I painted the pictures 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.
If you’ve ever been camped in the desert or in the countryside at night without artificial light, you will have seen a sky studded with stars. The heavens are so full of stars it seems amazing the sky can hold them all.
The parasha of Lech Lecha introduces us to Abraham, the man Gd chose to begin a new nation. Gd tells Abraham that He will bless him. Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the dust on the ground and the stars in the skies. Gd said, “Look now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them. And He said, “and so your descendants shall be…” (Genesis 15:5) Looking up at that night sky Avram couldn’t have begun to imagine how many stars there were. There were too many to count, too many to even guess at.
God told Abraham to leave his birthplace and travel to where God would direct him. Just as Abraham was called by God and promised a new homeland, the haftarah relates that God will gather all Jews from the corners of the earth and take them to their homeland – to the land of Israel.
This week’s haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. The Jews have been in Babylon, in exile, for decades. They are sure they will never be able to return home. It seems that King Cyrus is about to conquer Babylon and Isaiah is hopeful that Cyrus will allow the Jews to go back to Israel. Isaiah assures the Jews that Gd will not abandon them. Gd reminds the Jews that they are His chosen people. “The coastlands look on in fear, the ends of the earth tremble … But you, Israel my servant … whom I drew from the ends of the earth and called from its far corners …”(Isaiah 41:5, 8, 9)
The references to coastlands and the ends of the earth evoke thoughts of maps and atlases. This painting shows a section of the famous Catalan Atlas which incorporates Majorca, Spain, and the compass rose which is found on every navigational map.
One of the most accomplished medieval mapmakers was Abraham Cresques who lived in Majorca, Spain. He was the mapmaker to the king. In 1375, Prince John of Aragon commissioned Cresques to make a set of nautical world charts as a gift for the future King Charles IV of France. Abraham and his son Jehuda created the Catalan Atlas, which is recognized as the most important atlas of the medieval period. The Catalan Atlas included the names of coastal towns, locations of houses of worship, and drawings of traders, rulers, and flags of the empires.
Although he had worked on maps which were commissioned by royalty, ironically, Jehuda was caught in the snare of the Spanish Inquisition. He was forcibly converted to Christianity during the anti-Jewish outbreaks of Spain in 1391, and took the name Jaume Riba. He continued to create maps and was called Magister Cartarum Navegundi – “Master of Navigational Maps”.
Abraham was chosen to begin a new nation, the nation that would one day be known as Jews. Even back then Gd told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a strange land, referring to their enslavement in Egypt. Abraham was warned that life would be tough for the Jewish people, his descendants. The hardships have continued throughout history. In this haftarah Isaiah gave encouragement to his exiled brethren in Babylon, telling them that Gd would not abandon them.
Every time period is a time of challenge for the Jews. Right now we are still facing challenges and terrible anti-Semitic tides. We are reminded that Gd made a promise and will always keep that promise initialized with Avraham Avinu- Abraham our father.
Have a good week and a good Shabbat. May it be one of peace and health for klal Yisrael and the world.