Mel Alexenberg
Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

The Tenth Commandment: Create Interactive Selfies at MIT

The fifth portion of Exodus, Yitro/Jethro, is read from the Torah scroll on Shabbat, January 30, 2016. In it is the first of the two biblical versions of the Ten Commandments, known in the Hebrew original as Assert Hadibrot, Ten Utterances rather than Commandments.

This post explores the Tenth Utterance, not as a commandment, but as a reward for doing the other nine.  It begins with one of the 52 posts of the Torah Tweets blogart project that my wife Miriam and I created to celebrate our 52nd year of marriage. During each of the 52 weeks of our 52nd year, we posted photographs reflecting our life together with a text of tweets that relates the weekly Torah reading to our lives.  See how Miriam and I link the Torah portion Yitro/Jethro to our life together.

We are now celebrating the 57th year of our honeymoon.  We moved from Petah Tikvah to a retirement community in Ra’anana four years ago.  It is our 17th home since we were married.   Since every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent (gematria), 17 is the gematria of tov, the word for “good.” Miriam says that I see good in every one of the 17 places we lived and the jobs I had there — from being a science teacher on Long Island, a farmer at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi in Israel, art professor at Columbia University  living in New Jersey,  MIT research fellow in Boston, head of the regional college in the Negev desert, dean at New World School of the Arts, University of Florida’s arts college in Miami, to professor of art and Jewish thought at Ariel University living in Petah Tikvah.

Miriam and I discuss my weekly blog post in The Times of Israel that explores the Torah portion in relation to our Torah Tweets project updated with current events and changes in our life together as we enjoy our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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The photo above shows Mel Alexenberg’s interactive biofeedback artwork Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim created at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies  

The conceptual and spiritual background for my blog posts in The Times of Israel is developed in my new book PHOTOGRAPH GOD: CREATING A SPIRITUAL BLOG OF YOUR LIFE


Yitro/Jethro (Exodus 18:1-20:26)

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:14)

The Torah obligates us to do things and not do others (positive and negative mitzvot), but rarely legislates thought.

The greatest reward is to be so content with one’s own lot that even thinking of envying anyone else never enters one’s mind.

In the first years of our marriage, Miriam was home with three children while Mel earned a pitifully small monthly salary as a teacher.

Before the days of credit cards, we often found ourselves broke by the fourth week of each month.

We ate leftovers and often bought a bottle of liqueur with our last $2 to celebrate our wonderful life together.

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Half century later, we planned this blog posting in a coffee shop enjoying café hafukh (upside-down coffee) and an apple-cheese tart.

We continued our discussion walking in a park enjoying monkeys’ antics and elderly women petting and feeding the park’s feral cats.

When we returned home, our dog Snowball greeted us sitting beneath Mel’s parents’ wedding picture and ours.


“Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot, as is said: When you eat of the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and all is well with you.”  (Ethics of the Fathers/Pirkei Avot 4:1 and Psalms 128:2)

“On the seventh day, God finished all the work that he had done…. God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, for it was on this day that God ceased from all the work with he had been creating [for human beings to continue] making [on the eight day].” (Genesis 2:2-3)

Contentment with our lot is not passive.  As written in Psalm 128, it is active, emerging from the labor of your hands, from becoming God’s partner in creation.  Each of the billions of people on Planet Earth is given a unique genetic endowment and set of opportunities that is one’s lot.  What you creatively do with your lot is what creates holiness and happiness.

“If a man never creates, never brings into being anything new, anything original, then he cannot be holy unto his God.  That passive type who is derelict in fulfilling his task of creation cannot become holy.  Creating is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, coarse, material world.” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man)


Kabbalah, the down-to-earth mystical tradition of Judaism, teaches ten stages in the creative process that bring Divine light down into our everyday life.   It is derived from two biblical passages:

“God spoke to Moses, saying: I have selected Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.  I have filled him with a Divine spirit [Crown/Keter], with Wisdom/Hokhmah, Understanding/Binah, and knowledge, and with the talents for all types of craftsmanship.” (Exodus 31:1-3)

“Yours God are the Compassion/Hesed, the Strength/Gevurah, the Beauty/Tiferet. The Success/Netzah, the Splendor/Hod and the [Foundation] of everything in heaven and earth [Kingdom/Malkhut].” (Chronicles 1:29)

These stages begin with Crown (1), a pre-cognitive realm of intention to create.  It represents the Divine will to create the universe before the Creation as well as a human being’s will to create something new.  This will to create is followed by Wisdom (2) and Understanding (3), the realm of mind experienced as insight and thought.  The next six stages, the realm of emotions, are Compassion (4), Strength (5), Beauty (6), Success (7), and Splendor (8).  The ninth stage, Foundation (9), funnels all the earlier eight earlier stages into the tenth stage, Kingdom (10), the realm of action, the place where everything is happening.


I use these ten stages to analyze my creative process in my artwork Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim, a biofeedback system for creating digital self-generated portraits that I created at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  The creative process that I describe provides a model for understanding your creative process.

Selfies emerged from the smartphone revolution.  I describe how I created an interactive selfie that shows changing facial expressions in conversation with inner emotions.   Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim, a responsive artwork through which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in dialogue. Participants in Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim create a live feedback loop as they photograph themselves.


The first stage in the creative process is Crown — the will to create coupled with faith that one can create and anticipation that the creative process is pleasurable. Without this intention, self-confidence, and hope for gratification, the creative process has no beginning.

Crown sets the stage for Wisdom that requires a selfless state, nullification of the ego that opens gateways to supraconscious and subconscious realms.  When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness. This sudden flash of insight is what the kabbalah calls Wisdom. It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence. In biblical words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).


My process began in synagogue on the Sabbath day. I was absorbed in the rhythm of the chanting of words from the Torah scroll following them with my eyes. I was far removed from my studio/laboratory at MIT when I suddenly realized that the Hebrew words for face panim and for inside p’nim are written with the same Hebrew letters. This flash of awareness that outside and inside are linguistically one is the sudden transition from Crown to Wisdom, from intention to insight.

When I told my son Ari what had just dawned on me, my mind left Wisdom for Understanding. The linguistic insight that ignited the process began to take form as an artwork in Understanding.  I sensed that I needed to create portraits in which dialogue between the outside face and inside feelings become integrated in a single artwork.


The first three stages of the creative process symbolize the artist’s intention to create and the cognitive dyad of Wisdom-Understanding in which a flash of insight begins to crystallize into a viable idea.

The fourth stage, Compassion, symbolizes largess, the stage in the creative process that is open to all possibilities, myriad attractive options that I would love to do. I thought of a multitude of artistic options opened to me for creating artworks that reveal interplay between inner consciousness and outer face.

Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth stage, Strength, restraint, the power to set limits, to make judgments, to have the discipline to choose between myriad options. It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon.  As an MIT research fellow with access to the most advanced electronic technologies, my mind gravitated to creating digital self-generated portraits in which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in dialogue through a biofeedback interface.

The balance between the affective dyad Compassion-Strength is the stage of Beauty.   As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from Strength to the next stage, the sixth stage, Beauty, the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure elicits an exquisite feeling.


The seventh stage, Success, is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance. I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork. I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a moist media artwork that would forge a vital dialogue between dry pixels and wet biomolecules, between digital imagery and human consciousness. The eighth stage, Splendor, is the splendid feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the graceful movements of a skilled dancer.


The ninth stage, Foundation, is the sensuous bonding of Success and Splendor in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea. It funnels the integrated flow of intention, thought, and emotion of the previous eight stages into the world of physical action, into the tenth stage of Kingdom, the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It is my making the artwork.


I constructed a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor places her finger in a plethysmograph, a device that measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera.  Digitized information about her internal mind/body processes triggers changes in the image of herself that she sees on the monitor. She sees her face changing color, stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, or replicating in response to her feelings about seeing herself changing.  My artwork, Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim, created a flowing digital feedback loop in which mind/body state p’nim effects changes in one’s face panim, and panim, in turn, effects changes in p’nim.  It creates living self-generated, interactive, digital selfies in the Kingdom of space and time.   It was installed in the LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum in New York in 1988.

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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