Illuminating Psalm 8 and Human Intellect

I invite you to consider the words of Psalm 8:

For the leader, on the gittith. A psalm of David.
2 Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name throughout the earth,
You who have covered the heavens with Your splendor!
3 From the mouths of infants and sucklings
You have founded strength on account of Your foes,
to put an end to enemy and avenger.
4 When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place,
5 what is man that You have been mindful of him,
mortal man that You have taken note of him,
6 that You have made him little less than divine,
and adorned him with glory and majesty;
7 You have made him master over Your handiwork,
laying the world at his feet,
8 sheep and oxen, all of them,
and wild beasts, too;
9 the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea,
whatever travels the paths of the seas.
10 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name
throughout the earth!

Psalm 8 (Hebrew), from I WIll Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, by Debra Band (JPS, 2007)
Psalm 8 (Hebrew), from I WIll Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, by Debra Band (JPS, 2007)
Psalm 8 (English) from I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, by Debra Band (JPS, 2007)
Psalm 8 (English) from I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, by Debra Band (JPS, 2007)

Like many Americans, like many committed American Jews and lovers of Israel, I am deeply troubled by the results of this past week’s US presidential election. Now, whether or not the election results please you, please hear me out—I offer you here not a screed against the new president-elect, but a plea to exercise God-given honest, critical thought as you consider and participate in American politics…. whomever the candidates may be. As many commentators, Democratic and Republican alike, have observed, one of the one of the most frightening aspects of this painful and divisive campaign was  the propensity of much of the US public to look no deeper than slogans—demanding no policy track record, scant policy proposals, no familiarity with the complex workings of government—to choose the person who will exert more influence over the future of our planet than any other single individual. Given the nature of the courts, the crucial climate decisions at hand, the new president’s influence will last far beyond his own years in office. Psalm 8, one of my favorites in this extraordinary literature, and important in both Jewish and Christian liturgical traditions, offers us, I believe, a path to understanding our responsibility in the world around us.

The Psalmist extols humankind’s privileged position within Creation, recognizing that only the supreme might of the Creator could be powerful enough not only to draw the universe from nothingness, but also to create humankind, “a little less than divine . . . adorned . . . with glory and majesty.”  To me, it is our intelligence, our ability to analyze problems, make our own decisions and implement them that is the unique divine gift to homo sapiens, an overall intelligence surpassing any known among other animals, that makes us “a little less than divine.”

My illuminated paintings of this poem express the Psalmist’s awe at humanity’s remarkable intellectual powers—the power to understand the world, the power to appreciate and articulate our own position in Creation—even given that we mortals are a mere shadow of the all-encompassing supremacy of the Divine, symbolized here by the surrounding cosmos.

Psalm 8 (Hebrew), from I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms by Debra Band, 2007
Psalm 8 (Hebrew), from I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms by Debra Band, 2007

On the Hebrew illumination at left, the expanding star pattern is composed of whirling triangular deltas, the Greek letter used in scientific notation to symbolize change. I introduce the delta to symbolize humanity’s unique potential to learn about the world, to probe the innermost secrets of life as well as the most expansive views of the universe, to evolve an understanding of the laws and environment within which humankind exists.

Each layer of the star celebrates a different aspect of humanity’s God-given powers. The uppermost delta presents the text of the psalm itself.

The second-level delta presents images that probe the DNA molecule, the chemical basis that defines all life forms. The angle at upper right presents the double-helix pattern of the DNA molecule itself as well as a depiction of an individual chromosome; this delta’s two opposing corners present (at left) an electron microscopy image of high-density liquid crystalline DNA, and (lower right) an image of DNA phase transition.

The third layer introduces imagery drawn from modern astrophysics. The red-barred gray angle at upper left presents the celebrated image of the cosmological three-degree background microwave radiation through which, in 2003, astrophysicists dated the Big Bang and thus determined the age of the universe, part of the work which won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006. At center right is an image of a star cluster and nebula, at lower left, a Hubble Space Telescope image of a star formation area in a gas cloud.

The fourth delta includes three images of Earth’s surface produced by the Earth Observing Satellite (EOS): clockwise from top right, they include the Ganges River Valley, the Himalayas, and the Mississippi River Delta.

All of these images are the fruits of human intelligence—the sciences and engineering that blossomed from Enlightenment rationalism and that grew so rapidly through our lifetimes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And yes, all the splendor of mankind’s wondrous achievements and gifts is surrounded by the Almighty, perceptible in the very existence of the cosmos, but it is through the special gift of intellectual powers (yes, grouped with our opposable thumbs and upright posture) that we probe our place in the cosmos.

Psalm 8 (Hebrew) from I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms by Debra Band
Psalm 8 (Hebrew) from I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms by Debra Band

The English text of the psalm is surrounded by imagery of human intellect expressed in the arts. The border in celestial blue and gold presents an image of a mosaic, an art form in which the artist must artificially break down the image in his/her mind  into discrete bits of stone or tile in such a way that the tiles recreate the image, similar to the way our computers digitize continuous images. This “mosaic” carries two great statements of humanity’s amazement at its own brilliance. The Greek passage is drawn from Sophocles’ Antigone, strophe 1 of the first Chorus: “Many wonders there be, but naught more wondrous than man.” The English passage is Miranda’s cry of delight in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Tempest:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t! (act 5, scene 1)

How beauteous, indeed, is humanity — but how much mightier is the Almighty who bestows our gifts. Like the psalmist, I pray that we will find a way of cherishing, not dismissing, our God-given human intelligence, as we pursue—each in our own way—our responsibility for tikkun olam, the perpetual healing of the world. I pray that we will move beyond gullibility and slogans, to use our most demanding analytical skills to assess and respond to our governments’ performance, to assess and respond to public actions by all in our communities, to contribute to the public good ourselves. Only by using this special divine gift, by demanding intellectual honesty and true humanity from all around us can we truly care for this brilliant world that the Divine has given into our hands.

If you would like to acquire one of the last remaining new copies of I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, please visit my on-line gallery shop, where you will also find links to limited edition prints of my paintings (please e-mail me to dband@dbandart.com for Psalm 8), and my new book, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification.

Credits

Illuminations of Psalm 8 by Debra Band, taken from I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, by Debra Band (Jewish Publication Society, 2007).

English translation of Psalm 8 is taken from the JPS TANAKH (1985), used with permission of the Jewish Publication Society.

Please see I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms for all other references and sources.

About the Author
Debra Band’s works include illuminated books, ketubot and other artwork. She exhibits and lectures across the English-speaking world. Her celebrated books, fusing scholarship with fine art, illuminate the Song of Songs, Psalms, biblical women’s stories;the Friday night liturgy and customs, and her adaptation of the medieval classic, Perek Shira, All the World Praises You: an illuminated Aleph-Bet book (July 15, 2018).
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