True Colors

Parashat Tetzaveh 5777

Meir Sendor

This week, on the way to a Tal Orot workshop, we took a detour to visit Shvil ha-Kalaniyot – the Path of the Anemones. It’s a meadow off the highway in the town of Meggido devoted to these flowers that are welcome harbingers of spring. We had visited this site many years ago with a Young Israel of Sharon tour, when the bus driver, on the spur of the moment, chose to depart from the schedule and take us to this special place. Rich reds, pinks, blues, purples, lavenders and whites, each finely-structured flower with delicate papery petals a little gem, set off by the bright green grass. Jewish and Arab families, couples, friends, stroll the paths, bending down to gaze appreciatively at each one.

The intensity of the colors and the way they delight our sight raises a question. I don’t want to anthropomorphize the flowers, but really, what are they saying? These colors project, they reach out, they signal. Certainly they signal to bees and other insects that are attracted to land on the flowers and pollinate them, though they offer no nectar. And they signal to us, enough to attract us to go quite a few kilometers out of our way to see them.

Colors have a signaling role in this week’s parashah, too. The garments of the Kohen Gadol are woven of blue, purple and scarlet, together with gold and silver threads. The Ramban notes that these are the colors of royalty, to the extent that some kingdoms prohibit commoners from wearing them (Ex. 28:2). He explains that these colors express power and authority. He observes that these very colors reappear in Megillat Esther, which we read shortly on Purim, as a sign of royal largesse at the beginning (1:6), and of Mordechai’s victory and authority towards the end: 

And Mordechai went forth from before the King in royal apparel – blue and white, with a great crown of gold, with a wrap of fine linen and purple – and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad. (Esther 8:15).

Then the Ramban pursues the meaning of the colored garments of the Kohen to a deeper level, following the Torah’s own hint:

שמות פרק כח פסוק ב

ועשית בגדי קדש לאהרן אחיך לכבוד ולתפארת: 

And you shall make the holy garments for Aharon your brother for glory and for beauty (Ex. 28:2).

In kabbalistic terms, glory (Kavod) and beauty (Tiferet) are technical references to Sefirot, the qualities of divine revelation. Kavod is a cognomen for the Sefirah Malkhut, Shekhinah — the consciousness of divine Presence. Tiferet is the central Sefirah that gathers all other Sefirot. The Ramban hints at the meaning of the Torah’s hint, that the colored garments combine these qualities:

that His Beauty shall appear and be unified in them.

Western thought relegates beauty to aesthetics, but how is beauty understood in Torah terms? And what does it mean to say that the divine qualities, already one, shall be unified?

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehudah haNasi says

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ב משנה א

רבי אומר איזוהי דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם כל שהיא תפארת לעושה ותפארת לו מן האדם


What is the straight path a person should choose? All that is beauty for the person who does it and beauty for him according to others.

For Rabbi Yehudah, Beauty, Tifereret, is a moral quality, a principle of goodness and truth confirmed through consensus, through intersubjectivity. Beauty, Tiferet, in Torah terms is not skin deep. It is depth itself, the condition of total unification and the awareness of that condition, by which we recognize that we, too, are in that unity:

 לכבוד ולתפארת:

For glory and for beauty.

Keats, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” concludes:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This is the secret of color. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, kabbalist of Tzfat, in his Pardes Rimonim, notes that for human beings colors arouse and convey emotions. Blue is inviting, green is balancing and invigorating, red is aggressive, white is peaceful and calming. He even discusses the therapeutic value of certain colors for treating emotional disturbances. Elaborating on the kabbalistic approach hinted at by the Ramban, he says that colors are an expression of shared spiritual consciousness, and the emotional associations connected with them are rooted in the Sefirot, the qualities by which Ein Sof, God the Infinite, reveals Himself. The very variety of colors is an expression of the fullness of divine revelation. Rabbi Cordovero goes on to say that color is a universal condition of inter-communication. Invoking the verse from Proverbs,

 משלי פרק כז

(יט) כמים הפנים לפנים כן לב האדם לאדם:

As in water, face is to face, so is the heart of man to man,

he observes that color reaches across the appearance of separation and distance, connecting us deeply and mutually, heart to heart, with each other and with all beings, and with HaShem Himself (Sha’ar ha-Gavanim).

The abstract expressionists of the twentieth century experimented with power of color to evoke emotion. Kandinsky’s monograph “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” analyzes the emotional impact of each of the colors of the palette in ways that echo Rabbi Cordovero’s observations: how they interact with each other and with linear forms, and how we relate to them. The large color fields of Rothko’s later work, typically two windows of different colors, each a subtle hue with uncanny depth, framed by a third color, invite viewers to immerse themselves and see with their hearts. The juxtaposition of the colors conjures deep and subtle emotional associations, touching and opening hidden places in the heart. It’s not unusual to find a person standing before a Rothko weeping. When I stand before a Rothko, I often find myself asking him: how did you know I share that feeling deep within me too? Color is communication and communion.

As we stood among the anemones, their scarlets, blues and purples, in a green field under a bright blue sky, we felt ourselves embraced, in communion with all beings in this world, in communion with God Himself.

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