“When you speak, imagine the Shekhinah speaking through you.” When R. Daniel brought us this teaching from the Baal Shem Tov he commented that it might seem “too esoteric.” But I was immediately captivated.
The experience of feeling as though some outside power was speaking through me was already familiar. When I practiced psychotherapy, words that mysteriously met a client’s needs would come from me without thought. Now, as a visual artist who speaks with materials and forms, I’d more than once felt helped by an outside source.
I’d learned to call these experiences “Shefa,” the kabbalistic word for the flow of divine abundance. But I’d never put Shefa and Shekhinah, the divine feminine, together before.
This connection cast a new light on my last two years of art-making, a light I now thought must be emanating from the Shekhinah. My recent work has been inspired by
the discoveries of women scientists who have mapped the underground web of roots and fungi that connect trees with one another. Scientists like Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer have shown how trees help and protect one another via these intricate organic patterns.
Many male academics and forest managers have rejected their discoveries, claiming that competition, not cooperation, is the underlying force animating trees and related life forms.
To add my artistic voice to this debate, I took inspiration from Simard’s project and book, Finding the Mother Tree. I made sculptures and wall-hangings featuring trees from whose breasts the life-force flows.
A few months later, I was reminded of the kabbalistic tree of life, which I’d always loved for its visual presentation. As I looked over various diagrammatic versions, what struck me for the first time was how static they were. They were not alive with the flow between and among the sephirot (emanations) in the vibrant way that roots and fungi flow between and among the trees.
I felt impelled to make a tree of life that looked alive, using natural materials and sculpting in three dimensions.
I created branches instead of lines and green leaves holding the emanations.
After hearing R. Daniel’s teaching about the Shekhinah— what scholar Gershon Sholom calls “the feminine Jewish divine presence”—I knew for certain She was speaking through me as I made my version of the tree of life. Although the women scientists who are proving that forests are webs of connection might find this “too esoteric,” I like to think the Shekhinah is also speaking through them.
Susan Kaplow is a visual artist in NYC whose work is often inspired
by Jewish themes. See her work at: www.susankaplow.com