Jewish Artist of the Week: Yona Verwer

 May 22-28 2022
 כ״א-כ״ז אייר תשפ״ב
Parshat Bechukotai בחקתי
Yona Verwer                                                                                                            CursesYona Verwer                                                                                                          Blessings

Piece Description:
These two artworks are based on blessings and curses mentioned in this Torah text, and they focus on rain. Blessings, curses, and rain are all open to interpretation; while good for one, they may be bad for another. These paintings show the process of opening ourselves to Hashem: the more we open ourselves to divine energy coming down to us, the more we are open to positive interpretations of events.

Discussion Questions:
1. These two pieces describe blessings and curses very differently, but also share many of the same features. What are the common elements of both images? In which ways are the two different from one another? Take note of the color combinations, usage of light, shape…
2. Yona describes going back on forth on deciding which work would define blessing and which curses. What do you think brought her to decide in the end? What does it say about the creative process to allow the work to tell you what it is trying to be? Do you relate with this experience? Imagine the two titles were flipped, how would you go about ascribing meaning to the pieces’ names?

3. Yona Verwer opted to work on these pieces utilizing new techniques. She chose to work with metal sculptures, and to engage with the subject matter without the use of figurative depictions. Would you say that this creative process is an extension of the conversation that this work engages with? 

4.  A prominent ray of light can be noticed in the back layer of both pieces. What is the source of this light, and what do you think the light represents? Where, in your own life, can you shine a light to direct you in the determination of life’s blessings and curses?

Artist Bio:

Dutch-born Yona Verwer is an artist in New York City. She holds a master’s degree in fine art from the Royal Academy in The Hague, and has shown and curated in galleries and museums nationally and internationally, such as the Andy Warhol Factory, Jerusalem Biennale, the Bronx Museum, Yeshiva University Museum, and the Holocaust Memorial Center. She has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Ars Judaica, the Huffington Post.

To see more art by Yona: 

Artist-Rabbi Chevrutah Pair:

Baruch Thaler
Brooklyn, New York 

Rabbi Bio:  
Rabbi Baruch Thaler grew up in Crown Heights and received rabbinic ordination by Chabad-Lubavitch. He also served as Shliach in various communities. Though he has evolved from his Chasidic upbringing, he still keeps connection to those roots, in his own way. He currently heads “Nitzotzot,” an egalitarian collective of members who transitioned from their ultra-Orthodox (Chareidi) background into the modern world, and who are now expressing their Judaism in new and creative ways. He received his B.A. (Eng. Lit./Creative Writing) & M.F.A. (Film) from Columbia University.

Sermon of Rabbi: 
A main theme of this week’s parsha, Bechukotai, is what is known as “the Tochacha,” the so-called “reproofs” from G-d: that if the Children of Israel follow the Torah way, then they will be recipients of many earthly blessings; however, if they do not adhere to the righteous path, then many calamities (“curses”) will befall them.On closer inspection of the text, an oddity surfaces: whereas the blessings take up ten verses, almost three times as many are devoted to the curses, for a total of forty-nine. Why is this so? Shouldn’t there be more emphasis on divine positive reinforcement than the opposite? And why depict them in such gory detail?The following chasidic story can help shed light on this:It was the custom of Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi, first Rebbe of Chabad, to be the Torah-reader every Shabbat. One week, when the Tochacha was to be read, he was out of town, so a substitute reader took his place. While he was reading the Tochacha, Rabbi Shneor Zalman’s son and eventual successor, Rabbi Dov Ber, fainted. Even after he regained consciousness, he was beside himself and was ill for days to come.

When his father returned to Liadi and saw his son bedridden, he asked him what happened. Rabbi Dov Ber replied that when he heard the Torah-reader chant all the scourges in vivid detail, the sheer terror of it caused him to collapse.

“But don’t you hear me reading it every year? Why did it suddenly affect you now?” Rabbi Shneor Zalman asked him.To which Rabbi Dov Ber replied: “Yes that is true – but when you, father, read it, I only hear blessings!”According to Kabbalah and Chasidus, all the afflictions depicted in the Tochacha are really blessings in disguise. For example, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev’s insight is that the curse of the land that “you shall sow your seeds in vain” (Lev. 26:16) is in fact a blessing that all the produce and grains will organically grow on their own with such bountifulness that there will be no need to sow the fields (see his Kedushat Levi on the parsha). Similarly, the Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 9a) relates how Rabbi Eliezer was showered with curses by two sages, and it was his father, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who then interpreted them to him, revealing how they were actually the most profound blessings.Yet if that is the case, why phrase the blessings as curses in the first place? Wouldn’t it be more straightforward to just describe them as they were meant to mean?Herein lies the deep teaching of our parsha: We, unfortunately, live in a far from ideal world. The reality is that more than a few negative ordeals can penetrate our lives and affect our spirit and physical state in the most deleterious ways. At times it seems that the darkness in our lives is multiplied manifold than the light. We have two general options how to deal with these experiences: we can either passively absorb them and surrender to them as our inevitable fate – or, we can see them as challenges, even as opportunities, to actively confront them as obstacles that are there to make us stronger, greater, and thus transform their negative impact into the most positive circumstances. To loosely paraphrase the singer Matisyahu (from “One Day”): “Even when negativity surrounds, we can make it all turn around.”It is easy to embrace reality when all is going our way. It is when things appear to be spiraling down into the abyss, schlepping us down too, that we need to tap into our more potent divine powers – those that take the extra effort from our part to search below the surface and discover that there are blessings even in the most catastrophic conditions. As the Mishnah states (Brachot 9:5): “One is obligated to bless for the bad that befalls one, just as one is to bless for the good that comes to one.” But how can we achieve such a radical perspective, to see and feel the good even in the most distressing situations?  The answer lies in the opening phrase of our parsha: “Im bechukotai telechu” – “If you shall walk with my statutes” (ibid. 26:3). Note the two words employed here: “(with my) statutes” and “(you shall) walk.” The Torah could have written this in a more direct tone, such as “If you shall observe my commandments” (as it indeed does in the very same verse right thereafter). Why this specific noun and verb?The Hebrew word for “statute” is “chok” (חוק), which can also mean “engraving” or “chiseled.” This denotes that the essence of the divine and its good that we possess is not merely a superficial add-on to our existence; it is innately part of us, like letters of an inspiring dictum engraved into an ancient tablet. And like those engravings etched in the solid stone, even when layers of detritus cover them up, they are still there in complete form. All we need to do is to brush away the sediment and clean out the grooves to expose the positive message that is there all along. For by shifting our viewpoint of the seemingly noxious phenomenon in our lives towards perceiving it in a more pleasant manner and inferring the good that can come even from it, we can allow the positivity hidden within it to emerge.  This is where the “walking” comes in. In order to make this so, we cannot lay back and assume that all will be favorable for us by itself. We need to invest ourselves pro-actively in the task of disclosing the good that is chiseled in all, even when it is sometimes covered with thick layers of the most negative shmutz. It is when we put our own effort into bettering the given defect, that we are then able to transmute it into the most supreme benediction. And when we do, we have the advantage that we made it so – thus making us appreciate it all the more so, and for it to be all the more present and permanent in our lives. (In gematria, the word for “you shall walk” [תלכו] has the numerical value of 456 – which is exactly double the numerical value of the word for “blessing” [ברוך], which is 228 – thus indicating that when we are in active mode [walking] to reveal the blessing even in the curse, we generate even more blessings!)This profound lesson is also reflected in the known verses of Psalms (end of Chapter 126): “Those who sow with tears, shall reap with joyful song. Though he walks along weeping, carrying the seed-bag – he shall come back with joyful song, carrying his sheaves.” It is as if the Psalmist is teaching us that it is through persistent action and motion per se to improve that we are able to produce and reveal the best of fortunes. (This is all the more emphasized in the literal Hebrew, with the doubling of both verbs: “walking he will walk and weeps [הלוך ילך ובכה]…coming he will come with joyful song [בא יבא ברנה]…”) This, too, is the role of the artist: to take her or his even most adverse experiences and to decorticate their ugly shells in order to let the beauty within to shine forth. Indeed, some of the best works of art come through this most formidable process — and they even become artifacts to channel healing, both for the artist and the spectator. (The two art pieces created for our parsha by Yona Verwer, my artist chavruta for this week’s Articulation collaboration, visualizes this in the most tangible way: by peeling away the veneer, even if partially, in order to show the blessed rain and sustenance that is there just below the surface all along.) Not that we are to pursue hardships, heaven forbid. One does not have to be suffering in order to be an artist. However, when we are meted misfortunes from above, let us not resign to them. Rather, let us “keep on trekking” through the storm, and put in the effort to manage and mold the unwanted chaos in such a way that it alchemizes into the most sublime divine gifts. And when we do so, we will be able to enhance our lives in the most unexpected and wondrous ways – and truly reveal the infinite blessings in all existence, even in the curses, amen!  

AMEN Institute Happenings

Next Jewish Artist of the Week:
In two weeks week we will be featuring Beth Achenbach, who studied Parshat Nasso with Rabbi Bronwen Mullin. Stay updated on our facebook page for more information on this articulation in the coming week.

Creative Articulation Featuring Yona Verwer and Rabbi Baruch Thaler
On Sunday May 22nd Yona and Rabbi Baruch Thaler challenged us to think about life’s circumstances comprehensively. In a Torah portion filled with negativity, we are tasked with the challenge to see the blessings ensconced by the curses. Relive their dynamic conversation using this link to their 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 May 31st 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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