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Earth Etude for Elul 9 -Natural Awe and Artistic Representations

by Rabbi Steve Altarescu~

When we stood at Mt. Sinai, the mountain was described as ablaze with fire and the people heard the sound of God from out of the fire but did not see any form or shape.

We learn that since we experienced God without a form or shape it would be wrong for us to make a likeness, a resemblance of anything in nature. Why does Moses repeat this prohibition four times?

For the Torah there is power to an image, whether it be a sculpture, a painting or any other art form that stands in contrast to feeling the power of God.

For me, there is a difference in the experience of being in the natural world versus seeing representations of what is in nature. Watching a hummingbird on our deck is very different from the hummingbird engraved on my coffee mug! The hummingbird fluttering around has the power to open us up to an experience of great wonder and awe at the vast beauty, intricacy and inter-connectiveness  of the natural world.  Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

There is an awesome beauty to creation, alive and always changing – when we walk outside and quiet the chatter of our minds and listen to the birds, the cicadas, see a sunset, we can be blessed with moments of radical amazement

The Torah wants us to see this world as holy, sacred, and mysterious. To look at the world and see the Divine Presence not in any particular form or shape, but within the life energy of all forms and shapes. The Talmud wrestles with the reality that we humans will make and enjoy art. I remember visiting synagogues built in Northern Israel 2000 years ago and seeing beautiful mosaic tile floors with all the signs of the zodiac.

The rabbis of the Talmud wrestled with the permissibility of artistic representations. One of the ways the Talmud resolves this question is to only prohibit making an image of anything that represents God or any of the items that were parts of the rituals of the tabernacle in the desert or the Temple in Jerusalem.  The reason given is that the Tabernacle and the Temple were the places for sanctioned artistic creation that God commanded.

Maimonides said that the purpose of the prohibition against copying the ritual art that God sanctioned is to promote reverence for the sacredness of the Temple which would be lost if reproductions, copies of Temple items are created.

Maimonides took the concept of reverence and awe for the objects of the Temple and related it to how one behaves in the Temple including a particular sacred choreography performed by all the masses of people who attended a Temple service. This choreography had circles of people who walked in circles that intersected each other. One of the groups was those who were fortunate in life and the script they followed was to ask those in the other circle, the unfortunate ones, about their troubles and offer them words of comfort and strength. Like the cherubim in the Tabernacle, the space where they faced each other was where the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, would be revealed.

Maimonides wants us to understand that awe and wonder of the natural world will hopefully lead us to reverence in its mostly sacred form. This is when we are facing another human being and in a moment of care and compassion invoke the Divine Presence.

I suggest we begin the process of teshuva where we look inside ourselves by spending time in the quiet and open spaces of the natural world. If we start the process of teshuva with awe and wonder we might see and grow the divine spark within and see this light in all we encounter.

Rabbi Steve Altarescu currently serves as co-rabbi with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Levy, at the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley.  He was ordained in May 2014 at the Academy of Jewish Religion and holds a Bachelors degree in Religious Studies and Literature and a Masters degree in Counseling.  Rabbi Altarescu has completed his Chaplain Pastoral Education and served as a chaplain resident at Beth Israel Hospital in NY, NY and at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. 

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, a congregation without walls that meets outdoors all year long. She is the co-convener and President pro-tem of the Boston-area Jewish Climate Action Network, and the founder of the One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit in Framingham, MA.
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