For Malchut Sheb'Tiferet, the 21st day of the counting of the Omer.
I ran into the Shechinah in an art museum. It was the Art Institute of Chicago. Maybe not the way it is now, but the way it was when I was a kid. She was in one of the Impressionist rooms. In front of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of la Grande Jatte.
It figured she was in the Impressionist collection. She was standing there, vaguely ethereal, multicolored, like the paintings, looking, and drawing an impression.
She moved gently, gliding from painting to painting. She didn't read the descriptive text mounted on the walls. She knew the paintings and she knew the artists. She was, after all, in a way, their muse. She was part of that Divine flow that pours into every blade of grass, every bird, lizard and rock, every haystack at sunset, and every painting of a haystack at sunset.
It was rare to see her so, um, localized. While she looked at the art, all eyes in the museum were on her. People who came that day had no idea why their attention was drawn off the canvases and onto this grand and not quite solid figure, drifting from gallery to gallery. But they didn't feel like they missed out on seeing the paintings. No, they felt like they had seen all of them. And more. They were filled with Cubism and portraiture and bronze Canaanite goddesses, and the Jasper Johns Alphabet painting that the Shechinah knows to be a sneaky kind of gematria.
I was feeling brave, and a little bit in love, so I struck up a conversation. I asked her what brought her to the museum today. And she reminded me about her grand tour. The tour she does every year, once a week, from Pesach through Shavuot. On the seventh day of each week of the omer she makes a special visit into the world that we have fashioned. To witness and to inspire.
In the first week she visits the realm of Chesed, of kindness. She stops in on soup kitchens, she told me, and classrooms. She tends to parents telling bedtime stories and urban gardeners with coffee cans of dirt and envelopes of seeds.
In the second week, she dives into the realm of Gevurah: the world of form and structure and limits. She especially likes to look in on biologists, physicists, engineers, to see what they are learning and how they are responding to the unavoidable mechanics of the Universe. And she takes an afternoon walk in the woods, to visit the plant world which knows how to blossom without spending its energy railing against its limitations.
“And what, so this is art week?” I blurted out awkwardly. I felt my cheeks redden.
“This week is the realm of Tiferet,” she said, “The world of beauty and balance. The marriage of form and feeling.” As she said this, I realized we were in another gallery now, looking at water lilies, her own reflections somehow part of the reflection Monet painted onto the water.
As we talked we moved, floated almost, through the Art Institute without regard to stairs or walls or “Authorized Personnel Only” signs.
We found ourselves in the Thorne Rooms, an exhibit of 68 miniature interiors, like the most lavishly detailed dollhouses you could imagine, made by artist Narcissa Thorne in the 1930s and 40s, and donated to the museum in 1954, along with much of her fortune, for the upkeep of the tiny rooms. While critics argued about whether these tableaux were art, the public made the Thorne Rooms the Museum's most enduringly popular attraction.
I looked at the tiny interiors, the Shechinah at my side. I've loved these since I was a child. I would nod approvingly at the medieval castles and renaissance villas, like everyone else. But I always felt especially connected to the 1920s art deco interiors. They reminded me of Fred Astaire movies. Clean lines, rounded edges. Gleaming polished floors just waiting for tapdancing, and windows looking out on a starry urban night.
I used to come here as a child. Our great Aunt Anne – never married, world-traveled – would bring Lynn and me and we would feel very grown up and fancy. We would look at the Thorne Rooms and a few pieces of art – Aunt Anne especially liked modern sculpture – and then we would sit in the café in the courtyard, at an umbrellaed table and have lunch together.
No sooner had this memory entered my head than the Shechinah and I were suddenly seated in the café in the great courtyard, the way it used to be at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Shechinah, now in bright sunlight, had, for convenience's sake perhaps, taken the form of Aunt Anne in a blouse with a Nehru collar, orange wooden beads, coral colored lipstick against her abidingly tan skin, and jet black hair in a Vidal Sassoon cut. And sitting across from her, I was somehow a child again, in a red blazer and clip-on tie. In front of me was a grilled cheese sandwich off the children's menu, while the Shechinah poked at a scoop of tuna salad resting on a tomato, splayed like a blossom on her plate.
I felt like I should keep up my end of the conversation. I asked her what she feels when she visits us in this way, and has it changed over the years.
She said that she weeps for us, she weeps for our Exile. Not specifically our Jewish Exile, but our Exile from the Divine. From the Divine in our selves. From the Divine that pours through and is the stuff of this planet.
“But you know,” she added, admiring a sprig of parsley strewn on the side of her plate, “I have faith in you. I believe in you so much more than you believe in yourselves. You struggle and you hope and you look at this moment in which you're living and you think all is lost. But I believe in you.” She took a mouthful of tuna, chewed it thoughtfully and swallowed. “You see, it has to do with beauty. It's why we're here today.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Just because some humans can paint beautiful things?”
“No, no, it comes before painting beauty. It's seeing beauty. Why do you see beauty at all?” she asked.
I sat in silence for a minute. I'd never considered this. “I guess it's evolutionary,” I said. “We see someone beautiful and we are attracted and through this we propagate the species.”
“Then why do you find a garden beautiful? Or a green landscape?”
“Maybe because they suggest fertile places where we might be able to safely feed our tribe.”
“Then why are cliffs beautiful? And deserts? And leopards and thunderstorms? These are dangerous things, but you see beauty in them too.”
I ran out of comebacks and just waited silently, hearing the nearby clatter of dishes and the distant roar of the elevated train. At last she continued.
“Tiferet is not beauty, but the quality in you that lets you see beauty. In attractive things and edible things and poisonous things too; in people and animals and in moments that pierce your heart. Tiferet allows you to see the beauty in a painting of a water lily, even though it is not a water lily at all, but crushed up minerals mixed in oil.”
“Okay,” I stammered.
“I have faith in you, because your ability to find beauty is returning. In time you – all of you – will come to find beauty in people who are not like you, in species that are not like you. You will find beauty in their longings, their sufferings, their deep hearts. You will appreciate that you are all painted – skillfully, I might add – with the same brush.”
I heard her words, but could only think about the divisions we make among us, the abyss between us and all the rest of Creation, and I felt sad. She frowned, called a waiter over and ordered me a rainbow sherbet, even though I hadn't touched the grilled cheese.
“Listen,” she said. “Don't give up hope. You are the Divine. You are like those Thorne Rooms. You are all miniatures, each of you capturing one face – no, one interior – of God. Not just humans. Everything is in the Divine image. Everything in this Creation is a miniature, made with such care and such detail. An experience of beauty, or a beautiful experience – these are the moments when you notice it.”
She took a breath and wiped the corners of her mouth with her napkin. She opened her glossy purse and reapplied her lipstick. “Listen kiddo, I do need to get going. There's something over at the Contemporary I want to catch. You okay?”
“Sure,” I sputtered, rainbow sherbet cold and sticky in my mouth and iridescent on my spoon in the bright and beautiful Chicago sun.