Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Writing with White Fire

by Susan Weinberg

When you think of breakage and the Torah, one of the first images that may come to mind is that of Moses flinging the Tablets of the Law to the ground in both despair and anger. Below him were the Israelites, dancing around a golden calf. 

Rembrandt 1659
Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Our lab discussion (handout-Searching the White Space) centered around two passages, Exodus 32:1-19 and Deuteronomy 10: 1-5. Exodus tells the story of Moses going up the mountain to converse with God for forty days. In the meantime, the Israelites become impatient and assume Moses will not return. They gather their gold jewelry to melt down to create an idol,  a golden calf. God observes what transpires and in his anger threatens to destroy the people, but Moses dissuades him, giving new meaning to speaking truth to power. Even better, he was heard and altered the path of potential destruction. Later in Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the steps God then required of him to create a second set of tablets.


In the Talmudic tradition we began with a question, a conundrum of sorts. Moses pleaded with God to still his anger and not destroy the people, yet when Moses came down the mountain to discover the golden calf, he too gave way to anger, flinging the tablets to the ground and breaking them into shards.


We distinguished between destruction and the passion of anger. Anger can be softened while we may not be able to come back from total destruction. Not all breakage is fixable, but anger may allow for a redo, in fact that is what was granted to both Moses and the Israelites.


We moved our attention to a midrash that spoke of the Torah being written in black fire on white fire. It is not just ink on parchment. It is alive and vivid. And that white fire is just as important as the black fire. It is the negative space, what is not spoken, but is created in relation to what is said. As artists we know that concept well in a visual way. It is the subject of much midrash, looking for the story within the story, the unspoken underlying content. It begins with curiosity, with a question and looks carefully at both what is written and what is not. Often the conclusion is evaluated through a metaphoric lens.

It is not coincidental that this process closely resembles the creative process. We are creating visual midrash through our artwork as we explore these topics. We too, begin with a question and our artwork explores the space around the text, the nooks and crannies that frame that black fire.


One of the questions posed was what happened to the shards of the tablets. In Judaism we bury or preserve and store damaged texts that contain the name of God.  It seemed unlikely that Moses left those shards at the foot of Mount Sinai. This was a question which also occupied the rabbis. Rabbi Meir read between the lines of “there was nothing in the Ark except the two tablets of stone which Moses put there” and concluded that it also included the broken pieces of the first set of tablets. They too were sacred in whatever form.


So, what does this all mean for us metaphorically? 


We bring our brokenness along with us as we move forward to wholeness. They are not discrete states, wholeness incorporates brokenness. We build on it as we find our way to wholeness.


Sometimes we can’t replace what is broken, a good reason to respect the fragility of what we value.

We may find that chipped Seder plate with a rich story more valuable for its very brokenness, its near brush with loss.

Perhaps brokenness is a necessary step that must occur to find wholeness. It is in our brokenness that we learn compassion, perhaps something Moses learned from  his own struggle with speech. And quite unexpectedly, at that critical moment he offered that teaching to God, in their own partnership, their hevruta, turning him away from destruction.  

And yet wholeness is not a static state, nor is brokenness. Moses continued to struggle with brokenness, literally breaking all the commandments into shards. He too was given the opportunity to rebuild into a new wholeness. 

We closed our discussion with a visual midrash, a look at the work of Yaron Bob who took the phrase "swords to ploughshares" to heart, repurposing brokenness to wholeness by turning bombs into menorahs and roses. 

A Rose of Her Own by Yaron Bob


A few additional art connections and more on Rembrandt's painting and Yaron Bob . . .

Rembrandt’s painting of Moses breaking the tablets.

Virtual  and Visual Midrash

Raiders of the Lost Ark could be considered a very long midrash about what happened to the Ark of the Covenant

Creative approaches to broken objects

visual of what it takes to put together an archeological find

Mend Piece by Yoko Ono  creative approaches to broken objects

Rockets into Roses:  Yaron Bob.