At a pivotal moment in their history, when the Jews received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, they declared: “Na’aseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).
Because the statement is so counterintuitive – how can one do something without understanding what needs to be done? – many scholars have put forth various interpretations.
The Bender Jewish Community Center in Rockville is weighing forth with an opinion of its own – or rather, several opinions — about the intriguing biblical statement.
The JCC is hosting a curated exhibit, also called “Na’aseh v’nishma,” in which 25 artists express their own responses two-dimensionally.
Although in its original historic-religious context, the phrase relates to a specific faith group, the JCC saw it as universal and welcomed submissions from non-Jewish artists. “It’s a phrase that every Jew, Christian and Muslim can relate to, as can someone who’s religious or nonreligious,” said Lisa Del Sesto, the Bender JCC’s cultural arts coordinator. “It could mean any leap of faith, or blind faith, in life decisions.”
The selection committee composition itself was diverse, including traditionally observant and secular Jews and non-Jews.
The exhibitors that were chosen vary in their artistic backgrounds and their visions of “Na’aseh v’nishma,” some close to the Torah text, and others not.
In “Moses/Moshe and Torah,” the Jewish lawgiver and liberator of the slaves is accepting the two tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written. “My style is called ‘calligraphics’ [as opposed to calligraphy],” said artist Avrum Ashery. “The term is one graphic designers made up about 35 years ago. It speaks of using letters to form, in some way, the name of the object.”
In this case, the figure of Moses is formed by the three letters of his Hebrew name (Moshe).
A graphic designer by trade, Ashery had exhibited at the JCC years ago and next will be mounting a one-man show at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
The largest work in the exhibit – at 50 by 44 inches — is “Path to Solace,” a mixed media on canvas by Stanley Wenocur. It incorporates yarn, acrylic paint, colored pencil and “a lot of fabric,” in the artist’s words, and takes the concept of “leap of faith” in a contemporary direction.
“The piece relates to refugees who have to escape from their homeland,” said Wenocur. “The figures are depicted as dehumanized, made alien and untouchable,” in addition to experiencing the trauma of relocation.
For Wenocur, a University of Maryland professor emeritus who retired in 2000 to pursue art full-time, the leap of faith theme connects with refugees in that “if a person is forced to move quickly, he grabs what he can, without really thinking.”
In “The Ten Commandments,” Linda Katzper took a more-traditional approach, conveyed in what she considers a non-traditional way. A former Hebrew and English calligrapher who designed ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) and invitations and continues post-retirement to take art classes at the Rockville Senior Center, Katzper, like Ashery, used calligraphics for her piece.
“The words of the Commandments form the two tablets,” Katzper said. “I drew the letters, outlined them, and then painted them with water colors. I also wrote the phrase in Hebrew in ink below the tablets.”
Malka Kutnick, who contributed “And the Clouds Covered the Mountain” (acrylic in poured-painting technique) to the exhibit, is a retired electrologist who has since focused on her art. In doing research about the giving of the Ten Commandments, an interpretation of “Na’aseh v’nishma” by Lex Rofes, a contemporary Jewish educator, struck her.
“Rofes holds that two parts of the statement are meant to be said together,” Kutnick pointed out. “Because the Israelites didn’t understand what they had agreed to, they ended up building the Golden Calf” after giving up on Moses returning from the mountain.
The “mystery” of the Divine revelation on Mt. Sinai also inspired her. “The Torah says God was hiding in the clouds,” Kutnick said. “But I didn’t want to paint them literally.” Instead, she used different colors to depict the mountain and clouds.
Printmaker Pauline Jakobsberger, who often incorporates faded photos and memorabilia into etched prints “until a story evolves,” inserted a handkerchief on gold leaf into “What Was Left Unsaid.” “I used my deceased husband’s handkerchief to create this piece,” she said. “It felt like he spoke to me when it took on a life of its own and rolled up like a Torah scroll. That made me relate to ‘We will do and then we will hear’-– to Jewish law, respect and love as in the Ten Commandments.”
Felisa Federman’s “Women’s Landscape” is one of many works she created with female images relating to social issues. Painted in acrylic on canvas, with paper prints added and layered in some areas, it reflects her concern with refugees. “I have some lino cuts that I printed and then pasted,” said Federman, an artist who also teaches art and is a paraeducator in Montgomery County Public Schools. The images on the prints are deliberately not very clear, according to the artist, possibly to reflect the anonymous way refugees are sometimes seen.
In addition to contacting members to solicit art work for the exhibit, the Bender JCC did “a lot of outreach,” said Del Sesto. “We contacted area art schools, colleges, VisArts, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, among others. We tried to get the word out to the wider D.C. arts community.”
One realization emerged as artists began to submit their work to the theme — that “Na’aseh v’nishma,” or leaps of faith, also relates to the creative process itself.
Anyone who starts a work of art – in any medium and about any subject – is taking a leap of faith that something will emerge from it and creativity will be rewarded, said Del Sesto.
“Na’aseh v’nishma” runs through Feb. 14 in the Goldman Art Gallery of the Bender JCC, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville. Call 301-881-0100 or visit www.benderjccgw.org.