Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Spring Up O Well

Joint Lab - Feb 24, 2015 by Susan Weinberg

Our discussion in the lab began with a picture (see left).  The picture is from the Dura-Europos synagogue in Damascus.  Uncovered in 1932 it dates back to 244CE and is one of the oldest synagogues in the world.  It’s walls are covered with figurative paintings that can now be found at the National Museum of Damascus.

What do we see in this image?  Twelve tribes, a temple pediment above the menorah.  As we learned more we discovered that the central image was a well and Moses had struck it with his staff to bring forth water.

We then turned our attention to a passage from Numbers 21: 16-18.  In this passage God commands Moses to assemble the Israelites and he will give them water.  A musical interlude occurs as the people of Israel sing" Spring up, O well--sing ye unto it".   According to the Torah the well is dug by the nobles meaning Moses and Aaron with their staffs.  Staffs are considered a symbol of power.  Much is hidden in the meaning of words.  The well was dug with a staff, a mehokek, which can mean both a digging device and law giving.  Metaphorically the well becomes the Torah and it is accessed by the lawgivers, the interpreters of the Torah.

It is this well that is represented in the painting in the Dura Europos synagogue.  The well divides into twelve streams and delivers the water, the knowledge of Torah, to each of the tribes.

We harkened back to yet another passage, Exodus 15: 12-27.  In this passage after crossing the Red Sea, the people again cry out for water.  They are met with the bitter waters of Marah which Moses sweetens upon God's guidance with wood.  That wood which forms the staff of Moses is considered a branch from the tree of life, the Torah.

We were not without our own metaphorical interpretations.  It was noted that with every birth there is rush of water, a connection of water and life.  The streams that come from the well in fact resemble umbilical cords, a life giving source.

We examined a map of the plan of the tabernacle as described in Numbers. The tabernacle stood in the west, the well before it and the tribes formed a circle around it.  The painting which we studied formed a portion of that circle.  We the viewer complete that circle and are invited into the space.  There is a touch of magical realism in the portable tabernacle accompanied by the portable well.  When the Israelites camped in the wilderness, the well was placed opposite the entry of the Tent of Meeting and is the source of water that flows as a great river into the desert.

We closed our discussion with an analysis by Norman Cohen in The Song at the Sea and the Well at Be-er.  He notes the passage of thirty-eight years, from the crossing of the Red Sea to the death of Miriam.  Once again they are faced with the dilemma of accessing water.   The initial words from Exodus 15:1, 21 are similar to those of Numbers 21:17.  There is one difference.  Instead of Moses singing, it is now Israel.  The Israelites have learned their own song to God.

With the song celebrating the well fresh in our mind we turned to a musician in our midst, Yoni
Reinharz.  Yoni is a musician and songwriter.  In addition to singing he also works with spoken poetry and rap.  His current project is a Family Portrait, a musical telling of his immediate family history through song and verse.

Yoni introduced us to the very complex story of his family.   His grandfather was a soldier in one of the British battalions that liberated the camps.  His grandmother survived Auschwitz, the sole survivor of her family.  He grew up believing that his father was born in Poland, grew up in Belgium and later met his wife in Israel only to learn that a far more complex story lay beneath.  In truth his father was born in Italy as his parents were on the way to illegally immigrate into Palestine.  The ship was caught by the British and his parents jumped ship with his infant father and swam to shore.  Later they sought a place to rebuild their lives and ended up in Belgium.  His father ultimately lived throughout Europe, learning to speak ten languages fluently. Many challenges faced his family and it is on these stories of sacrifice that his work is built.  Ultimately he hopes to create a multi-media performance.  Yoni brought us into his story by sharing several of his stories through spoken poetry and music.

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