Tag Archives: Iconography

Parshat Va’etchanan (2012)


Parshat Va’etchanan
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

The Formlessness of our G-d: Not Making G-d in Our Image

I’m always fascinated by the discussion about what it means to be made in the image of G-d, as described in the creation story of Genesis. There we see the term used b’tzelem Elohim – that we are like an approximate copy or projection of the Divine; like a shadow, or a traced copy (צל; tzel). We are not exactly like G-d, say anatomically, but we are reflections of the Divine Nature. G-d is incorporeal and above any physical likeness, therefore we cannot say that we are exactly like Him. It’s very important that we remember this or else we get caught up in a simplistic way of thinking, where tzelem takes on another meaning in the depths of our minds even if we don’t know it; that of an idol. (צֶלֶם).

Here near the start of Moses’ final declarations being documented here in Deuteronomy he begins to give his final summary of their experiences in order that they reflect upon the lessons that they have learned. Right away he pauses and explicitly goes into detail regarding one notorious occurrence, that of the giving of Ten Commandments. He reminds of how G-d gave us the Torah:

And Hashem spoke to you

from out of the fire

you heard the sound of words

but saw no form,

there was only a voice.”

| Vayedaber Hashem aleichem

| mitoch ha’esh

| kol devarim atem shom’im

| utmunah einechem ro’im

| zulati kol

Deuteronomy 4:12

Then Moses begins to talk about the paramount moment of the giving of the “Aseret haDivrot / The Ten Commandments;” or as the Torah explicitly calls them here, the “Aseret haDevarim / The Ten Words,” or the ten sayings. (v. 13). Moses defines his mission to Israel as teaching them how to follow these laws and rules for when they cross over into the Promised Land they can live by them. (v.14)

But then here he circles back to deal with one point again. Moses says:

Watch yourself very well,

for you did not see

any type of image

on that day that Hashem spoke to you

at Horeb from out of the fire,

lest you become corrupt

and make you

an image that depicts the form of a figure,

[do not make] a form in the image of

a male or a female…”

| Venishmartem me’od

| lenafshoteichem ki lo re’item

| kol-temunah

| beyom diber Hashem aleichem

| beChorev mitoch ha’esh

| Pen-tashchitun

| va’asitem lachem

| pesel tmunat kol-samel

| tavnit

| zachar o nekevah…

Deuteronomy 4:16

I like most people begin to trail off at this point because we all know where this is going. Moses explains that we are not to make any icon in the image of an animal, bird, of things that prowl and swarm on land (creeping-things), or even fish of the sea. (v.17-18). Interestingly the only thing that is left out from this type of prohibition is the making of the form of angels and cherubs; but only by means of omission. (see Parshat Chukat 2012)

Quite honestly for the most part we as modern people don’t have a problem with the latter part of this prohibition. Iconography is something that is foreign to all but the most primitive of people. Even our modern experiences of outright object veneration is considered merely symbolic and has most often been embraced as some sort of revivalism of ancient pagan ways. Modern people just don’t worship any form of animal or beast.

But us modern people should not feel less convicted by this call to pure and depiction-less worship. If anything, more so. We are so advanced in our thinking we seem to realize the role that we play in the “animal world,” but still in this respect we seem to exclude ourselves. Most of us think it foolish for a person to worship a cow for instance, or a bird. We can clearly see that is not divine, and that the concept of deity transcends any single form or representation in creation. But many of seem to have no problem with imaging the Divine in the form of humans; after our own likeness, in the form of the human animal.

I don’t want to drivel on with too much philosophy, our great teachers such as the Rambam wrote extensively on the subject of the almost iconoclastic call of Judaism, one that only sees parallels in the Islamic empire of his age. I can not do justice to his great way of describing it through his body of work. Ones in which he greatly stresses those shared beliefs that we have with Islam, that G-d is above depiction and that even the use of anthropomorphisms are a compromise of the transcendence of the Divine Nature.

Sure we often have to use mundane and human terms when trying to explain G-d, but fully with the understanding that G-d is not a person and that we are at best estimating in terms we can relate to. But that’s it. We try to be careful to keep that understanding because if we stray too far we may begin to think that we understand the mind of G-d. We can begin to think that G-d thinks and acts like us.

People want a G-d they can relate to. So we use approximations, but they are bad descriptions of G-d’s nature. He is above being mad or angry; above being pleased or happy even. G-d is transcendent above all. But in order for us to understand sometimes the scripture have to use these types of terms to get the point across, using feelings and ways of relating we all have in us.

The problem arises when we try to think that we understand the way G-d “thinks” or “feels” by reason of deduction in own mindset and sentiments. We project our likeness on to G-d. And that’s really what it is often times, people who think they have the mind of G-d just find a lot of ways saying G-d thinks like them. And that is utterly ridiculous, and we need to avoid such tendencies. Besides it’s just odd for us to do so anyhow.

For example, many years ago I worked for the Reformed Jewish movement in America. Our interim-director at the time was someone who was quite a feminist. Even though I was Orthodox, I didn’t have problems with her feminism. But what I did find odd was that when leading in the liturgy one at an event she changed the liturgy of Psalm 136; “Thank the L-rd for He is good,” then she changed the well-known response to, “for Her kindness endures forever;” exchanging the masculine of the text to the feminine back and forth. The older people looked at each other with a look of, “Oh how interesting.” Us few younger people looked at each other like, “That’s really lame.”

In a way we all could understand why she did that. We were all Americans, and we understood the statement that she was making. We all grew up in a pseudo-Christian America where G-d is understood as an old man. I emphasize man, because the image of G-d as Father to us all is not just symbolic but quite literal to people in this nation. The Almighty is the father of their god, and thus their idea of G-d is a male with all the trappings that entails. Only recently have some of the brave in their ranks begun to embrace and teach upon the female-like characteristics of the Divine. The “sacred feminine” was purposefully excluded. Not just merely for their theological convenience, but also to accommodate the sexism of the age we were raised.

However inclusive her intentions were, it showed a childish compromise of our tradition on her part. You see, her attitudes in having to utilize this unusual and almost provocative wording were reactionary to an immature concept of Deity on the part of our host society. Her way of reacting to that was with a response that was just as childish, stepping away from thousands of years of understanding G-d and the godliness of Elohim as being above gender and therefore utilizing the Hebrew masculine, plural; which is normative for things that are of genderless or in crowds of mixed genders. G-d is not man or woman, therefore we use a term that is above that, a lofty tense that holds the weight of both. Her engendering of G-d seemed to most people to fall short of that lofty concept. It seemed silly in the company of obviously dedicated religious intellectuals, in an age where embracing of Hebrew was so normative even in the far-liberal circles that the language change seemed more like a gimmick and projection of her own psychological need to have a G-d she could relate to by making it out to be like her. Mostly because such a sentiment was typical for people of her persuasion in that respect, that if G-d could not be like her then she didn’t want to have any part of it.

One should understand that why this is silly to people like me is because we have already seen this in our history. In fact going on throughout the history of the Jewish people in the Tanach we are going to see other competitive expressions of deity arising many times. One of the most infamous would be the Ashtarot; the chief goddess of the bronze age in the middle-east, her name being in the feminine, plural; as opposed to our G-d who is the masculine plural, though gender inclusive. The reason is quite clear if we understand who she was, in that she was responsible for restraining the wrath of the male god Baal who was lower in the pantheon. She was the ancients response to a harsh patriarchal system. But she, would be a female that would come with all their cultural hangups of gender in the end, and would find herself competing time and time again with male challengers for the lead of the pantheon of gods. Continuously in successive generations the battle would go back and forth between the male gods that were warlike and disciplinarian; and the female gods that were compassionate symbols of fertility, but overbearing and volatile. The people’s leanings would swing back and forth as they became tired of one extreme and would default back to the other again.

But here in this parsha Moses points out that a central purpose of this giving of Torah was to liberate us from this type of foolish constraints upon our understanding of G-d by limiting the Divine into any form. G-d is nothing, He is not one thing; and at the same time He is everything; all things in creation are reflections of G-d’s nature, but G-d is not like any one thing alone. We cannot study and try to pattern the behavior of the Divine like we are watching a subject on Animal Planet. We can’t try or claim to understand G-d’s mind and motivation like people try to with a mouse in a maze study.

We cannot not limit G-d, as the Divine is bigger and more than we can ever comprehend or describe. G-d is the Encompassing-All, everything exists in Him and through His will alone; even though “He” isn’t a complete description without qualification of its gender inclusiveness in our Hebrew language and mindset. This need of rising to this higher understanding is not just so we can have a mature idea of G-d, but also so that G-d can be more mature than the trappings of petty human characteristics in our own mind as well. If we can’t do that, the inevitable result is that we start projecting more and more of our own qualities and fickleness upon G-d. That is just as much an idol as limiting G-d in the form of a mamash beheima – an actual animal.

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Parshat Chukat (2012)


Parshat Chukat
Numbers 19 -22:1

The Bronze Serpent: Sometimes problems arise, quite literally

Seprent on a RodAs we come into this weeks parsha we see that the children of Israel have been turned away from entering into the Promised Land. The Edomites, the descendants of Eisav (Esau, the brother of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our Father who was also called Israel; see Parshat Vayishlach) turned them away, not allowing them to cross through their land in their travels. (Numbers 20:18) For this reason they were forced to turn back into the wilderness toward the sea where they had come from. In the process this also exposed them to the attacks of Canaanites, who had managed to take captives from their ranks before subsequently being defeated. This left the Israelites with acquired land in the south to occupy, but they still did not have enough access to territory to ascend up to their land. Having to turn back around and face the windlessness they dwelt in for a whole generation it says “vtikzar nefesh / and they were disheartened.” (Numbers 21:3-4) What this literally means is “and they were short of spirit”.

The people begin to complain and grumble over their situation. This results in them befalling a horrible tragedy, as we read:

“And Hashem sent against the people

venomous [lit. burning] snakes

and they began to bite the people

and many people of Israel died.”

| Vayeshalach Hashem ba’am

| et hanechashim hasrafim

| vayenashchu et-ha’am

| vayamot am-rav miYisra’el

Numbers 21:6

Our rabbis bring down the obvious allusion being drawn by this plague, the people’s evil and negative words had become like the venom from the fangs of a serpent. This was slander that was so great that it had mortal consequences, and it immediately began to be demonstrated by a plague from G-d to show in their physical bodies how they were being consumed spiritually. What do I mean by this? I don’t many anything spooky. Spirit literally means a burst of air, wind. But figurately spirit in Hebrew (ruach), just like in the English language usually means an attitude of people; most often of people in group. To be of spirit means a determined and enthusiastic attitude shows by an individual or a group of people. Like when we think of the terms “team spirit” or “school spirit.” Only in passing and more figuratively do we reference the very similar words nefesh (souls) and ruach (spirit) in relations to an person’s eternal-soul or spirit-beings.

Instead of being of spirit, motived by an air of respectability and determination; they were short of spirit, they had the wind taken out of their sails. They were depressed. And this depression lead to resentment, and eventually anger being leveled against G-d and Moses through their griping. (v.5)

If spirit is like wind, the rushing and passing air that invisibly animates things, so too their words invisibly have effects on the atmosphere and situation around them. Not just subtly, but with all the ability to consume a person to the point of death, by poisoning their outlook. It does not take long for the people recognize the symbolism here, and to understand their wrong was speaking against G-d and Moses. As the American Indians say of liars, “they speak with forked-tongue,” the children of Israel are dripping negativity and slander like venom from fangs and they recognized it. So they turn to Moses and confess they that had spoken wrongly against G-d and again him, and asked for salvation from the resulting plague of snakes that was sent as a lesson to them. (v.7)

Moses does pray to G-d, who answers him with the following words:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

Make yourself a venomous snake

put it on a standard

and everyone who is bitten

and that shall look on it will live.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| aseh lecha saraf vesim

| oto al-nes

| vehayah kol-hanashuch

| vera’ah oto vachai

Numbers 21:8

Golden Eagle Standard

A replica of the top of the Roman Golden Eagle Standard

We read that Moses follows this order, and fashions a snake out of copper, places it on a nes – a standard. Most often when we read the word nes, we are talking about a flag or a banner. But it does also mean a standard, like a mascot; for instance the Roman army’s Golden Eagle was held high upon a pole before them when mobilized. When armies fought with their banner before them they would not just be fighting to defeat their enemies but also to keep the symbol of their honor raised high. As long as it was kept up it would become a rallying point for the people. As they looked up it would give them hope to get up and fight. What flags and standards have in common is they are elevated on a pole high enough for everyone to notice. For this reason nes is commonly translated as merely pole for this purpose in this verse here.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of symbols like a flag (nes). They have the ability to give such powerful motivation they often inspire another noun for nes; a miracle. The power of positive thinking produces nothing less than miraculous result in our lives. And this is what they needed, because the Israelites were consumed by their negativity.

Thus Moses created the Copper Serpent. But why was it made of out copper? For this answer we turn to Rashi:

Copper serpent

He was not told to make it out of copper.

Moses said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He,

called it a snake (nachash)

so I will make it out of copper (nechoshet),’

which is a play on words.”

נחש נחשת: |

לא נאמר לו לעשותו של נחשת, |

אלא אמר משה הקב”ה |

קוראו נחש, |

ואני אעשנו של נחושת, |

לשון נופל על לשון: |

Rashi on Numbers 21:9

The details for making this standard was left open for him to decide. He could have made a flag with a snake on it if he wanted to. But it appears that Moses did not want to stray and be too imaginative in the plans for the symbol that he was making. He went with a material that sounded like the symbol he was forming.

It is important that we understand that this story is steeped in symbolism. The choice of construction for this symbol is also seemingly symbolic in other not so obvious ways. Lets take a look again at the term “saraf vesim / fiery serpents.” This simply means burning snakes. Their venom felt like fire against the flesh, so there is a purposefulness in their name. But there is another symbolism that seems to be drawn from here, or at least later commentators and apocryphal literature would notice of the term seraf, which means burning, that this is reminiscent of the Serafim; the fiery angels. What is a Seraf? It is a form of heavenly angel. Among the most notorious of the angelic hosts are Charbim in our tradition, which are placed on the Ark of the Covenant; two large, golden angels with wings touching, placed upon the covering lid. (see Exodus 27:9) They too stand as unique symbols of Israelite iconography.

Whereas cheribs guard the glory of G-d, the serafim constantly declare the glory of G-d. They are the exalted angels, that raise themselves above the throne of heaven and constantly praise His holiness and might. We see them in the book of Isaiah, where witnessing them was so overwhelming that the prophet could not contain himself and began to make a holy confession, as we read:

“Then I said: Woe is me! for I am undone;

because I am a man of unclean lips,

and in the midst of a people of unclean lips

do I dwell:”

וָאֹמַר אוֹי-לִי כִי-נִדְמֵיתִי, |

כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא-שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי, |

וּבְתוֹךְ עַם-טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם, |

אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב: |

Isaiah 6:5

We are told that a single angel was sent to the prophet and purified his lips with a burning coal from the Altar. If we think about it, this is precisely what we need to have happen here. The people need to be purified. The burning of the prophet’s lips is something different than the burning of the Israelites flesh, but the gist is the same. Here we can see a single seraf being sent to the people; and the promised declared that if they see, hear, understand with their hearts, and return then they would be healed (Isaiah 6:10)

Rod of Asclepius and Caduceus

The Rod of Asclepius (left) is the traditional symbol of medicine. The Caduceus (right), though not classically being associated as such, is the widely recognized American symbol for medicine adopted by the US Army Medical Corps in 1902.

For this reason it may not be unfounded that people associate the Copper Snake as something more akin to the symbol of the winged Caduceus than the more related classical association with the Rod of Asclepius; the latter being the correct Greek symbol of medicine, while the former is a more recently adopted winged symbol being recognized by us Americans. Americans seem to commingle the symbols based on a biblical understanding, and less on the actual Greek mythology that propagated the symbols.

This is because in the Torah what we see is Moses creating a copper snake standard that is more of a messenger (Heb. malach, also the same word for angel). But why out of copper? What benefit would this have as a symbol? It seems obvious to me that copper has a highly reflective surface, often finely polished and used as mirrors in the biblical age. (see Exodus 38:8) When forged of this choice of metal it would be very bright when lifted up, and thus easy for people to see. This symbol would serve the same purpose as the cherabim of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) it seems, to reflect light so brightly that they appear to glow and flood the entire area around it.

If my assumption of this is true, then you might ask yourself why not make it out of gold like the cherabim of the Ark? Surely it would last longer, as the shinny surface of copper quickly begins to oxidize; first turning a dull brown, and then eventually green over time. But I believe this is precisely one of the reasons as well, as this symbol was not made to be a perpetual representation like the cherubs. This symbol had one purpose, only there and in the context of that situation. This symbol didn’t have to be built to last.

In fact it was better that the symbol not be something perpetual. It’s purposefulness seems evident from the fact we will see later in the Scriptures that this symbol was set up in the Sanctuary, and was present even in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It must have most certainly been a memorial to their incident with the snakes, as well as preserving something that was previously used as a sacred item in a way to not show contempt for it. But apparently the people did begin to reverence it too much to the point that it was considered unacceptable. It became and idol presence in the place where the holy offerings were elevated, so it was destroyed along with the sacred trees dedicated to pagan worship in the days of Hezekiah and the Assyrian empire. It was so well known as as symbol that it was given a nickname, the Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18:4)

And this is precisely why most of us are uncomfortable with this story of the Nehushtan. How is that Moses is creating this item, with G-d tolerating his choice of design? We know very well what the Torah says regarding this type of construction:

“Do not turn to idols

or make gods of cast metal for yourselves.

I am Hashem your G-d.”

אַל-תִּפְנוּ, אֶל-הָאֱלִילִם, |

וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם: |

אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. |

Leviticus 19:4

It is well known that based on its mirroring verse in Deut. 7:25 that many people’s general understanding of the halacha is that we are not allowed to make sculptures; in setting a fence around Torah we abhor anything that might be associated with iconography. But this is not the actual halacha, we are taught that an item does not become an idol until it is worshiped. (see Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kohavim 7) In fact even the most conservative of poskim would not hold by this halacha at this point in history, resorting to the traditional understanding, that something does not become an idol until it is actually worshiped. Now in the modern age, outright idolatry is so unknown that lifelike objects made by anyone are not considered an item of idolatry until utilized for that purpose. (see Shach 23, and a referencing article) Nonetheless our distaste in such items remains.

Simply put, once the image of the Nehushtan took on too much importance it needed to be destroyed. There was nothing divine or special about it that demanded reverence. It seems to me that it was a transient symbol, only purposeful in the context of the desert plague of serpents. Only over time did it pervert into something else, that literally became an idol lifnei Hashem – before the face of G-d, as we are commanded against having in the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:3)

It is my belief in the intent of the Nehushtan to be temporary that explains why this symbol was formed after the likeness of a serpent. It only needed to be used that once time, and for that one purpose. Had it been something that was be more permanent then I’m sure it would have taken on the form of a cherub instead; fitting nicely into the permanent decor of the Sanctuary. But a guard for the presence of G-d was not necessary, one to declare His glory was needed this situation in the desert. And it was only important in the there and then.

Rashi firmly states for us that the purpose of this symbol was, and demands that people abandon any idea that there was any mystical property in the Nehushtan itself. As he teaches us:

“Our Rabbis said:

Does [this] snake cause death or life?

However, when Israel

looked heavenward

and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven,

they would be healed,

but if not, they would waste away.”

אמרו רבותינו |

וכי נחש ממית או מחיה, |

אלא בזמן שהיו ישראל |

מסתכלין כלפי מעלה |

ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים |

היו מתרפאים, |

ואם לאו היו נמוקים: |

Rashi on Numbers 21:8; 11th century

This is also further support by the disciples of Rashi, one of whom would go on to affirm this point while also offering us yet another reason that the symbol of the serpent was chosen instead of a more simple figure of an angel:

“And the reason he made a serpent

and not some other object

was to magnify the miracle,

for the Holy One, blessed be He,

smites with a knife and heals with a knife

(as said in the

Mekhilta, Be-Shalah, s.v. va-yasa, p. 156).

If the

Holy One, blessed be He, had so wished it,

no object would have been necessary,

and they would

immediately have been healed;

rather, it was to intensify the miracle,

so that they would not say

it was mere chance.”

ומה שעשה נחש |

לו דבר אחר, |

כדי להגדיל הנס |

שהקב”ה |

מכה באיזמל ומרפא באיזמל |

(מובא |

במכילתא בשלח, ויסע עמ’ 156) |

ואם היה |

רצונו של הקב”ה |

לא היו צריכין שום דבר, |

אלא יון |

מתרפאים מיד, |

אלא להגדיל הנס |

ושלא יאמרו |

מקרה הוא. |

Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, 12th century

What G-d was doing was providing an appropriate and recognizable cure to their problem at hand. Moses did not provide a traditional angel, mostly likely because he did not want it to be an intermediary between the people and G-d. The symbol of the Nehushtan was only created in order for the people to recognize that G-d was providing a cure for their situation at hand. All they needed to do was intently focus their attention heavenward, towards the Throne of Heaven with their problems in mind and G-d would heal them.

But there was no power or mystical virtue in the Nehushtan itself. It was merely a nes; a banner and standard. It was a symbol created to lift the peoples spirits up and out of their situation, and to focus their attention towards our Father in Heaven. Though the symbol was powerless in and of itself, their use of it had miraculous results.

Consider it for a moment, why does the word nes also means a miracle in Hebrew? What was so miraculous about this symbol? It was a sign (nes) to the people; as we see it used it used in Parshat Korach (see Numbers 26:10). This would serve as a sign to the people, as it would be raised up in the wind like a flag (nes; see Isaiah 11:12) to signal hope to them. Being raised in the wind (ruach) it would serve as a sign (nes) to raise their spirits (ruach), so that the people would no longer be vtikzar nefesh (short of spirit; disheartened). Sure the symbol itself was powerless, just like a national flag or similar item is endued with nothing more than the hopes of the people who look to it. In reality they didn’t need a symbol at all, it was just a mundane item they regarded as a talisman.

That’s how powerful human belief and hope is. G-d seems to have instructed the creation of the item to help the people who needed to be motivated by simple suggestibility to look above their current situation. All they needed was to find the enthusiasm to believe.

This story serves as a lesson to us, that G-d does in fact permit us to have very tangible symbols and signs in which to help us focus our attention and faith heavenward. But it stands as a testaments to us as Jews as to why we tend to not rely on symbols and signs, because in the end they can just become a distraction. Symbolisms and ritual items should only direct our attention to G-d alone, as we should never let anything become sacred and revered in its own right.


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