Representation, the High Priest, and National Art

Recently Sidney Poitier passed away.  In 1964, he became the first African American actor and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He once said, “I was the only Black person on the set. It was unusual for me to be in a circumstance in which every move I made was tantamount to representation of 18 million people. ” It is interesting to reflect, what is the role of representation in our lives?

This question makes be think of the 1929 painting by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte The Treachery of Images ( La Trahison des Images). You might know it as This Is Not a Pipe.The painting shows an image of a pipe. Below it, Magritte painted, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe“, French for “This is not a pipe”.

The Treachery of Images - Wikipedia

About this Magritte said, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!” All representations of a thing are inherently abstract. It is just as absurd for a painting of a pipe to represent an actual pipe as for Poitier as an individual to represent 18 million people. And still people got angry at Magritte and loved Poitier because representation matters.

I was thinking about this issue when reading Tetzave this week’s Torah portion. There God instructed Moshe to make sacral vestments for Aaron: a breastpiece (the Hoshen), the Efod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen breeches. The Hoshen is particularly ornate with its rows of stones. There we read:

Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve Tribes.

Exodus 28: 17-21

This sacred breastplate was worn by the High Priest. There was a stone for each of the 12 Tribes. I could imagine being there in the crowd watching the High Priest. He would look so other-worldly with all of his garb, pomp, and circumstance. And that I would see the Hoshen on his chest. I would see me and my tribe represented in one of those stones. With all of its splendor and their names engraved, this was clearly a central symbol of unity of the Israelite people. In this moment the High Priest might say, “I am the only person on the set. It was unusual for me to be in a circumstance in which every move I made was tantamount to representation millions of people. But even if I do not know them I am connected to them. see check out my Hoshen.” The Hoshen is art that represents the nation with all of its Tribes. It turns out that representation matters.


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