Friday, February 15, 2008

A gift to the living.

AVIVA HAEZRACHY was born in Jerusalem and has been designing and manufacturing Judaica for many years. Her works include mezuzut, menorahs, Passover-Plates, candlesticks, tzedaka boxes, spice boxes, torah pointers, dreidles and grogers. Aviva's work is characterized by incorporating hand painted wood and silver, glass and lucite. She also creates utilitarian items such as jewelry and mirrors. Aviva has developed a unique method for bringing paint to wood creating a synthesis that becomes more apparent with the passing of time and ensuring that the object will last for decades. her works are characteristically colorful. The themes trascends time and space while creating a blend of ancient and modern, a harmony of oriental and occidental influences. Aviva's work can be viewed at Judaica Museum in Israel and in the United States

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 - 30:10) starts with a description of the ner tamid, usually translated as the "perpetual light" or the "eternal lamp." This was a light made from the purest olive oil that was to burn in the Tent of Meeting and later in the Temple. It is not clear whether this light actually burned continuously, or was rekindled every evening, but from the text it appears that it was relit daily.

Today, every synagogue has a ner tamid at the top of the ark that holds the Torahs. Most modern synagogues use an electric light. In most commentaries the ner tamid is seen in allegorical terms. Unfortunately, when we switch from olive oil to electricity, most of the original symbolism becomes difficult to retain. But some compare the light to Israel, the light to all nations; some talk about the olive being beaten to produce the purified oil, just as the people of Israel have to suffer in order to be purified. Others compare the light to the mitzvah of tzedakah: just as one wick can light many lights without diminishing its own light, so tzedakah does not diminish the giver.

Where does the light of the ner tamid come from? It comes from olive oil which comes from the olive tree. This olive tree is none other than the Etz Ha-Da'at , the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In religious symbolism, every tree, from Buddha's Bo tree, to Jonah's gourd tree, to Christ's cross, can be the Etz Ha-Da'at, which may be more appropriately called the tree of wisdom. Buddha gets his great revelation, that all is suffering and ends in death, while sitting under a Bo tree, also called a wisdom tree. Christ's cross, which in early Christianity was often represented as a tree, symbolizes liberation from death. Remember the end of the Jonah story when he sits under the gourd tree? What does G-d teach him sitting there? Jonah learns that everything is born, flourishes briefly and then dies.

What is this primal wisdom that the Etz Ha-Da'at imparts? What is the knowledge that all spiritual wisdom begins with? It's the knowledge that we are all going to die. This is the beginning of all self-knowledge.

Life ends in death. Where you take it from there depends on a lot of things, but everything starts at the same place. In Judaism, every time the subject of death comes up we start talking about life. We don't even mention death in the kaddish, our prayer for the dead. But death is real, regardless of what we say, and the Torah makes that clear.

The knowledge associated with the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is the sensing of the possibility of one's own mortality. It's not that Adam and Eve would have lived forever had they not eaten, but that they would have had no awareness that death as a concept could ever apply to them.

Eating from the tree of wisdom was not a fall, unless you are willing to romanticize man's animal nature. Animals don't know they are naked, animals don't know they are going to die. It is the knowledge of our own inevitable death which makes us human. This is the essence of self-awareness.

This has never been put more beautifully in English than in John Donne's poem, which ends, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

There is a future, and we won't be in it.

Take a second, look around your house, look around your office, your synagogue, at the people next to you, look at the people across from you. Know that someday none of us will be here. Other people will be laughing, crying, working, studying Torah (G-d willing), but it won't be us. This is what the eternal light teaches:

It is eternal, but we are not.

Just as Tetzaveh starts with a lighting, the ner tamid, it also ends with a lighting, ketoret, incense. Because we no longer light incense in the temple, the symbolism of this act is not apparent to us. But think about incense. First we smell the pungent aroma. We feel its warmth. We see the smoke curling upward in infinite patterns. Incense speaks to the senses. It reminds us that we are alive, that we can feel, we can see, we are aware of the world through our senses.

This is the fruit of the Etz Chaim, the tree of life. The tree of life does not give us immortality, it gives us awareness. It wakes us up to the infinite potential of life and the ever-present miracle of our existence. Our days are numbered, but every moment is a new creation to be experienced to the fullest. The incense wakes us to life. When we eat from the tree of wisdom, it doesn't bring death, it brings the awareness of our mortality. When we eat from the tree of life, it doesn't bring perpetual life, it makes the life we have holy. Life and death are not opposite, they are irrevocably intertwined. Death gives life its sacredness and life gives death its dignity. Death is not just a gift to the dying, it's a gift to the living because it teaches us the preciousness of life. From Stuart Berman

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