I painted the picture you see here as part of a collection of pieces for a sefer haHaftarah- a haftarah scroll. You have seen many of these images over the years if you have been following my blog. I’m excited to announce that a collection of these paintings and their explanations will be published in a book called “ILLUMINATIONS, An Exploration of Haftarah through Art and History”. I will share more information about the book in the coming weeks.
The last number of weeks the Torah readings have been about the families of our forefathers and mothers. Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, Jacob, was the father of 12 sons and one daughter. This week’s Torah reading exposes the dynamics between Jacob’s children.
This illustration is based on a painting in the Sarajevo Haggadah from 1350 Spain. I’m going to take you on a time traveler’s tour using this image from Sarajevo Haggadah from 1350 Spain. I’ll touch on the haftarah, the Torah reading, Roman persecution of the Jews, and the culture revealed in the Sarajevo Haggadah.
The haftarah is from the Book of Amos. The prophet Amos was a herdsman and farmer. He taught that if the members of society are not good to each other the society crumbles. The Kingdom of Judaea was experiencing a period of affluence. The rich were selfish and unrighteous, and there was a large economic gap between the rich and the poor.
Amos begins this haftarah by saying “… they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes…And a man and his father go unto the same maid to profane My holy name”. Both phrases reflect the parashah. “The man and his father going to the same maid ” reminds us how Yehuda was unfair to Tamar, his daughter-in-law. The first phrase “they sell the righteous for silver…” describes the brothers selling Joseph to Ishmaelite traders for 20 shekels of silver.
The Sarajevo Haggadah has a wonderful rendering of the scene. We see the brothers exchanging money with Ishmaelite traders. The brothers are depicted as Spanish merchants with fair skin and light hair wearing typical clothing of the period. Look at the traders- they are black, with dark skin, curly black hair, and black features. Joseph stands with the foreign traders. He’s portrayed as a little boy, his hands held together begging his brothers to take him back. And we see the camels carrying the merchants’ goods.
This image tells us that the Spanish Jews were trading with black merchants traveling from North Africa. It tells us about the clothing of the time and the art produced for the Jewish community. We also learn that today we use the same haggadah that Jews used in medieval Spain, and that Pesach was so important that someone commissioned a handwritten, illustrated book to be used at their seder.
This scene reflects the first phrases of the haftarah and takes us to how the story of Joseph’s sale was viciously used in history. On Yom Kippur, we read about ten righteous Rabbis who were martyred by the Romans under the emperor Hadrian about 120 CE. The Roman judges quoted a law which stated, “Whoever kidnaps a man and sells him, or if the man is found in his possession, must be put to death”. They used Amos, Devarim 24:7, and the story of Joseph as an excuse to torture the ten Rabbis.
The story of Joseph took place about 3,500 years ago. Amos’s words in the haftarah, the sin of “selling your brother” are from around 2,800 years ago, That quote reminds us of the Roman tyrants 1900 years ago. And then we move to the beautiful Sarajevo Haggadah from 660 years ago, replete with Jewish cultural history from that time. Amos’s message comes through- do not sell your brother. If you don’t treat your family and society with respect and understanding tragedy will unfold. This is the line through history.
One of the goals in creating my haftarah art pieces is to communicate the theme of the haftarah, relate it to the parashah, integrate Jewish history, and forge a connection between the viewer and our Jewish past. In that way we can remember that the Tanach is alive. Although time continues to pass we can still learn from our history and that in truth we are living the history.
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Shabbat Shalom, with prayers for peace, understanding. Respectful communication is a path to healing.
One response to “VaYeishev”
What remains stunning is how ancient words never lose their wisdom or their power to predict consequences of immoral behavior.