Art d’var: Commentary on Torah through a related work of art. Just as Torah is a framework for Jewish life that must be unpacked and investigated from many angles to understand the depth of its content and applicability to our own lives, so is great art. This series illuminates works of art that help contemporize the ancient text of the Old Testament.
Dvarim, which means “words” or “things” in Hebrew, is the first portion in the fifth book of the Torah, Dvarim, Deuteronomy. This portion is the culmination of 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Passover Exodus story, the moment when God finally tells Moses to address the Israelites, to have them choose one leader from each of the 12 tribes and to pick up and walk into the Holy Land.
Wanting a new generation to lead the charge, God made the Israelites wait 40 years, 11 months and one day to finally enter the Land of Israel. Remember that just a few portions earlier, we read that Israelite spies entered the land, then came back with fear of the land and the people in it. God saw this fear of the unknown and saw the need for a new generation of leaders who would bypass that fear and have the ingenuity and confidence to make this land “home.”
This motion from the desert into the promised land, the Land of Israel, is the original homecoming story: the moment when all 12 tribes of Israel walked to enter into the land as one people made up of diverse communities.
A video installation collaboration, “The Israel Trail Procession,” by photographer and video installation artist Meirav Heiman and painter and installation artist Ayelet Carmi, acquired by the Israel Museum in 2019, speaks to this portion in so many ways. (Watch the process video here.)
This work features 50 diverse and eclectic people, which feels like a nod to the 12 tribes of Israel. Mostly women and children, walking across the Holy Land, without touching the ground. With different devices employed in each of the scenarios to keep the feet from the ground—balls, stilts, wheels—the final image is strangely futuristic, circus-like and oddly enticing. But why aren’t they touching the ground?
“The banners they carry are blank,” Heiman told The Jerusalem Post. “We never explain why they can’t touch the ground. Maybe the ground is too hot to tread on, or sacred.”
What we do know is that walking the land has long been a major ongoing force in Zionist ideology—one rooted in this portion: “Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them” (Dvarim 1:8).
And when we think about the fear of the land that the Israelite spies had initially felt upon entering the Land of Israel, there is something so beautifully metaphorical about avoiding touching the land, distancing yourself from what scares you and using the literal crutches to overcome this fear.
Each of the characters in the parade—recruited from amateurs and professional performers alike—are constructed individually. The costumes and looks designed by notable Israeli designer Elisha Abargel are futuristic and post-apocalyptic and the whole piece is a cross between post-apocalyptic descendants of present-day Israelis and a tribal troupe belonging to ancient, obscure times.
These characters make their way across the Land of Israel on the National Israel Trail, a 1,000-kilometer cross-country hiking route that runs from the Lebanese border all the way to Eilat. Relatively new, the trail (“Shvil Israel”) was inaugurated in 1995 and connects to the founding Zionist ethos of “conquering the land with one’s feet.”
Just as Torah stories live in a time outside of time, this is an eccentric parade of walkers of different ages that seem to belong to a time outside time. As these 50 futuristic yet timeless characters make their way across the National Israel Trail, we see the stories of the many immigrant groups who have walked, driven, flown or swam into the land.
This piece was on display at the Kniznick Gallery at Brandeis University in 2019, just before acquisition by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Check out costume designer Elisha Abargel on Studio Israel below.
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