The Jewish Artist of the Week: Gabriella Boros

January 16th – 21th  2021
י”ד-כ שבט תשפ״ב
Parshat Yitro יתרו
     Gabriella Boros                                                                    Navol Tibol: You Are Withered 
Piece Description:
The Israelites have been trudging through the desert for quite a while. The monotony and hardship has lead to petty squabbles, fights, unpleasantness and unrest. In order to gain a modicum of control, Moses sits day after day adjudicating these internal disputes. He is tired from the weight of responsibility and very tired of making these picayune decisions. Our first panel shows how Yitro must have viewed Moses when he first came upon the encampment.

An exhausted Moses, leaning on his fist for support, throngs of Israelites yelling, pushing and shoving to get Moses’ attention. Below them the camp filled with men, women, children and animals. The large pillar of smoke indicating their presence as a people. The sharp peaks of the Sinai mountain range hinting at the challenge Moses will yet face. And there, Navol tibol, I have placed a withering tree right near Moses, a symbol of his flagging strength.

Yitro was not an Israelite priest but nevertheless gave a burnt offering in joy for the release of the Israelites by Pharoah. He was an experienced religious leader who himself had dealt with adjudicating people. Giving Moses his advice was not done lightly. And he states plainly that it is not good for you to wear yourself out ” Navol tibol,” literally, the withering limb will wither. The emphasis of both verb and noun agreement shows how strongly Yitro was making this point. Yitro pushes Moses to seek other wise men to adjudicate so that he will have the strength to lead and ultimately do the most important deed of his life. He needs to have the mental, physical and emotional resources to battle the heat, smoke and fire and for forty days to bring down the Divrei Torah.

The second panel addresses this same Navol Tibol concept from Moses’ point of view. We see Moses contemplating a log being lifted by five men, while Yitro is looking on from afar. This is an interpretation of the Mekhilta de rabbi Yishmael which states that Navol Tibol means “it is beyond your strength, when a beam is moist you need four or five to lift it.” These words from Dvir Cahana further develop this theme beautifully, ‘Paying attention not only to how Moses experiences taking on the entire load of jurisprudence, but to how it affects those waiting in line, can hint at the dependence that they have developed to having Moses carry everything. In some ways this makes the system weak because as soon as Moses leaves the picture, they no longer have the wherewithal to think on their own. In some ways it is Moses who creates this dependence which leads to the sin of the golden calf.”

Why is Yitro dark? He is of a desert people all of whom are darker skinned. It is an emphasis on his being from a different people. Moses embraces his advice with great Chokhma despite his difference. A lesson to us all, wisdom comes from everywhere.
Moses becomes stronger with the support of others. None of us can carry a load by ourselves. Navol Tibol, a simple phrase which resounds in all of our lives.

Discussion Questions:
1. Both of these panels were etched from a woodblock. Why do you think this medium was chosen to frame our story? The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael expands on Yitro’s conversation with Moses by describing a parable about a moist beam being lifted by 5 men. In what ways might the depiction of this addendum enhance our understanding of the name of this piece, Navol Tibol – the withering limb will wither – a term coined by Yitro himself?

2. In the first panel, Moses is in the action while Yitro observes from a distance, while in the second panel the roles are reversed. What subtextual meaning does the composition of these two panels articulate by doing this? What lessons from these teachings can you take into your own life?

3. The story of Yitro’s advice precedes the dramatic recounting of the revelation at Mount Sinai and the reception of the 10 commandments. What is the significance of preceding this foundational scene with the story of Yitro’s legal structural counselling. What can we learn about this juxtoposition? In what ways does Gabriella Boros set the scene to establish the magnitude of this moment? And how does the composition of this moment contrast with it?  

4. Gabriella Boros is known as the botanist artist and took a particular interest in the horticultural nature of the phrase, Navol Tibol. What organisms are prominent in this image? It is of particular interest to note that this week was also coincides with Tu Bishvat, the new year for the trees, and we are currently within the 7th year in the Shmitta cycle, the agricultural sabbatical. How do these calendric confluences impact the way you read the portion. What larger conversation can be drawn out of Gabriella’s imagery and our relationship with the environment. 

Artist Bio:

 Gabriella Boros has shown her prints, paintings and multimedia works nationally and internationally. Currently focusing on woodblock prints, Gabriella also paints, draws and sculpts. Born in Israel, Gabriella immigrated to the US as a child. She has a BFA from the University of Michigan School of Art. Gabriella works in series to develop her themes which are most often Judaic and botanic in nature.

To see more art by Gabriella:

Artist-Teacher Chevrutah Pair:
Rabbi Benjamin Greenfield
New York, USA
Rabbi Bio:
Ben Greenfield serves as the rabbi of The Greenpoint Shul in Brooklyn, NY. Previously, he spent two years as the rabbi at Bais Abraham Congregation, in Saint Louis, MO. Originally from Los Angeles, Ben was trained at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshiva University, Oxford, and Johns Hopkins, and was awarded Tikvah Fund and Wexner Graduate fellowships. Ben is a founder of the Upper West Side Moishe House, where he coordinated 200+ Jewish communal events for over 5,000 Manhattan Jews, while also serving at Rikers Island Correctional Facility as the High Holidays and Passover rabbi. His writing was awarded the Whizin Prize in Jewish Ethics and he is the author of a cycle of original liturgy for Shavuot, Purim, and Yom HaShoah. Ben loves squash (the sport), faux-organic cooking, and finger percussion.

Sermon of Rabbi: 
The word “good” (טוב) appears a full 37 times in the Torah. There is so much good to notice in the Torah!  But only twice, over the course of the entire Five Books, do we find it’s negation: “not good” (לא טוב).  

One of those two instances appears in this week’s Parsha.  Yitro observes how his son-in-law, Moshe, sits as the sole judge, morning and night, before a multitudinous Jewish people.  Yitro, shocked by the wear and tear this puts upon both Moshe and the nation, declares:

לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה, נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל … לֹא־תוּכַ֥ל עֲשֹׂ֖הוּ לְבַדֶּֽךָ (שמות יח:יז,יח)
Not good is this thing that you do. You will certainly wither away … You cannot do it alone. (Shemot 18:17, 18)

Yitro’s words seem to intentionally evoke the only other instance of “not good” — the creation of Adam and Chava, in Breishit 2.  After a full seven times of God declaring God’s created universe “good” or even “very good!”, God observes that something in this newly minted world is actually “not good”:

לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ 
Not good is it for man to be alone (Breishit 2:18)

In both instances, what’s “not good” is being alone.  For Adam, it is an existential aloneness. There is but one human on the entire planet. Indeed, in Breishit 2’s telling, Adam’s is the only heart beating on a planet devoid even of animal life.  God sees this and realizes this is no fit for a world created to be “good”. A process ensues of selecting the right partner, leading ultimately in the creation, from one initial human, of a partnered Adam and Eve.

For Moshe, what’s “not good” is an aloneness in leadership.  He sits by himself, without support system or colleague.  He is, apparently, the only one with access to God’s law. Here too, a process of selection ensues, as Yitro explains the kind of person that Moshe should select to serve under him in a full blown judicial system, and Moshe handpicks his team.  

Less obvious to an untrained reader, however, is a connection that the artist Gabriella Boros brings to light in her latest woodcut.  In Breishit, the verse about Adam’s loneliness is immediately preceded by a sentence introducing, עֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֙עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and (it’s negation) Bad.  Only with The Tree’s presence established, does God realize that the human is alone. And as soon the creation of Adam and Eve concludes, we return immediately to the subject of eating from The Tree.

Though The Tree has no obvious textual parallel in the Yitro/Moshe sequence, Boros provides a visual correspondent.  A tree, symbolic of Moshe, withers behind him.  This image is no doubt informed by Boros’ sensitivity to the original Hebrew of Yitro’s phrase, נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל, “you will certainly wither away”. As Rashi points out, this Hebrew root appears several times in later Biblical passages, specifically in arboreal contexts.  In Yirmiyahu 8:13, the prophet envisions, “No grapes left on the vine, no figs on the fig tree, the leaves all נָבֵ֔ל — all withered.”  In Yishayahu 34:4, the prophet foretellls a time when the heavens will wither, “like a withering (כִּנְבֹ֤ל) leaf on the vine or shriveled fruit (וּכְנֹבֶ֖לֶת) on a fig tree”.  It is unfortunate that the King James Version and its followers fleece their readers by translating the phrase as “wear out”, when they could have employed a more organic “wither away” or “shrivel up”.  For a Hebrew reader, Yitro’s warning to Moshe immediately calls to mind a vine, or a tree, or a leaf, slowly fading under the drain of inadequate nurturing.

Indeed, there are further textual hints to a parallel “Tree of Knowledge” (עץ הדעת) here in the Moshe narrative.  In Exodus 18:19, Yitro offers his advice – “אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔”, from עצה. Both parties describe Moshe’s role as “providing knowledge” (וְהוֹדַעְתִּ֛י, וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֣) to the Jewish people, and Yitro’s opening line of questions — “Wherefore” (מדוע) — stem from that same Hebrew root: דעה.  And of course, the Yitro scene also contains the “Tree of Life” itself – the Torah (Exodus 18:16, 18) – whose laws and wisdom Moshe strains to offer to God’s people.

Isolation, it seems, is a barrier to existential wholeness, to executing leadership, and also in accessing Divine wisdom. A Torah with one expositor is like a sprawling garden with but one gardener: lonely, exhausted, and unable to taste of its fruit. Much like humanity was incomplete until there was an Adam and an Eve, the Torah sits stunted and stagnant under the protection of but one teacher. 

AMEN Institute Happenings

Jewish Artist of the Week Next Week:
Next week we will be featuring Beverley Jane Stewart, who studied Parshat Yitro with Rabbi Eryn London. 

Creative Articulation Featuring Kate Lenkowsky and Rabbi David Evan Markus Esq.
On Thursday January 20th at 8:00 p.m. Est, we will be hearing from Gabriella Boros and Rabbi Ben Greenfield. about their studies on Parashat Yitro. Join us as we unpack the true meaning of gratitude and when joy and faith act as its substitute. Here is the link to the event page:

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 January 25th 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.                 


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