An 8-Step Journey Through the High Holy Days

with a Visual Art & Meditation Lens

Finding Your Space : A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove)

 

Year: 1862

Artist: Sanford Robinson Gifford

This painting captures the openness and vastness we hope to cultivate in our most meditative and prayerful moments. But, look closely at the bottom left corner and you will see a person climbing the rocks. In the midst of the grandeur of creation, we seek out private spaces. Wherever you find yourself today, whether inside or outside, where can you carve out a private space to be alone with your deepest prayers?

Praise: Landscape With Stars

 

Year: 1905-1908

Artist: Henri-Edmond Cross (Henri-Edmond Delacroix)

Is there anything that evokes a sense of praise more than a star-filled sky? Nothing has the power to make us feel so small, but also to make us feel as though we are a part of something so great. How can we look at a sky like this and not cry out “Mah Gadlu Ma’asecha Adonai! – How great are your works, Adonai!”?

Setting Intentions: The Writing Master

 

Year: 1882

Artist: Thomas Eakins

The High Holy Days require us to set our intentions from the beginning. How do we want to change this year? What do we want to leave behind? We don’t know what this figure is writing, but perhaps we can imagine him embarking on a similar path of self-reflection and intention-setting. How will you write your goals this year? What would you want written about you?

Vulnerability: Hagar in the Wilderness

 

Year: 1835

Artist: Camille Corot

Here, we find the haunting biblical image of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, crying out to God from the wilderness. The urgency, distress, and desperation are palpable. We may not be pleading in the wilderness but, like Hagar, we find ourselves, at this season, exposed and in need of help. The stakes are high and we are vulnerable.

Majesty: Queen Esther Approaching the Palace of Ahasuerus

 

Year: 1658

Artist: Claude Lorrain (Claude Gelée)

Our tradition uses such a wide variety of images and metaphors to describe God. During this season, we allow ourselves to imagine God in majestic terms. We imagine ourselves approaching a sovereign ruler, recognizing our own smallness and our own humility. Here, the artist depicts the biblical Queen Esther approaching her husband, the King, to plead on behalf of the Jewish people. At this season, we imagine ourselves in Esther’s shoes, using our voices to request mercy and compassion.

Forgiveness: The Return of Joseph

 

Year: 1720-70

Artist: John Michael Rysbrack

Forgiveness is at the heart of the High Holy Days. We seek forgiveness for our own actions and we find it within ourselves to grant others forgiveness for theirs. Here, the artist depicts the biblical story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers with beautiful softness and sensitivity. We recall that Joseph’s brothers treated him with unspeakable cruelty. If even those actions can yield forgiveness, how might we find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves and forgive others this year?

Closing of the Gates: Twilight on the Sound, Darien, Connecticut

 

Year: 1872

Artist: John Frederick Kensett

Here, the artist captures magical liminal space,  as the sun sets over the water. It is not quite day, not quite night, but we know that darkness will soon sweep over us. On Yom Kippur, this is the time of day when our hunger and thirst are at their height, when our prayers feel most pressing, when we feel the greatest sense of urgency. But this is not an image of anxiety, but rather one of serenity. How can we find a sense of internal calm amidst the high-stakes energy of these High Holy Days?

Shofar: Head of a Ram

 

Year: ca. 3500-3100 BCE

Artist: Unknown

The shofar is one of the most ancient rituals in Jewish life. Here, we find a modeling of a ram’s head, dating back more than 5000 years. When we gaze at this image, we reconnect with our tribal roots. We hear the blast of the ram’s horn and we are transported back in time, imagining ours ancestors hearing these same vibrations, stirring them to rise up and work toward the betterment of humanity.