He even donated his Italian villa to Chabad in Italy, where they use it for their invigorating summer camps.
His sudden death in 1973 prevented him from completing a massive abstract of a phoenix for Hadassah hospital.
Being a skilled sculptor & artist herself, his wife Berthe wished to complete her husband's project.
However, in an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Berthe expressed concern over the construction of what many considered a non-Jewish symbol in the holy city of Yerushalayim.
So the Rebbe showed her the mention of the phoenix in Eyov (Job) 29:18 and explained the midrashic description of the phoenix.
Reassured that the phoenix originated as a Jewish symbol, the sculpture was completed in 1978.
Many of us know of the phoenix as an imaginary bird associated with non-Jewish mythology & miraculous powers.
However, the phoenix is well-known among Torah Sages throughout history: Rashi, Gemara Sanhedrin, Malbim, Midrash Rabbah and its commentaries, the Maharal, the Chidah, Chassidus — they all discuss the phoenix, referring to it by its Hebrew name chol or its Aramaic name avarshinah.
Unfortunately, people took the story of the phoenix and minimized the spiritual meaning of the phoenix and its symbolism.
However, the true story of the phoenix is exquisite, both in its events & its powerful lessons.
The Real Story of the Phoenix
While we know that after eating from the Eitz HaDaat (Tree of Knowledge), Chava gave of its fruit to Adam, she also fed the rest of the animals from this same fruit.
Except the phoenix.
The phoenix refused to eat it.
Refraining from eating the fruit of the Eitz HaDaat earned the phoenix eternal life, which renewed every 1000 years.
Yet a hunter’s arrow could still shoot down the phoenix, or it could come to some other fatal accident.
How the Phoenix Merited Invincibility in Addition to Eternal Life
Commentators differ whether the phoenix is one bird or more. After all, Noach brought at least 2 of each kind, male & female, into the Ark.
So some Sages say this includes the phoenix too, meaning that the phoenix is a breed of bird that lives forever, renewing itself every 1000 years.
Yet others say no; the phoenix is a lone bird.
Either way, the Gemara records a telling incident on the Ark with the phoenix and Noach.
Caring for the animals involved a lot of stamina & ceaseless toil for Noach.
At one point, Noach noticed the phoenix bird lying in its compartment off to the side of the Ark.
Realizing he hadn't yet fed the phoenix (which probably caused the weakened state of the bird), Noach asked it, "Do you not want food?"
The phoenix answered him, "I saw you were toiling and so I decided I would not trouble you."
Upon realizing the self-sacrificing thoughtfulness & humility of the phoenix, Noach blessed the bird, "And may it be Hashem's will that you will never die."
And with Noach's blessing, the phoenix no longer needed to fear a hunter's arrow.
So the merit of not eating the fruit of Eitz HaDaat combined with Noach's blessing now made the phoenix immune to any kind of death.
How Does the Phoenix Renew Itself?
For example, most say it renews itself every 1000 years, but the Tzemach Tzaddik quoting the Chidah says it renews itself every 315 years.
Either way, it renews itself after a very long time, but continuously renews itself to live forever.
Some say as it approaches the end of its cycle, a fire emerges from the phoenix's nest, burning the phoenix down to the size of an egg, then it grows limbs, developing into a full-grown bird and continues to live like that until the end of its next cycle.
Others say that the phoenix's body collapses upon itself and its wings shrivel until it shrivels down to the size of an egg, and then its renewal process begins. (This process sounds like it happens without fire, but I'm not sure.)
The Tzemach Tzaddik as quoted by the Chidah goes into further detail:
In this scenario, the phoenix renews itself every 315 years.
The phoenix feels its strength ebbing as it reaches the old age phase of its cycle.
So it builds a nest of parched aromatic bark (atzei besamim).
After the phoenix completes this special nest, it enters inside, faces the Sun, and starts beating its wings to build heat & friction until it catches on fire with its aromatic nest.
Interestingly, the phoenix feels no fear even as it burns because it senses this is the way for it to experience rebirth.
Anyway, it continues in this fashion until it disintegrates into a heap of ashes.
9 days later, a tiny worm emerges from the ashes and grows until it becomes a full-fledged adult phoenix by the end of 30 days.
At that point, it's youthful & free again, and it flies away.
The Real Meaning & Symbolism of the Phoenix
Yet the true story of the phoenix — the authentic Jewish narrative — reveals much deeper and more pertinent lessons.
The story of the phoenix proves that nice guys really do finish first.
And that the real gibbur, a person of true might, is the one who conquers his inclination (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
And that yes, the humble really do inherit the earth (Tehillim 37:11).
(I know that scientists always focus on the repulsive cockroach as the hardy survivor of nuclear war, but it's really the beautiful humble phoenix who can survive anything.)
The story of the phoenix starts out in Gan Eden as an ode to the power of staying within your own dalet amot, of not seeking to be part of the elite and not giving into peer pressure.
You really don't need to do what everyone else is doing, even if it's eating from something as cool as the Eitz HaDaat.
It's about thinking for yourself.
And later, on Noach's Ark, it's about bitul atzmi (self-nullification).
It's about saying that my suffering doesn't take precedence over another's suffering — especially when I owe that person my life.
It's knowing with complete emunah & bitachon that Hashem takes care of everything.
Hashem promised the phoenix eternal life, but it originally meant the phoenix won't die of old age; it can renew itself every time death approaches.
But it could get shot down by an arrow. And it could starve to death.
Yet in its great humility and bitul atzmi, the starving phoenix refused to bother Noach simply because it saw that Noach was already overwhelmed.
And by suffering in silence off to the side of a busy zoo during one of the most devastating eras of human history — simply out of consideration for another person — the phoenix earned invincibility in addition to eternal life.
And now we understand what Iyov really meant when he said (29:18):
וָאֹמַר, עִם-קִנִּי אֶגְוָע; וְכַחוֹל, אַרְבֶּה יָמִים
Va'omar im kani egva v'chachol arbeh yamim.
And I said I will perish with my nest, and I will increase days like the phoenix.
For the story of Berthe Lipchitz & the Lubavitcher Rebbe, please see:
For an intriguing class on the phoenix, please see:
A Phoenix in the Ark
To see a beautiful painting of the phoenix in Gan Eden, please see:
Phoenix in the Garden of Eden
For a later post explaining the talking to animals that occurs in Torah, please see:
2 Ways to Understand How Noach Spoke with the Dove, the Raven, and the Phoenix
Additional fun fact: I don't think we know how the phoenix actually looked. Despite the flame-like coloring often portrayed in artistic representations, the only physical description I found of it lay in Otzar Midrashim: "It is fat."