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Jewish Art for the Soul

"The whole earth is filled with His glory." (Isaiah 6:3)

“Because G‑d saw my affliction.” (Genesis 29:32)

Named by his mother, Leah, the firstborn of the twelve tribes embodies the quality of vision. Illuminated by the sun rising over the hills around the Dead Sea, this painting asks us to gaze past the dark forms in the foreground and to see the world as it glows in the light of a new day.

From our vantage point we experience the powerful and healing energy of the first light warming the sky and the somewhat barren and undulating landscape. Our vision extends into the bright distance and is then joined to the present in the cheer of the acacia flowers that are directly in front of us, inviting us to celebrate another moment of creation.

The warm reds of the painting reflect the tribe of Reuben’s gemstone sardius (possibly ruby).

The Art of Eretz Israel. From the series of paintings "Wandering Stars." World, gone with the Holocaust. In memory of the Jewish community of the Netherlands.

Artist’s interpretation of a passage from the Sefer Yetzirah:
“He made the letter 'mem' King over water, and He tied a crown to it.”

[Editor's note: Over the coming months we will be featuring each of these 12 paintings separately, with their individual explanations, so that you can enjoy the detail and meaning hidden built into each painting.]

The 12 Tribes of Israel series has been a project I have wanted to create for close to 20 years. Initially, I was inspired by the beautiful stained glass window interpretation of the tribes by Marc Chagall, which are on permanent display at Haddasah Ein Kerem Hospital, in Jerusalem, Israel. Throughout the years I planned to create the series using various mediums such as clay, silk, paint, and mosaic tile, but I never managed to get beyond the initial planning stages.

The opportunity to finally fulfill my desire to paint the 12 tribes of Israel came about one sunny summer day in 2015. Rabbi Meir Kaplan of Chabad Vancouver Island came for a visit to discuss my offer to paint something for the community's new Centre for Jewish Life and Learning that was being built in Victoria, Canada. During our meeting I suggested the 12 tribes of Israel, and Rabbi Kaplan thought it would be a great project for the Centre's social hall. The conversation went something like this:

"There is a 30 foot wall in the social hall," stated the Rabbi.
"Hmmm" I replied. "So, how big do you imagine each painting, Rabbi?"
"Perhaps each one can be 2 feet wide by 3 feet long."
"Oy," I said, eyeing his assured smile uncertainly.
"Oh, and by the way, I am not fond of Chagall type art," the Rabbi added. "When I see an image of a sheep, I want to be able to identify it as such."
"What do you envision, then?" I asked.
"I imagine 12 realistic scenes of Israel, each one associated with the land allotted to a tribe."
I considered. "That would be a great challenge."
"And," continued the Rabbi, "I want to bring in the gemstones from the priestly breastplate into each painting."
At this point, abstract floating objects seemed easy in comparison.
"How do I incorporate those?" I asked.
"We will spend some time learning together," offered the Rabbi graciously.
A couple of months passed, and I mulled over the project. I met again with Rabbi Kaplan to learn more about the 12 tribes of Israel.
"Lesley," he said in an excited voice. "I have an idea that has never been done before. In the past, many artists have drawn inspiration from the blessings given to the tribes by their father, Jacob. Instead, I would like us to look at the way the mothers, Leah and Rachel, named the sons of Jacob."

Again, we could have just stayed with floating objects, but I saw the burgeoning of creative genius in his vision. He understood this series as something far deeper and more spiritual than I could have, and while I could wield the brush and paint, he had to teach me the deeper meaning of Jewish mysticism and Torah embedded within each name.

"How do we do that?"

Thus, I became the pupil and he became my artistic director.

Over the course of several months I studied with Rabbi Kaplan and began sketching the series, and in early March 2016 I started painting. I focused on transposing the essential quality embedded within each tribe's name into a metaphoric landscape, making sure to depict the tribal lands allotted to each tribe. Rabbi Kaplan and I discussed which particular scenes to focus on to ensure the whole land of Israel was portrayed in the complete series. I used the 7 biblical species - wheat, figs, barley, dates, pomegranates, olives, and grapes - to bind all twelve paintings. I also incorporated native flowers and eagles as symbols of the land. The color palette of each individual painting was determined by the gemstone that was associated with each tribe, and the choshen (High Priest’s breastplate) became the color palette for the entire series.

Only when I finished the twelfth painting was I able to fully appreciate how much the project had deepened my faith and spirituality. The most profound lesson I learned from the 12 sons of Jacob is that peace is a condition that integrates all of the 12 essential qualities embedded within each one of the tribes of Israel. For a nation to be united, it must embody the quality of vision, attention, service, gratitude, labor, partnership, justice, connectedness, humility, generosity, resilience, and transformation. A deficiency in one aspect results in disharmony, which impedes peace. In addition, I came to realize that the unity of a nation depends on the spiritual well-being of each of its individuals; the twelve aspects must manifest harmoniously within each person, too.

Since completing the 12 Tribes of Israel series, I find myself inspired by:

Reuben, when I need to see the gifts of life more clearly;

Simeon, when I need to listen more attentively to self and others;

Levi, when I need to be of greater service to others;

Judah, when I need to be more grateful for what I have;

Issachar, when I need to focus on the reward that comes from hard work;

Zebulun, when I need the fortitude to find the gifts in all life;

Dan, when I need to learn how to fairly judge self and others;

Naphtali, when I need to connect with my inner self more deeply;

Gad, when I need to remember to appreciate all the good fortune in my life;

Asher, when I need to share the abundance in my life;

Joseph, when I need to gather the strength to convert pain into light;

Benjamin, when I need to access the Divine energy housed in matter, and elevate it.

This "fairy" is a master tzeddakah-giver, and encourages others to give, too.

Jews, many in fancy costumes, brighten up the streets during this joyful Jewish festival. Breslovers dance beside their van. A little boy waves a grogger, and a girl and her father eat Purim hamentaschen. A lone soldier looks on.

Shabbat shalom!

A warm corner with a stairway that leads to blue heavenly city.

“Those who trust in G‑d will be surrounded by kindness.” (Psalms 32:10)

The harmonious blend of the bright colors represents the loving kindness that is drawn in from Above when we truly believe that everything that happens to us comes from G‑d.

A women ushers in the meditative tranquility of Shabbat.

This painting supports the eternal connection of spirit. The beautiful young woman is feeling frightened and alone. She senses the Divine presence all around her, as a choir of angels sings a song of hope. This painting will be one of seven that will permanently hang in the new rehab center at the Jewish Nursing Home in Longmeadow, Ma.

This painting is inspired by the cosmic event of Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) where heaven and earth meet. I used acrylic paint on wood to produce this piece. The light colors used in the background illustrate the calm that G‑d provides us with when we live a Torah life.

Creative works exploring life and Judaism composed by a spectrum of Jewish artists.

"The primary talent of an artist is his ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this in his painting.This is how an artist can serve his Creator." — The Rebbe


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