that’s why the Tzohar in my interpretation is faceted, with various reflections in different facets. The echo of the light of the original Tzohar story is shown in the work by the traces of the precious light which are always present even in the dimness. One just needs to be willing and able to seeing and recognise it.
Why is Judaism able to provide people with such incredibly resourceful spirituality that it is able to strengthen people in all possible and impossible ways as we know from all our history, from Masada to the Inquisition, and from Shoah to the fight for Jerusalem in 1967? Most importantly, because it is based on the positive qualifications of human behaviour. But also because it has additional resources of inventive thinking, paradoxical in form and doubly-efficient in its outcome.
The best illustration of such a strengthening paradox of Judaism is the views of our Sages on darkness as a philosophical concept. There is a very interesting reading of possible origination of the light brought to this World by Adam from two special stones that he brought with him from Eden. These were ‘the stone of dimness and the stone of darkness’ as it is written in several commentaries deriving from Job ( Job 28:3) and developed further on ( as in Midrash Konen and some others). In this way of thinking, Adam who was putting a conscious extra-efforts in his life after the expulsion from Eden in order to correct his and Eve’s principal sin, was able to transform bad into good, despair into hope. This paradox in fact is a spine in our historically proven ability to prevail.
The same paradoxical finesse is found in Ecclesiastes in its superb comparison between light and darkness: “And I perceived that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness” ( Ecclesiastes 2:13). That principle provided our sages and commentators, as Ramban, Rambam and the others, with a brilliant equipment to explain one of the core postulates of Judaism: that one can appreciate light only by comparison it with darkness. This is what I was pondering about artistically in my work Essence of Darkness. How can we understand darkness without comparing it to light?
Continuing on this logical rope, our Jewish history is a compelling proof that even in the darkest hour, our strength is anchored to this clear psychological disposition: to transform darkness into its opposite. By all means. Despite anything. Always. This is our Jewish imperative in life. I do believe that it is the basic of our personal and national perseverance.
Rosh HaShanah is very much about the ongoing process of relationships between light and darkness, both on individual and collective levels, and Essence of Darkness artwork helps to think about it in a contrasting clarity.
The Light of the First Day
The Light of the First Day in Jewish spiritual literature is a fundamental term describing a fundamental phenomenon. This light is different from the lights of sun and moon. It is a primordial light that in understanding and concept of Jewish mysticism existed prior to the process of Creation. It is possible to say that within this concept, this primordial light was a prerequisite for Creation itself. We find numerous – and varying – definitions of The Light of the First Day all over the Talmud.
In one of such poetic definitions to be found in Zohar, it is said that “ the light of the sun shines like a candle in comparison with the Light of the First Day”.
In the classical understanding of Talmud, also mentioned by Rashi, the predominant Light of the First Day has shrank as the direct result of Eve and Adam’s principal sin, in a classic crime- and-punishment, deed/choice – and circumstance logic.
In my perception, The Light of the First Day is also a great metaphor for the shoreless ocean of our aspirations and good intentions. Sometimes, these intentions are realised, sometimes are not. And again, more often than not, the result of it is the matter or consequence of our choices, decisions, and acts prompted by it.
It is not coincidental that among the three levels of the real functions of the soul, or three garments of the soul, according to the teaching of Rabbi Luria, which are thought, speech and action, a thought – an intention, an idea, an understanding, a quest and an expectation – is prioritised by the towering figures of Judaism thinking as the most important one, and our teachers has emphasised such special phenomenon as ‘power of thought’ ( Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh in numerous of his outstanding works).
In my The Light of the First Day. Before and After diptych I thought to illustrate the transformation and change between the unlimited light of the best intentions and the practical outcome of preserving this light in the real process of our lives, full of unrealised intentions, empty promises, mistakes and wrongdoings. Part II, After, shows what has left from our initial, ideal state of mind in the process of our lives.
The positive thing about it is that some brightness is still present there, and some sparks have appeared at unexpected places, encouragingly. The message of this diptych directs us to ourselves, again: it is up to us, really, how much of that blessing The Light of the First Day would be left for us and those whom we connected to, in the course of our lives, as a consequence of our choices.
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There is no surprise that on such vital and attractive subject as light, especially the mighty and rewarding The Light of the First Day which can be regarded, metaphorically, as a primary condition for decent human existence by Judaism, there was a vivid discussion by the leading sages on what has happened with The Light of the First Day after it seized to be seen ‘from one end of the earth to the other’ as described by Talmud. Did it disappear, G-d forbid? Is it hidden? Where if so? There are many versions of the explanation to that in the Rabbinic literature.
The one of the most beautiful and reassuring ones given in the Zohar tells us that the precious particles of the Light of the First Day went into the words of the Torah, and every word of it contains that magic light of wisdom.
There is no coincidence that in Judaism, light personifies wisdom and wisdom equals light, as we learn from King Solomon onward: “ For a commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light” ( Proverbs, 6:23).
The vision of every word of the Torah enlightened with The Light of the First Day is seen in my The Light of the Torah artwork.
The full The Light of the First Day collection can be seen here.
Let this Light to illuminate every day of forthcoming New Year 5781, despite all and any possible set-backs of covid and anything else, and many years ahead for all of us. Shana Tova u’Metukah.