[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.