Re’eh/ — See (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) is the Torah portion read in synagogues worldwide on September 3, 2016 that evokes colorful thoughts. This week’s portion is about the special mission of purple people and next week’s portion is about green leaves and photosynthesis.
“See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse…. God has chosen you to be His special treasured people [a purple people] from among all the peoples on the face of the earth.”
A Torah portion named “See” provides me with an ideal opportunity as a visual artist to see colors in it. I have often explored color in my creative work at the intersections of art, science, technology, and Jewish thought and experience. As a science teacher in the 1960’s, I developed experiments on color perception for children that resulted in the publication of my best-selling book Light and Sight. After my aliyah in 1969, I taught at Tel Aviv University where I developed a program “From Science to Art” for the Israel schools and with my wife Miriam created the Center for Creative Learning at University of Haifa, the first open school in Israel. Both offered opportunities to extend experiential learning about color.
I taught an interdisciplinary graduate course “Color” during the four years I was art professor at Columbia University. As research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies the 1980’s, I created a “Torah Spectrograph” that played all the Torah portions as a digital display of colors representing the Hebrew letters according to a kabbalistic schema. It was exhibited in my “LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age” exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum, developed into an environment artwork in the Negev desert, and a hupa wedding canopy in Miami made of colored-glass bands from Psalms that flowed across the bride’s gown with the rotation of the Earth.
I continued to explore color in links between daily life and the biblical narrative though photography and digital poetry in the “Torah Tweets’ blogart project that I created with Miriam http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com and in my newest book Photograph God http://photographgod.com.
“See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse…. God has chosen you to be His special treasured people from among all the peoples on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 11:26, 14:2)
“A special treasured people” in Hebrew, the Bible’s original language, is am segulah. Its masculine form is am segol, “purple people.”
In Evan-Shoshan’s New Hebrew Dictionary, the Hebrew equivalent of Webster and Oxford dictionaries, “purple ink” is dio segulah and purple flowers called violets are “prahim segulim.”
The Jewish People is a Purple People, chosen to teach what every artist knows – that purple emerges from mixing blue with red.
Bringing the blue of sky down into the red (adom) of earth (adamah) lowers spirituality into the earth-bound world of physical reality.
To relate everyday things in our life to the Torah portion Re’eh/See, we photographed purple things jumping out at us in neighborhood stores.
Purple plums in greengrocer Avi’s store. A purple vessel for ritual hand washing before meals in Shimon’s mezuzah and tefillin store.
Purple shirts in Batya’s menswear store. Tinkerbelles in purple boxes in Yosi’s toy store.
Hamsters in purple cages in Liat’s pet shop. And stamps with purple flowers in the post office.
“For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp.” (Deuteronomy 23:15)
The eminent 20th century rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “Judaism does not direct its gaze upward but downward … does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence, nor does it seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality. It fixes its gaze upon concrete, empirical reality permeating every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the factory, the street, the house, the mall, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop of religious life.”
Those who see spiritual sparks emerging from all aspects of their lives are blessed. It is a curse to not to be able to see these sparks.
A Purple People’s role is to reveal holiness in ordinary material experiences, transforming them into moments of spiritual significance.