The Ancestors Families Series. Part II of 4 : by Inna Rogatchi (C)
Fine Arts: The Isaac Family in Pictures
Artistic interpretation of the Torah in Michael Rogatchi Art
By Inna Rogatchi (C).
First published in The Times of Israel , November 2020 .
In between the first Jewish couple of Abraham and Sarah and the couples that their grandson Jacob set with Leah and Rachel, the couple of Isaac and Rebecca might be slightly off the attention which it deserves, in my understanding.
Perhaps it was traditionally led by our non-comfortability towards Isaac. People are always at loss when they are facing someone who went through something unimaginable. And Isaac’s experience of a trial of Akedah is the ultimate one in the history of mankind.
So how Isaac should be treated by anyone around him, in generations? Pretending that nothing has happened to him and he is like any other person? Or to go to another end of a psychological make-up and to sit on his trial forever thus inflicting the awful experience onto him perpetually? To dismiss the non-comfortability of our own facing the extreme in the open without really knowing of how we personally would behave under the circumstances? Probably, the prevailing inclination towards the third, neutral-safe behavioural option has slightly shifted Isaac and his family off our attention in comparison with his father and his sons. Do we really understand Isaac? Do we know enough about him for that?
I always was paying attention to this aspect and was thinking about Isaac and his family with additional attention. That is why Michael’s artworks rendering Isaac and his family are having a special magnetism for me.
Isaac and his eyes
In his Forefathers project, including the Patriarchs, the Matriarchs series and drawings on the theme, Michael Rogatchi has turned to Isaac few times, firstly portraying him in Akedah in 2001 – detailed analyses of it and Abraham family is here – , and then in two more works, portraying Rebecca and her ( and Isaac’s) family in 2009, and reflecting on a special introvert character of Isaac in his drawing of him made in 2016.
There is a serious difference between the images of Isaac in the earlier artist’s undertaking and those one which he produced later on. If in Akedah Michael’s Isaac is a beautiful and attractive man projecting goodness and kindness, in Rebecca ( 2009) and Isaac ( 2016), he is much older and obviously sadder.
In the psychological history of mankind, Isaac is unique. His personal experience is so unbelievable from many points of view that it clearly sets him apart from everyone. Who else went through such a trial? What consequences did Isaac bear to the end of his days because of him to be chosen as a test of devotion of both his father and himself? How did it all affect Isaac’s family, his wife Rebecca, one of his two sons Jacob in particular, and even the one of his grandchildren, the most special of The Tribes, Joseph?
We know – and can easily follow it on the grounds of conventional logic – that after Akedah, Isaac has become clearly introverted. To emphasise it, both the Talmud and the Zohar are teaching us that Isaac was preoccupied with digging wells. As a result, he has improved the quality of Eretz Israel, both literally and metaphorically. And it is a very direct indication on what Isaac’s introvert essence meant : depth that seeks vitality. What’s more, we learn from the Talmud that Isaac dug five wells, with their exact locations provided. The Talmud mentioned that these five wells correspond to the five books of Moses.
Michael’s Isaac in his gentle, loving drawing of 2016 shows the man of devotion and reflection. Isaac in this drawing is slightly but clearly melancholic, with his eyes dimmed, in direct reference to the Torah.
Why did Isaac’s eyes become dimmed? Did he not suffer enough because of Akedah? There are several explanations or rather short mentions about it in our Scriptures, with the most grounded of them telling that it was the direct result of King Abimelech’s curse upon Isaac’s mother Sarah at the moment when Abimelech has realised that he would never have that woman. “Let it be for you an eye covering’ – Abimelech pronounces to Sarah in Genesis ( Gen. 20:16). Isaac’s blindness is understood by our Sages to be the direct fulfilment of Abimelech’s curse. Isaac was destined to pay for his great mother’s integrity. The drama of life projects these difficult things on the best of us sometimes, starting from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
Michael pays special attention to Isaac’s dimmed eyes in both of his later portrayals of him, eight and fifteen years after he portrayed Isaac in his Akedah. One is seeing in his close-range portrait of our second Patriarch in the drawing made in 2016, and another one as the telling detail on the large canvas portraying Rebecca in Michael’s stunning statement on our second Matriarch that he created in 2009 as part of his elaborated, extraordinary The Matriarchs series.
There is another very interesting circumstance in not that straightforward relations between Isaac and his son Jacob, or maybe in Isaac’s who as we know from the Torah ‘loved Esau’, in Isaac’s attitude towards Jacob. Many years after highly dramatic episode painted in Michael’s work, when Jacob was himself the father of twelve sons, and when he was mislead to think that his beloved son Josef is dead, Isaac who was still alive, he knew the truth, he knew that Joseph is alive – and he did not tell about it to his son who is in complete torment. How come? Why? The Talmud tells us that Isaac’s line of thought at the moment was subdued:” If H-shem does not let Jacob know that Josef is alive, who am I to intervene?” – he thought to himself. Drama bearing more drama. But this behaviour is completely understood if you remember that it is Isaac , the person who survived Akedah. This kind of trauma never goes away.
The interconnection inside the Patriarchs families is amazing. The connection between Isaac and his grandson Josef gets its own aspect yet later on, at the moment of Isaac’s death. What is the connection? The Talmud sees it as the direct one: Isaac died at the very moment when Joseph stood in the font of the Pharaoh. Isaac knew that his grandson who was in awful and imminent danger for so long, would be OK now. His soul was in peace and could depart.
Rebecca and her vision
Michael’s portrait of Rebecca is the one of the rare paintings which one can gaze upon for a long time, time and again, every time finding yet new layers in the narrative of the portrait which has been classified by the art expert as a historical portrait, the portrait of a historical personality.
One can immediately see that Rebecca is portrayed here in the most dramatic moment of her life, at the moment when she decided to go on with her bold – and elaborated – plot to make Jacob, her beloved son, the one who would get Isaac’s blessing, the pivotal moment not only in Jewish, but in the world’s history as well. Would not Rebecca intervene, Esau – and the forces which he was embodiment of – might get the blessing of his father, and the history of the world would become much bleaker, undoubtedly.
On the canvas, we can see a beautiful woman of exceptional qualities deep in thoughts. Beautiful she was resembling in her outlook Sarah, as it is mentioned in the Talmud. And this also was created with a purpose, to console Isaac after his great Mother’s death, and to continue the genetic line of the Patriarchs, also phenotypically.
Actually, Dr Freund who was very well versed in Jewish history and in the Torah, did not take his fundamental point on correlation between the psyche of a son and the psyche of a mother from nowhere. He took it from the Torah and Talmud practically literally and then developed it to something never proven and utterly subjective. But he knew the secret – that basic point of the most important inter-connection between a mother and her son will always resonate in most of his patients precisely because there is a pre-dispositioned knowledge about it which is related in the Talmud. That knowledge tells that a son is always deeply and on many levels inter-connected with his mother – until the moment when he gets married, and when that inter-connection switches from son-mother bond to husband-wife bond. The first instance in which the Torah tells us about it is Parasha Toldot in which Isaac gets consoled after the tragic death of his beloved mother Sarah when he married Rebecca.
One should not forget that as Sarah died at the time of Akedah without knowing of its happy-ending. It is also quite plausible that Isaac could well project some subjective self-guilt of that tragedy on himself. That’s why he was so specifically double-mourning, that’s why he needed that consolation twice as usual man under usual circumstances might need it. And that’s why Rebecca was resembling Sarah, she was ‘in the image of Sarah’, according to the Talmud – as she is in Michael’s beautiful, lyrical and very thoughtful painting.
This painting also refers directly to another very important detail in the Parasha Toldot and our knowledge from the Torah on that so crucial first meeting between Rebecca and Isaac when Rebecca without second thought knowingly and willingly followed Abraham’s ‘special envoy’ Eliezer whom Isaac’s father sent to his family home to get the right wife for his Isaac, and when running camels on their way back to the house of Abraham and Isaac, Eliezer and Rebecca and Eliezer met Isaac in the field.
What field was it, by the way? According to the Talmud and Mishah, it was the field next to the Cave of Machpelah, the place of burial of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs except Rachel, that Abraham has acquired some while before in famous episode ( narrated in the previous Parasha Chayei Sarah) for Sarah’s burial.
What Isaac was doing in the field at the moment Rebecca and Eliezer were approaching? He was praying, being in talis, and with his hand in front of his face. It was mincha, the afternoon prayer which has been instituted by Isaac, as we know. But what’s more, there is no coincidence in that, as there is no coincidence in any event narrated in the Torah and Rabbinic literature. Isaac who was conceived on Rosh HaShanah, was born on Pesach, and it was midday, according to Bereshit Rabbah tractate of the Talmud. So the afternoon prayer mincha instituted by our second Patriarch, has been ‘marked’ to happen in this way by the very time of his birth.
In stunning consistency of important signs, we know from the Talmud that when Eliezer saw Rebecca for the first time next to the well ( and here is another parallel to the well as a symbol and main occupation of Isaac in life in general), it was mincha time, as well, tellingly.
What detail in the artwork in question speaks directly on the important symbolic detail in the Torah narrative in the parasha Toldot of the episode of Rebecca and Isaac’s first meeting? The veil.
Seeing Isaac and was impressed to her innermost, Rebecca instantly has put her veil over her. That veil in the understanding of the Talmud meant twins. In Michael’s painting, the veil and its two contrasting colours represents exactly that, with depth of a very dark blue for Esau and warmth of sun for Jacob. It is wrong to think too simplistically on many phenomena. Isaac loved Esau, and later on in life, Jacob did receive his name of Israel from the Esau’s archangel, thus meaning that as Ishmael had repented at some point as it is known from the Talmud, as Esau did have important potentials and at least once had used it in a seriously meaningful way. And that decisive blue also means necessary action by Rebecca, and refers to that part of her thoughts. So, deep blue is not a total black.
As for Jacob, on the painting, the more concentrated, heavy tone of yellow part of Rebecca’s veil which is closer to her and symbolises all uneasiness of her and Jacob’s decisions and deeds in getting the blessing from Isaac which he prepared for Esau, that heavy colour gets more and more lucid behind Rebecca’s head and figure symbolising that Jacob’s way in life and what he did on his way that started from his home when his mother has sent him, with Isaac’s blessing, for safety, meant sun and purity for our people in coming generations. We all are children of Jacob and his sons, after all. And in a stunning artist’s statement, small figure of Jacob is completely alone on that long road. From now on, all decisions are his, and all responsibility too.
Because of her unparalleled bravery, Rebecca was emphatically marked by the Creator: she is the only Matriarch and the only female in the Torah with whom the Creator spoke. It happened at the moment when she was praying for having children. “H-shem said to her…” . The Talmud comments that it has been done, that the Creator has spoken with Rebecca uniquely, via Shem.
Why Shem? Because Rebecca was praying to the Creator at the very special place, the Academy of Shem and Eber, as it is written in Bereshit Rabbah. To the further excitement, the place is still there, it is situated in Safed, and I have personally found it completely on my own, with Creator’s help, a decade ago. It was an overwhelming feeling to be there. Later on, in a historical book, I’ve read that Sir Moses Montefiori and his wife Lady Judith were brought on their special request to this very place when they were visiting Palestine in 1839.
There are many things in Rebecca’s life which made her unique. Additionally to those mentioned above, she was also the first woman in history who married the man who was circumstanced in full accordance with Jewish law, on the eight day after his birth.
Michael is often asked by experts, curators and public members: “Why is your beautiful Rebecca so sad in your portrait of her?” The artist usually replies that he chose to portrait Rebecca at the moment of her taking the most difficult decision in her life – as she knew that she would not seeing her beloved son Jacob again.
This is a definite tragedy of our beautiful and very brave second Matriarch Rebecca. And also, I personally find it very sad that there is no mentioning about Rebecca’s death in the Torah, unlikely to the rest three Matriarchs. Why is it so? In Pesikta Rabbati ( 12:22), the Talmud says it that as is happened, at the time of Rebecca’s death, Jacob was not there, and Isaac “was sitting at home, his eyes dimmed”. Because the two closest to her beloved men in her life would not be able to accompany her bier for burial, she did ask the Creator to grant to her that she ‘would be taken out during the night’, so the Torah does not mention her death following and respecting her will. Rather sad, I would say, the same sad as the circumstances of Sarah’s death. In their deaths, both most important women for Isaac, his mother and his wife, were encountering similarity, as well.
Turning to the more positive side, Michael’s own interpretation of this painting about Patriarch Isaac’s family is about a miracle. In his own words, “ This painting is about a miracle. Rebecca was a chieftain’s daughter who never usually went to the well to get water for animals due to her status. But one morning she went there. And when she did so, and was about to start collecting water, she did not have to bend down to the well as the water jumped into her jar. That was the morning when Eliezer, Abraham’s trusted servant, went in search of a bride for Isaac on Abraham’s behalf. To my understanding , the memory of those miracles provided Rebecca with the strength she needed to be able to send her beloved son Jacob at the crucial moment to save his life, despite knowing that she would never see him again. Miracle and Jew are inseparable. There is no Jew without a miracle. Belief in miracles is one of the strongest elements in the entire Jewish world and heritage, even though many of us do not fully realise it. And miracles are definitely an explanation for our survival” ( Michael Rogatchi. Forefathers. 2011).
If anything in about a miracle in our incredible Jewish spiritual history, and in its origin, the history of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs families in particular, the miracles of Rebecca and Isaac are certainly about it, from the beginning to the end.