Examining whole words

A look at the Holy Book: a new series

The Jewish Family Identity Forum With Candace R. Kwiatek

The Dayton Jewish Observer

Candace R. Kwiatek
Candace R. Kwiatek

The recent hoopla over the new British heir highlighted the importance of symbols. Unlikely to hold any political power in his lifetime, His Royal Highness Prince George is nevertheless a symbol of history, tradition, and national pride. Closer to home are the familiar symbols of the golden arches and the Nike swoosh.

More than just branding images, however, “symbols have both rational and emotional power as they visually represent multiple meanings, create associations between ideas, and express cultural values,” according to Ellen Frankel and Betsy Teusch in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols. Those arches can symbolize fast food, “a break today,” and the days when the kids were young. The Nike swoosh may represent charity funds raised in walkathons or recall the feeling of a marathon win, not just sneakers or sports gear.

While the language of symbols is universal, the meanings of symbols may differ across time, between cultures, and even within the same individual.

The Passover matzah can represent freedom, human pride, the annual Seder gathering, the Last Supper, or even the blood libel. Symbols are a shorthand method for expressing ideas.

Symbols offer a unique approach to connecting with the biblical text. Probably the most recognizable are the Ten Commandments, God’s essential laws for establishing society, and the rainbow, a sign of God’s promise to never again flood the earth. But these are only the most familiar symbols, clearly explained in the text itself. Other symbols may be less concrete or obvious.

Numbers aren’t just math. Because they show up repetitively, numbers are generally recognizable as symbols, representing more than just quantity or sequence. “One” communicates wholeness, uniqueness, and indivisibility.

Besides referring to God and marriage, the concept of one is connected with the first day of creation, Pharaoh’s dreams, and the laws for citizens and strangers among the Israelites.

Three, represented by the patriarchs, pilgrimage festivals, and verses of the priestly blessing, signifies completeness. It is also a sign of holiness or God’s presence when events or verses appear in threes: the number of months baby Moses was concealed, the times Balaam beat his donkey, the items in the Ark, and the verse “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” all appear in threes. New beginnings are signaled by 10: 10 generations, 10 righteous people in Sodom, 10 plagues.

Periods of probation are identified by 40: the length of the Flood, the Sinai experience, the days the 12 spies scouted out the Promised Land, the years of wandering in the wilderness.

Texts with like numbers are more about matching meanings than math.

Characters become synonymous with values. With his open-sided tent, Abraham is a symbol of hospitality or perhaps of righteousness since he argued with God over the planned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. His grandson — first known as the patriarch Jacob — is renamed Israel, “one who struggles with God, reflecting both the character and the name of the Jewish people.

Amalek, the king and his nation that attacked the weakest of the wandering Israelites, is synonymous with betrayal and evil. His name has been attached to every enemy of the Jewish people from Haman to Hitler. David the giant-slayer represents the successful underdog. Solomon is associated with wisdom. Elijah is known as the champion of the poor.

The players in the various biblical dramas are larger than life, symbols of key values in Jewish tradition.

What’s in a name? Names are textual clues, symbols of bigger ideas. God forms Adam, the first earthling, from the adamah (earth). The Israelites are made slaves in Egypt, Mitzrayim, which can also be read metzarim meaning “narrow places.”

When God establishes the covenant with Avram, he becomes Avraham, the father of hamon, multitudes. Before sending out scouts, Moses renames Hosea (savior), as Joshua (God saves). Jacob is the family man, while the very same man is called Israel when he represents the nation.

Names frequently symbolize something more than a straightforward identity.

Reappearing objects suggest connections. From Creation’s “Let there be light” to Moses’ “rays of light” to the “pillar of fire by night” in the wilderness, light suggests the Divine presence, holiness, goodness, or spirit. Known as the “window to the soul,” the eye is equated with spiritual insight, as in the story of Adam and Eve whose “eyes were opened” when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Blindness, on the other hand, is the loss of spiritual vision or power, such as Isaac’s loss of perspective about his son Esau or Samson’s lack of insight into Delilah’s true nature.

While a circle represents completion, connection, and perfection, a square or corners symbolize limits and boundaries between holy and ordinary.

The four horns of the altar and the four ritual fringes on the tallit border sacred space.

Likewise, the four unharvested corners of the field set apart for the needy denote sacred space. Objects tell a deeper story.

From the number four to the “land of milk and honey,” the Bible is filled with symbols. It is possible to ignore them or miss them altogether, but then the richness of the text is lost.

As William Shatner is credited with saying, “A tree you pass by every day is just a tree. If you are to closely examine what a tree has and the life a tree has, even the smallest thing can withstand a curiosity, and you can examine whole worlds.” By examining closely, what new worlds might you discover in the symbols of the Tree of Life?

Family Discussion: As the annual cycle of Torah readings begins again, try picking a symbol from the weekly text to examine more deeply. How does it appeal to your rational and emotional sides? What additional meaning does it add to the story?


Literature to share

The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street by Ann Stampler: Set on the streets of Jerusalem, this delightful tale turns the city’s multitude of cats into a story of friendship and caring. From its lively cartoon-like illustrations to the story of two delightfully charming neighbors, this picture book for the young set is sure to be requested over and over. The author will be in Dayton on Nov. 17 for the DJCC’s Cultural Arts & Book Festival.

Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr: This fast-paced historical fiction tackles the Holocaust through the window of the Jewish artworks endangered by the Nazis. War, suspense, religion, and betrayal all play roles in this can’t-put-it-down novel. Watch for Barr’s book talk at the DJCC’s Put the Heart in Art event on Oct. 20 as part of the CABF.

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