The Jewish Artist of the Week: Debra Band

December 12 – December 18 2021
ז’-י”ג טבת תשפ״ב
Parshat Vayechi ויחי

 Piece Description:
“I’m struck by the role of justice in these final chapters of Braishit. In this piece, Vayechi’s verses flow out of the Kabbalistic imagery of God’s creation of all matter through a scale representing Jacob’s keen evaluation of his sons’ characters. The scale’s balance offers the blessing “May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh,” while its pans bear imagery of the sons’ deeds and Jacob’s just judgment—sin at left (the Kabbalistic side of God’s harder attributes), outweighed by goodness at right (the side of God’s gentler attributes). Notably, Judah’s lion looks back from the side of good, remembering his past sin against his daughter-in-law, Tamar. The micrography ends with Chazak, whose painted letters anticipate the golden Menorah far in the future. The first-Temple period palmette design bordering the artwork relates to the decoration described in later texts for Solomon’s Temple.” 

 Discussion Questions:

1. How does the four lettered name of G-d, written at the top, correspond with the word Chazak at the bottom. What differences do you see between the way both are depicted? Why do you think these choices were made?

2. The entire text of this Torah portion is written out in the margins and in the water-like flow of the micrography seen throughout this piece. How does seeing the entire Torah portion in this way make you feel. Does this put the text in the background or foreground of this piece?

3. The symbols and stories found in Jacob’s blessing to his sons are placed on the pans of the central scale. Why do you think the scale is tipped in a certain direction? How do you relate to this image in our contemporary world and in your own life.  

4. What effect do the palmette designs and papyrus plants have on the aesthetics of this piece? How do they tie in to the larger narrative that Debra Band is conveying?

Artist Bio:

Debra Band is a deeply committed liberal modern OrthodoxJewish woman, equally committed to approaching Jewish life, text and historical community with modern intellectual integrity. Her Hebrew-English illuminated biblical and liturgical Jewish texts fuse the classical manuscript arts with traditional rabbinic, modern academic biblical, historical, literary, philosophical and even scientific scholarship to convey a deep understanding of the text at hand to a generally educated lay public. Each of her works are the fruit of intense collaboration with leading scholars, including Arnold J. Band, Raymond Scheindlin, Arthur Green and Howard Smith, with input from many other scholars, and extensive study of related Judaica and academic biblical studies. A sense of historicity is central to her learning. Her recent contributions to 929’s studies of Qohelet, along with the philosopher Menachem Fisch is her most recent work in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Debra lectures in Universities and in Jewish and Christian communities to teach about the depth and relevance of Jewish thought and art to modern life.

To see more art by Debra:
Follow Debra on Instagram: @debraband

Artist-Rabbi Chevrutah Pair:
Rabbi Jason Herman   
New York City, NY, United States

Rabbi Bio: Rabbi Jason Herman received his Rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, after spending time as an investment banker. He currently serves as the Senior Rabbi at the Hudson Yards Synagogue and is the Executive Director of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). The IRF leads the Modern Orthodox community in engaging in a more open and inclusive discourse and has been an outspoken voice on many issues confronting the Modern Orthodox community and the Jewish people. Rabbi Herman is the founder and president of the Israel Academic Institute, an organization seeking to promote Israeli academia in the United States. He is an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis where he leads its Jewish-Muslim dialogue group.  He is also a former fellow at Rabbis Without Borders.

Sermon of Rabbi: 
In English, we typically think that prayer is an expression of our innermost wishes, hopes, and desires.  It comes from the Latin precari, meaning to “beg.”  By contrast, a blessing is an expression of our hopes for someone else that we bestow upon them.  It comes from the old English, meaning to consecrate something with blood.  The blesser is asking to bestow Divine favor on something or someone by placing blood seen as a sign of vitality.

Parshat Vayechi presents us with an alternative view of these concepts.  The Hebrew word “to pray” is התפלל.  Many commentators note the reflexive form of the verb in that it is something that one does to one’s own self.  What is it that one does to one’s own self?  Most understand the root to פלל to mean to “judge.”  In Parashat Vayechi, we see a usage that directs us to a different understanding.

Presented with his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, Yaakov says to his son, Yosef, 

“ראה פניך לא פללתי והנה הראה אותי אלקים גם את זרעך”  

“I had not thought it possible (imagined) that I would see your face, and now God has let me see even your seed.” (Genesis 48:11)

Pillel then might mean to imagine what is possible.  To be Mitpallel, to pray is thus to cause one’s self to imagine what is possible. It is not an expression of what is inside, but putting an image or an idea into one’s mind and soul.  Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch understands it to mean to infuse one’s self with Divine ideas.  “פלל means: to inject a spiritual element into thoughts or conditions, infuse them with an idea, a truth, a principle,  etc. and thereby integrate and unify them.  Thus פלל, the task of the judge, who introduces justice into the midst of things, thereby turning discord into unity. . . . Jewish prayer is not an outpouring from within oneself; rather, it means infusing the heart with truths that come from outside oneself.”

This explains how we can have a requirement to pray and to pray every day for that matter.  It’s not because we feel, but because the ideas we believe we should feel are at times difficult to hold on to and we need to realign ourselves.

When it comes to blessing, on the other hand, after Yaakov blessed his sons, the Parasha states:

“ויברך אותם איש אשר כברבתו ברך אתם”

“He blessed them, each one according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Genesis 49:28)

The verse indicates that the blessing was not some arbitrary wish that Yaakov had for each son, but rather the blessing was reflective of an appropriate blessing specific to the character of each son.  It emanated from within them.  The blessing was an expression of the strengths that they already possessed.  It is noted that the verse is in the plural because the strengths that we have become strengths for the collective community.  That is indeed the “blessing” that we can use that which is specific and unique to us for the benefit of others.  

The book of Bereishit begins with God blessing humans with the strengths that they will need to accomplish God’s mission in the world.  However, early on, humans chose to focus on their own internal wants and desires, represented by eating from the Tree of Knowledge discerning good and evil.  We thought and wanted to decide for ourselves what we think is good and evil.  The book ends quietly introducing us to concepts where we infuse our will with God’s will and desires and see our strengths as blessings for carrying out God’s will on Earth.  That recognition leads us to a place of strength – Chazak. 

AMEN Institute Happenings
Jewish Artist of the Week Next Week:
Next week we will be featuring Yael Haris Resnick, who studied Parshat Vayechi with Yiscah Smith. 

Creative Articulation Featuring Debra Band and Rabbi Jason Herman

On Monday December 13th at 12:30 p.m., we heard from Debra Band and Rabbi Jason Herman about their studies on Parashat Vayechi. We learnt about the power of blessing and the choice words of a sage Jacob at the closing of the book of Genesis. Please check out the link to watch this impressive Articulation:

Yetzirah Circles:
The Yetzirah Circle is a monthly gathering where we open up an online zoom room for Jewish artists to work on their crafts in a shared virtual space. Join us on December 21st at 7 pm EST to meet kindred spirits and to partake in this Amen activity. Here’s the link:
 Heal Over Head Retreat:
We hosted a Jewish experiential weekend of healing, growth, introspection and creativity for young adults. Participants ventured to a paradisiacal estate in the scenic backdrop of the Pocono Mountains to gain access to deep healing, clarity and self expression through workshops led by skilled facilitators. Stay tuned for updates on when our next retreat will be.                 


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: