Category Archives: Art Essay

Beauty and Danger

Beauty and Danger

 The rose and the thorn, and sorrow and gladness are linked together. -Sa’di

rosesRomantic sentiment gets limited attention in the Bible, but it is there, and the rose takes its place in Biblical literature as a romanticized metaphor for beauty just as it does in more modern times. This essay continues the series inspired by Mr. Egbert Pijfers, based on the artwork of fine artist Nira Spitz. The painting in question is a deceptively simple water color of a vase of roses.

Deceptive, because one would think it child’s play to capture the image of an inanimate object on a table in a room. Nonetheless, the artist, in her characteristic brilliance, subtly brings to life this object that carries millennia of symbolism. The wall, table and vase are common enough, and the artist renders them in a sturdy yet amorphous fashion. They are the foundation, the backdrop and our eyes note them, register them, they give reality to the painting, assure us that we are in the presence of an experienced master and then draw our attention, frame the main event – the roses.

The roses appear as they would in real life, with their geometric dispersion, their positioning relative to one another, the angle of the flower to the stem, the interplay of shadow and light upon their petals. However, what the artist does, what brings out the genius of her art is the texture she adds to the roses. In real life, or in a photograph, we would not sense the variation in colors, we would not pick up the spectrum of reds that are the canvas of the rose, we would be blind to the dynamic mix of light, shadow, angle, position, depth and rich texture that the artist reveals. They are as flowers from another dimension, another world, some mystical realm, some king’s garden from antiquity. By focusing so intently on the minute nuances of the petals, normally invisible to the eye, we finally see the rose for what it truly is. A live, vibrant, deep ecosystem that arrests our senses on multiple levels.

Hence the age-long infatuation of mankind and specifically its womenfolk with the rose. It is no coincidence that through multiple cultures, continents and civilizations, the rose has held a special place in the universal language of romance, and continues to do so until this day.

Perhaps the most famous mention of roses in the Bible is in King Solomon’s Song of Songs, an ancient love poem filled with passionate, longing, descriptive lines of the pursuit and adoration of one lover for another. Biblical commentators read more deeply into the Song of Songs and interpret it as symbolizing the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.

“As the rose amongst the thorns, so is my love amongst the maidens.” Song of Songs 2:2

While in literature the rose often stands out from other flowers, and the comparisons are then of subjective beauty between different flowers, in King Solomon’s Song, the comparison is more heavily lopsided. It is a stark comparison to compare a rose to its thorns. To confuse matters further, we realize that a rose is typically inseparable from its thorns. The thorns are part and parcel of the rose. There is beauty, but it is accompanied by danger – and if one is not careful – pain.

The theme of beauty, danger and pain is one that surfaces in multiple ways and times throughout Biblical and Talmudic literature.

We see this theme in the very beginning of the Bible, in the Garden of Eden. Eve, the prime woman, knows of the danger of eating the forbidden fruit, but it is beautiful to her. She lets the beauty of the fruit overcome the warning. She ignores the danger. She and Adam and the snake are all punished, all are cursed with different sentences of pain for daring to partake of the beauty.

Sarah, the first Matriarch is described as exceedingly beautiful. Abraham, her husband, upon entering hostile territory, realizes the danger this can bring him. Two different monarchs on two different occasions take Sarah for themselves and then discover the danger and the pain of taking a prohibited beauty.

Jacob is attracted to the beautiful Rachel. He misses the subterfuge of his soon-to-be father-in-law, Laban, and unknowingly (!?) marries the less attractive sister, Leah, and then marries his sweetheart Rachel as well. The ensuing rivalry caused by his affection for the beautiful sister creates a schism between the tribes of Israel that some say we are still suffering from almost 4,000 years later. The danger and the pain were very real.

There are many more examples that play upon this theme throughout Jewish literature. The question though is, what do we learn from this? Should we avoid or be wary of beauty? Is there safety in the mundane, in the plain? Why are we so attracted to “beauty” however we define it, and why is it so often dangerous.

If we return to King Solomon’s Song, there is pain, longing and hardship throughout the relationship – that is life, he is telling us. Beauty makes the pain more poignant, the longing harsher, the drama more intense. Beauty is that intersection of perception, memory, imagination and fantasy, where the senses are excited and are given pleasure by what they perceive. It is the symmetry, elegance, simplicity, complexity, that ephemeral quality that may be either universal or which no two people will agree upon.

The fact that beauty may be evoked by something as random as the geometric pattern of organic matter, by the refraction of its photons upon our iris, by the feelings these visual cues engender, is something that we at once take for granted yet barely comprehend. The instinctive, visceral reactions may be both unexpected and uncontrollable. Is that what we must fear? Is the danger in the non-rationality that beauty threatens to instigate?

In her excellent book (now a film as well), Divergent, Veronica Roth imagines a future where taking such thinking to its logical extreme, an entire faction of the population rejects anything that might distinguish one person from another, anything that might seem to beautify one person over another. They shun makeup and elaborate hair arrangements and they all adopt the exact same drab grey uniforms.

Their premise is that “Abnegation” (as they call themselves) can save humanity from warfare. Is that the path that man must choose to achieve peace and serenity? Is beauty so dangerous that it threatens our existence?

No. But it’s fun to consider.

As in many other themes throughout the Bible and the Talmud – the middle road, the golden path, a healthy balance is the solution. There are common agreements as to beauty, and then there are individual tastes. Beauty is a quality that humans appreciate and engender positive feelings within their soul. We are instructed in multiple places, especially in matters of worship and divine service, to seek the beautiful, to construct the beautiful, to make use of the beautiful, to surround ourselves with the beautiful.

The High Priest is commanded to wear clothing that is beautiful and there is a very specific design that the Torah has in mind. Synagogues are meant to be beautiful. All the articles and furnishing of the Tabernacle and subsequently the Temple are beautiful, golden and enhance the space. We are instructed to wear our beautiful garments for the Sabbath. A husband is obliged to buy his wife beautiful garments for the holidays. The Rabbis have encouraged us to seek beauty for the rituals and articles of Jewish life: beautiful covers for the Torah scrolls, beautiful mezuzah cases (the small scroll that goes on the doorpost), beautiful ketubot (marriage contracts), beautiful candlesticks, beautiful wine cups and much more. However, their beauty is always harnessed in service of the divine, the holy.

In Judaism, the beautiful is appreciated, but it must be balanced with whatever other values may be competing or are at stake, and hence some of the inherent danger.

When beauty becomes an end in and of itself; when beauty becomes a priority; when beauty becomes an overarching obsession, outweighing all other considerations, then we enter the province of danger and ultimately pain. Beauty enhances our experiences – but it must be moderated to the purpose it is part of. It is a means – it is never an end.

Perhaps that is the message of the rose. Appreciate it. Handle it if you will. But embrace it gingerly, tenderly. Your touch should be cautious, careful. For should you grasp it fully, should you dare to hold beauty with all your might – your hands will be filled with blood.

‘Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

The Last Rose of Summer by Thomas Moore

Jewish Lemonade

Jewish Lemonade

I have often been downcast, but never in despair; I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time. In my diary I treat all the privations as amusing. I have made up my mind now to lead a different life from other girls and, later on, different from ordinary housewives. My start has been so very full of interest, and that is the sole reason why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments.” -Anne Frank

At one point in my biblical studies, I came to the sad realization that the life of a biblical character was filled with pain and misery. The heroes from the holy pages rarely live happily ever after. Their lives are filled with struggle, hardship and disappointment. Adam, the first man to commune with God is exiled from the Garden of Eden, cursed, and lives to see one of his children murder the other. We see Noah, the new hope for mankind, drunk and cursing his disappointing son. Even the great patriarch Abraham goes from one trial to another and never lives to see the multiple promises of God fulfilled in his lifetime. The list goes on. Isaac and Jacob, similarly lead lives of fear, mourning and anguish. Moses, the great redeemer, leader and lawgiver, is subject to constant harassment and disappointment, the last being the prohibition of him entering the Promised Land, the land to which he so faithfully led the nation of Israel.

Nonetheless, or even perhaps because of their trials and how they faced them, we look up to these figures, to these ancestors. Their stories are filled with lessons and their personalities often serve as role models for how we should live our own lives.

One of the common threads that join the progenitors of the Jewish nation, from Abraham onwards, is how they continued, overcame and even triumphed in the face of adversity, as per the adage, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

The lemonade phrase is a curious one and perhaps one that overly maligns the innocent yet highly useful lemon. In researching the sources of the phrase it becomes apparent that in the early uses of the citrus fruit, it was not thought of very well as a fruit. Its first use was strictly ornamental. Over the centuries it started to be used for its sharp flavoring, as on salads and fish, and then for medicinal purposes, including preventing scurvy amongst sailors. Lemons have also been used for their acid content as well as a cleaning agent. But lemons were always considered a second-rate fruit whose sourness made you pucker your lips and the term was administered to many second-rate, unpleasant items in life, and most specifically in later years to faulty cars. The phrase “He sold you a lemon,” would become ubiquitous with purchasing a defective automobile.

Only in recent history has the lemon triumphed as a major juice product thanks to the addition of copious amounts of sugar. Hence the even more popular cliché: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” (First credited to Elbert Hubbard in 1915, but also attributed to Dale Carnegie, who himself credited Julius Rosenwald). The phrase has come to represent an optimistic attitude of overcoming adversity, turning it somehow to your advantage and making the best of a bad situation.

In honor of yet another painting by the talented artist, Mrs. Nira Spitz, commissioned by noted art patron, Mr. Egbert Pijfers, of a picturesque lemon tree, the author thought it appropriate to explore the lemon/lemonade dichotomy in biblical and rabbinic sources.

lemon_large (1)

But first, as it has become our custom, a brief analysis of the famed painting itself.

One can immediately see why the lemon tree was sought and prized initially as an ornamental tree. The bright, lush, vibrant fruit is a colorful contrast to the multi-hued greens of the foliage. There is an appealing geometry and size to the tree that invites the viewer to reach out and pick its yellow/orange fruit. The asymmetry of the trunk to the geometrically full branches instinctively draws ones interest to the greco-roman bannister. It is clearly not an accident that the color and the lighting upon the human construction so nearly replicates the colors of the divinely-designed fruit. In the distance one can make out what is surely the Mediterranean coast within view of the veranda of this ancestral home. One can imagine the modern-day descendant of some Roman patrician or freed legionnaire, sitting on the porch, gazing upon the horizon, while the humidity of the summer air shimmers and rises in waves from the ground in a continuous mix of blues and whites until the eye reaches the gentle white clouds of the stratosphere. The tanned descendant lounges in shorts and a T-shirt, sipping on some cool lemonade, the ice tinkling in his tall glass.

But let us return to the symbolism of converting bitter lemons to sweet lemonade. Back in our biblical review, we noted the theme of suffering and even failure in our ancestral heroes. They struggled, they lived lives of trial and disappointment, rarely, if ever, living to see the hoped-for promise or salvation. Why do we venerate these people? Why are they models in the Jewish tradition? In the modern age of the ambitious drive to success and the diligent search for happiness, do these antiquated figures still have a role to play? Do we truly want to learn from these sad men and women? What about their lives do we wish to emulate? What deeper understanding of these personalities can provide lessons to modern man?

The answer is simple, yet profound, ties directly to our tree and its fruit, and its message is perhaps more important now than ever in the history of humanity. The lemon is a fruit that does not lend itself to instant gratification. One cannot bite into it as one would an apple and savor its delectable flavor. One cannot even squeeze it as one would an orange and expect to enjoy its sweet and rejuvenating juice. No. To enjoy a lemon is a relatively long and complicated process as far as fruit are concerned. It must be squeezed and then it must be sweetened. Only then is the lemon useful, meaningful, enjoyable.

So too with our ancestors. Nothing was handed to them easily. There was no instant gratification. In most cases they did not live to see the sweet fruit of their efforts. But that did not make it any less worthwhile. If anything, it teaches us a vital lesson. A lesson that needs to be shouted, repeated, reinforced and replayed so that cultures around the world will hear it. Ours is not the quick race. Ours is not the selfish, self-centered, self-indulgence that thinks of nothing else but oneself, of ones self-gratification, of ones personal glutenous happiness and material success to the exclusion of all else, of anything meaningful or important or lasting. Ours is an eternal march, passing the baton from one generation to the next, of making investments and sacrifices that will only be enjoyed by our descendants, of not only hoping for a better today, but planning and working for a better tomorrow, of constructing for our children the infrastructure and tools, the physical, intellectual and spiritual capacity to reach higher than we ever could. That is what we struggle for.

There is a famous story in the Talmud of a sage seeing a man planting a carob tree. This tree was attributed as giving fruit only after seventy years. The sage asks the man: “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

Our ancestors who planted trees, who dug the land and sowed the seeds, knew what they were struggling for. They knew they wouldn’t live to see or enjoy the ultimate fruits. They more often than not lived lives of suffering and anguish. Such is the human condition. But it did not deter them. Against incredible odds, with tremendous dedication, they persevered. They retained the greater goals and ideals in the face of opposition and even rationale human hope. They carried faith as a precious ember that was passed from father to son, from mother to daughter, from teacher to pupil. That is an indomitable will. That is the significance of being part of an eternal chain of tradition. That is the patrimony our ancestors have left us. That is how we can look at a lemon and instinctively see the sweet and refreshing.

Search for the seed of good in every adversity. Master that principle and you will own a precious shield that will guard you well through all the darkest valleys you must traverse. Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well, when they cannot be discerned from the mountaintop. So will you learn things in adversity that you would never have discovered without trouble. There is always a seed of good. Find it and prosper.” -Og Mandino

Humble, Tenacious, Versatile Acacia

Humble, Tenacious, Versatile Acacia

by Ben-Tzion Spitz

I am the heat of your hearth on the cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from the summer sun, and my fruits are refreshing draughts quenching your thirst as you journey on.

I am the beam that holds your house, the board of your table, the bed on which you lie, and the timber that builds your boat.

I am the handle of your hoe, the door of your homestead, the wood of your cradle, and the shell of your coffin.

I am the bread of kindness and the flower of beauty. “Ye who pass by, listen to my prayer: Harm me not.” – Prayer of the Woods – used in the Portuguese forest preservations for more than 1,000 years.


History and literature have both assigned differing levels of distinction to the trees in our lives. Perhaps it is a way to relate to these primal inanimate life forms. Perhaps we are seeking something about ourselves when we look for meaning in a tree. The nature of their growth is comforting. The oft-used analogies of roots, branches, leaves and fruit are inspiring. But besides for the imaginative light our silent companions spark in us, each tree also has functional, practical properties that further help define their character, their usefulness, their role in the world.

When seeking associations for trees we know, many come to mind: The mighty oak, the bright maple, the stately pine, the solid cedar, the regal olive tree, the prolific grapevine, the fruitful palm, the weepy willow. However, amongst the known trees of the world, there is one that is repeatedly underestimated, overlooked, easily discarded and dismissed amongst their more popular brethren. I am speaking of the humble acacia.

Though there are over one hundred species of acacia, I am referring to the biblical acacia, most likely what modern botanists, dendrologists and horticulturists would call the acacia raddiana.

Acacias live mostly in the dry areas of Africa, where if not the only plant in the endless arid desserts, then certainly the most important, life-giving creation for untold miles. They are particularly abundant in the Sinai dessert. In Israel, on the long drive along the Dead Sea going south from the ancient city of Jericho to the modern resort town of Eilat, the venerable acacia will be the only steady companion for many miles.

The acacia is perhaps the most prominent and sought-after sight to desert travelers. Its distinctive, wide, umbrella-like canopy is a welcome relief from the hot sun. The tree itself seems perfectly and uniquely designed for harsh conditions. The leaves of the acacia are very small, helping it conserve water. In times of severe water shortage it can completely shed its leaves in order to protect the body of the tree.

Its roots dig deep, very deep, hungrily seeking water as far and wide as it can. It’s a slow grower. The slow growth creates a hard and very dense wood. The heartwood, when polished, possesses an elegant red-brown tint. Perhaps one of the more intriguing properties of this unique tree is that its wood does not decay as the wood of most other trees. During the slow growth of the tree, the root system, besides drawing water up, also attracts other substances from the earth that form part of the wood and function as a preservative. The extremely dense, preserved wood then becomes unattractive to insects and much less likely to suffer decay from water damage or decomposition. If there was ever an eternal wood, a wood that was ideal for the construction of the Tabernacle, a wood that was dense, solid and decay-resistant – the acacia was it.

This article about the acacia is the second in a continuing series of essays commissioned by my dear friend, Mr. Egbert Pijfers of Norway, based on the artwork of Mrs. Nira Spitz. Her painting (above) is of a gracious acacia. The specimen in the painting is somewhat larger than the average acacia. It is situated in what appears to be a savanna, with a guard of thin trees and bushes in the background amidst a floor of sun-yellowed grass, competing for the meager water. One can imagine a lion hiding in the shrubs, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting gazelle laying in false security under the shade of the acacia. Our acacia, serene, unperturbed, stands apart, tall, majestic as the arboreal king of the savanna, as opposed to the desert acacias who rule as the sole citizens of the barren wilderness.

But our artist does more than just that. The dance of the shadows plays with our imagination. The early morning sun casts a shade on the western side of the tree, bringing out the deep and subtle greens of the leaves. The maze of tree trunks that characterize the acacia are a visual puzzle. The line between branch, bark and shadow are cunningly wrought teasing the viewer to untangle the wooden toy. The grass on one side tilting west and on the other side tilting east correctly portray the aerodynamic ground forces the wind would exert when running into the broad leaf-tight canopy of the acacia. The greens, yellows, tans and browns of both the tree and foliage behind, realistically portray a moment in the life of the savanna. The light misty clouds are the little that remains of the morning dew, before the unforgiving sun boils the rest into a clear, often-heartless, blue sky. The wind is currently calm and still, the rustling of the acacia leaves is silent. The savanna holds its breath as it is want to from time to time. The gazelle twitches its ear, a sense warning it that danger is near. The lion tenses its muscles, its prey just three paces away. But then the wind shifts. The lion’s scent wafts to the gazelle’s sensitive nose and it knows again in its heart that it must run for its life.

However, our concern is not for the hunter or the hunted. Our concern is for the silent witness to the history around it. The acacia.

The acacia is first brought to literary prominence in the Bible. The book of Exodus is filled with accounts of the construction of the sacred Tabernacle; the portable Sanctuary the Jewish people constructed in the desert after they miraculously escaped from Egypt and camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, where God encounters the Israelite nation in the most momentous divine revelation in the history of mankind.

Rabbinic commentators explain that the construction of the Tabernacle, which in its innermost chamber housed the Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, was a vehicle for maintaining and transporting a portable version of the revelation of Sinai with the wandering Jewish people. The main component in the construction of the Tabernacle, its walls, beams, Ark, Table and Altars was the acacia.

After the forty-year sojourn of the desert, the Sanctuary and its components found temporary housing over the course of a few hundred years in different locations in Israel, until the reign of King Solomon, when the permanent Temple structure was constructed and then only the original vessels remained, until the destruction of the Temple many hundreds of years later. The whereabouts of the Ark and the other Temple items remains a mystery until this day.

But what is the symbolism, if any, of the use of the acacia? Was it merely the only wood at hand? Was there divine providence in the availability of the acacia for such a holy, noble and timeless role?

The simplest answer is that the acacia was the only tree at hand. It was the single logical choice. However, the Rabbis were not satisfied with the coincidence of the acacia growing exactly where it needed to be. There is an ancient and curious midrash, a homiletic story, that wonders as to the presence of the acacia in the desert. The answer is fascinating.

The midrash claims that the Patriarch Jacob, hundreds of years beforehand, foresaw through prophecy that his descendants, the Children of Israel, would require acacias for the construction of the Tabernacle. Already during Jacob’s descent to Egypt, the Forefather brings acacia trees with him, to be planted in Egypt and then to be taken by the fledgling nation of Israel centuries later during their Exodus and into the desert.

Already from the time of Jacob, the acacia is the subject of prophecy with a destiny that leads to an eternal, sacred role in the world. So why does the acacia hold such a distinctive role in Jewish lore? We have studied its physical parameters, but still, there are other majestic trees in the world.

There is a famous midrash about God selecting a mountain upon which to give the Torah. Great, tall, proud, majestic, lush mountains offer themselves and vie for God’s attention. But only simple, lonely, barren, low, humble Mount Sinai receives the historic honor. I recall a similar story regarding the trees of the world, offering their wood to God. The cedars of Lebanon, the cypress, the tamarisk and the terebinth, all boast of their unique properties and merit to be put to the highest divine use. However, like with Mount Sinai, God chooses the humble acacia as the only tree to carry the Tablets of the Law, to form the Ark of the Covenant, to construct the pillars of the Sanctuary that would carry the concentrated presence of God Himself. The acacia proved itself versatile enough to be used for all the different components of the Tabernacle.

One need not go far to understand the symbolism of the acacia, for it represents none other than the Jewish people. A people often alone amongst the nations. A people that witnesses and recalls the history of the world around it. A people placed in the harshest conditions, yet surviving. A people with the deepest roots that has withstood the storms of history. A people that draws strength from its ancestors, its legacy serving as nutrients to future generations. A people often dense, but always strong with little sign of decay over the millennia. A people charged with the mission of carrying the presence of God amongst us. A people who reach the heights of divine service, but only as long as it remains humble.

We are the acacia. We are the lone tree in the desert. We provide shade and nutrients to those who seek and want. We are versatile. We can be used for a variety of sacred purposes. We are tenacious, hanging on to this world though the hot sun may be beating on our backs and there is no water to be had. We can tap in to deep reserves of sustenance. We remain. We persevere. We affect. We influence. But only if we continue as the acacia – humble.


The Old Acacia Tree

By Christine Ueri


When the Sun is at its peak

I will rest

in the shade

of the Old Acacia Tree


The Ancients will watch,

singing their songs

as they perch on the twigs

of the Old Acacia Tree


And I will look up

through foliage and thorns,

pure golden orbs

of the Old Acacia Tree


Listen, my Love,

listen for me

as I whisper your name

in the shade

of the Old Acacia Tree


Will you, meet me there

on the wide open plains

where Africa cries

when she hears

the shame


Will you meet me there

to build a new frame

when the Lion of Juda

shakes up his mane


Will you help me build

a new, ancient world

when you meet me there

on the wide open plains


In the shade of the Old

Acacia Tree

The Oracle and The Rabbi

The Oracle and The Rabbi

“This is the reason why thou dost recognize
Things now first revealed,
Because in thee resides
The Spirit that lives in all;
And thou canst learn the laws of nature
Because its author is latent in thy breast.”

Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself, Stanza VI, Ralph Waldo Emerson)


Pythia, the famed Oracle of Delphi, was the closest thing to a living deity that the ancient Greeks possessed. She was considered infallible. Pilgrims from all over the civilized world sought her prophecies. Her words determined the fate of kings, dynasties and empires. The education of Socrates and the birth of Western philosophy are credited to a statement by the Oracle. It is incredible the impact one person, believed to be speaking in the name of a divinity, has had on humankind.

In 2005, a dear friend of our family, Mr. Egbert Pijfers of Norway, commissioned the artist Nira Spitz, (mother of this author), to paint a water-color of the Oracle of Delphi, (above). For 2014, in honor of Mr. Pijfers’ 50th birthday, this writer has been commissioned to explore the painting and the inspiration behind it.

Aside from the striking yet subtle use of blues and greys, the artist boldly writes, (in transliterated Latin letters), the famous phrase that adorned Pythia’s chamber: “Gnothi Seauton” – popularly translated as “Know Thyself”. Interestingly, records show there was another phrase, not as popular, but perhaps no less important, chiseled over the entrance to the Oracle: “Nothing in excess.” Pythia, in the painting, as their tradition testifies, sits on her tripod, with laurel leaves in one hand and a bowl of Kassotis spring water in the other hand.

Since those ancient days, “Know Thyself” has been interpreted in a variety of ways and given over as wisdom and guidance to the masses. One interpretation is that a person should “know” their place and never seek to rise above their betters. An interpretation which I enjoy, is a view proposed in poetic form by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a stanza of which has been quoted above. Emerson in his moving and eloquent form urges that God is within each of us and by understanding that Godly part of ourselves we can understand God’s hand in all that surrounds us.

So what inspiration or guidance can a Rabbi find from an ancient, venerated icon of a culture which Judaism has often been at odds with, if not been outright mortal enemies of. More than two millennia after one of our major clashes, we still celebrate the Jewish triumph over the heathen Greeks after their conquest of Israel and defilement of our Temple. We light the candles of Chanuka for eight nights to celebrate our military, moral and religious victory. Why should we search the annals of idol worship, of debauched frivolity, of a pantheon of gods with attributed moral qualities below those of their worshippers?

The Talmud states that if someone tells you that Torah may be found among the gentiles, do not believe them. However, if they state that wisdom may be found among the gentiles – believe them.

Is there some wisdom to be found in the Oracle?

Jews like to bless. Amongst the many mundane and esoteric blessings that Jewish law urges us to recite, there is a blessing for exceedingly wise people, be they Jewish or gentile:

Blessed are you God, our Lord, King of the world, who has given from His wisdom to flesh and blood.

The institution of the Oracle of Delphi, of Pythia, lasted for at least twelve centuries, extending from at least the 8th century BCE until the year 395 of the Common Era – the last documented record. Pythia was always a woman. When she died, another priestess from the Temple of Apollo replaced her. Her office was probably amongst the longest lasting and impactful religious roles in the history of civilization.

I wonder what Jewish figures may have had the opportunity to cross her path. Our King Solomon was likely around at the inception of the Oracle of Delphi. There is a tale of King Solomon going on a long exile. Did he seek out assistance from Pythia as he sought to reclaim his throne from the demon Ashmedai? Did later kings of Israel send messengers to Pythia when the Jewish prophets, most notably our famed Elijah, disappeared or gave the idol-worshipping rulers answers that went against their interests? The Phoenicians that ruled the coast of Israel were of Greek stock and theology. Was Jezebel, in her power-hungry rule, not inspired by the same gods, though perhaps with Canaanite names and less sophisticated mythologies? The founders of the Mishna lived at the height of Greek power, when the Greeks ruled the land of Israel. The sages of the Talmud are recounted as sailing regularly to Athens to show homage to the Greek rulers and on at least one occasion to conduct philosophical debates. Did they visit Delphi at any point? Would any of the above personalities, any of the religious, political, military or spiritual leadership of Israel have stopped at the Oracle and sought an audience. Would they have blessed the purveyor of wisdom or would they have considered her a charlatan, a false prophet for empty imaginary deities?

Torah-abiding leaders would certainly not have offered the customary animal sacrifice before approaching Pythia – as it would be a violation of one of Judaism’s cardinal rules. However, some of the idol-worshiping kings of Israel, or their emissaries, would have few qualms to making such a sacrifice to yet another god.

One of the earliest records of an oracular statement from Pythia was that given to Lycurgus, famed lawgiver of Sparta. The Greek historian Plutarch reports the words that the Oracle told Lycurgus as he sought guidance on legislation he wished to establish:

There are two roads, most distant from each other: the one leading to the honorable house of freedom, the other the house of slavery, which mortals must shun. It is possible to travel the one through manliness and lovely accord; so lead your people to this path. The other they reach through hateful strife and cowardly destruction; so shun it most of all.

In our post formal enslavement era, it is easy to see the wisdom and nobility of Pythia’s statement. At that time, this was a courageous, revolutionary public statement by a priesthood that had much more to gain by cuddling to the rich and powerful. It had a truth to it that may have not been obvious to slave-owners.

It is reminiscent of the declaration in the Bible, about three hundred years later, by Jeremiah to the Jews of Israel to forsake the enslavement of their brethren:

The word that came unto Jeremiah from the Lord, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people that were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them; that every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, go free; that none should make bondmen of them, even of a Jew his brother; and all the princes and all the people hearkened, that had entered into the covenant to let every one his man-servant, and every one his maid-servant, go free, and not to make bondmen of them any more; they hearkened, and let them go; but afterwards they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids. Jeremiah, Chapter 34:8-11

Maimonides is famed for stating: “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”

It seems that Pythia, though centered and cloaked by the most powerful and often odious idol-worshiping culture of its time, was also a source of truth, wisdom and guidance.

As per Maimonides, we must accept her truths. As per the Talmud, we must believe her wisdom. As per Rabbinic law, we must bless her God-granted intelligence.

However, it is not so simple. We had a much closer example of a truth-spouting, wise, divinely intelligent personality. His name was Elisha ben Avuya. He was considered one of the greatest Talmudic Rabbis of his generation. But then something went awry. His relationship with God deteriorated. He was excommunicated. Laws that he had taught were no longer repeated in his name. When he had to be named he was merely named as “Acher”, meaning Other One. Only one student continued to study from Acher during his lifetime – Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir went on to become one of the foremost Rabbis of his own generation. It seems that Rabbi Meir and only Rabbi Meir had the capacity to listen to Acher and to draw out the precious gems of wisdom hidden within the sage with otherwise questionable moral and ideological traits.

With that view, Pythia would be very low on our list of sources to seek out for wisdom. If our paths should cross, it might be innocuous to hear what she has to say, but it would be unadvisable to cross the Aegean, climb to her Temple and offer the sacrifice and gold in order to hear her supposedly divine prophesies by the false sun-god Apollo, who if Homer is to be believed, was perceived by the Greeks as a dangerous, womanizing, spiteful, egomaniac who took quick vengeance when a woman rejected his unwanted advances. Greek gods, it seems, were worshiped more for drama and entertainment than for any moral or noble qualities.

Nonetheless, under what premise, what understanding of the sacred Jewish tradition would allow us to examine, to engage with potential beauty and wisdom from such an immoral (or amoral at best) source?

Here I will follow the lead of my teacher and the head of my school, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion, whose writings inspired Mr. Pijfers to commission this article.

As I understand him, Rabbi Lichtenstein argues that outside of our direct, rabbinic texts, sources, lifestyle and culture, there is an entire world. With proper boundaries, (how we go about defining such boundaries is worthy of another essay), we can be curious about such a world. We can be entertained by such a world. We can find inspiration from such a world. And perhaps most importantly, we are duty-bound to engage with such a world. We cannot reach the fullness, the heights, and the pinnacle of our spiritual and Jewish completeness without access, exposure and interaction with the general culture of the world.

Maimonides, (an Aristotelian scholar amongst so many other things), and sages before and after him embraced, or at least were intimately familiar with, the scientific, political, literary and cultural sources of their age.

Famed rabbinic commentator, the Ohr Hachayim, goes even further. He asks why it was that the gentile father-in-law of Moses, Jethro, is the one that instructs Moses as to proper disposition and organization of the Jewish court system. Jethro is further honored by being named on one of the central Torah portions, the one describing the receipt of the Ten Commandments. The Ohr Hachayim states that it is to teach that Jews are not the only wise people in the world and we are obliged to seek wisdom wherever we may find it.

Rabbi Lichtenstein states that exposure to general culture “can inform and irradiate our spiritual being by rounding out its cardinal Torah component.” In his words, general culture for the Jew can become a “civilizing and ennobling force.”

I would add another element. The best of general culture can also be humbling. Being cloistered amongst our own thoughts and writings can lead to a certain arrogance, a certain superiority complex, an elitism that our culture is the sole possessor of all wisdom and that anything from any other source is by definition inferior, damaged, questionable. The few times that something worthy is found outside the walls of our ghetto the invariable thought is that if it is good – it somehow originated from us.

That is not the world God created. “God shall beautify Yefeth and He shall dwell in the tent of Shem.” Noah prophesied about beauty and divine presence centuries before there were a Jewish people. True, as Jews we have a particular mission, but we are all together on this boat called planet Earth.

It is therefore humbling to encounter beauty, wisdom, passion, commitment, courage, determination, creativity, self-sacrifice, nobility and all the incredible positive human traits that one comes across in general culture in a way that connects, informs, inspires and moves in ways that are not found within the four walls of the “pure” Jewish experience. We can learn from it, we must learn from it.

It is inspiring to discover that Pythia, a religious leader from an idol-worshipping people proclaims against slavery centuries before Jewish leadership takes up the same call. Of course there is a world of difference between the Oracle of Delphi and our rabbinic tradition. One can explore all the religions, cultures and traditions of the world and find an almost infinite number of differences.

However, humanity was also gifted with an innate goodness that manifests itself in an infinite number of ways. That goodness is divine. There is no way to know how an individual will be inspired by others to goodness themselves. In many cases it is something learned from the home, from the school, from friends and community. But for many it is not inspiration – it is emulation. Many need to go far away from home to be inspired. They need to go as far away as possible, not only geographically, but also culturally. And often it is there, on the other side of the planet, in a strange and foreign culture that one discovers the essence of what they are looking for. They find the spark that inspires them to goodness. They may have known it all from home. They may have memorized the sayings of their teachers, but only that pure, beautiful spark from the most unlikely of places ignited their hearts to pursue a path of goodness.

Therefore, know thyself. And find thyself wherever you have to go to discover and realize the goodness that is within.