Modern Art Chanukah!
Partshat Mikeitz/Chanukah 5780
Art Basel, according to Art Basel, is “the leading global platform connecting collectors, galleries, and artists.” The organization runs major art fairs in three cities around the world; Hong Kong, Basel (Switzerland), and Miami. Art Basel is not the place to go if you love classical art, like Rembrandt, Bruegel, or Van Dyck. It is not even the place to go if your looking for great Impressionist works, like Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, or Degas. As the website for Art Basel Miami explains:
“In our American show, leading galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa (Ed. Note: why not just say around the world?) show significant work from the masters of Modern and contemporary art, as well as the new generation of emerging stars. Paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, films, and editioned works of the highest quality are on display in the main exhibition hall.”
As you can imagine, Art Basel Miami is a mecca for people who love art that is bold and audacious, evocative, shockingly minimalist yet screaming in volumes, confounding, soul-searing, courageous and uncurbed, fearless and free.
It is where you go when you want to see two different multi-million dollar Damien Hirst paintings, both of them showing different colored polka dots on a white background, but one of them is larger than the other, hence evoking a totally different range of emotions. It is also where you go when you want to see a white piece of canvas with a blue line going down each side. Or a life jacket from an old ocean liner, probably bought at a flea market, but now placed on a hanger and hung on a hook from the wall. Or a bunch of planks of wood nailed to each other and mounted on the wall. Or a white canvas with a red streak going across it. Or a red canvas with a white streak going across it.
But the most talked about piece of art at this year’s Art Basel Miami, was a piece titled “Comedian” by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. It was bought right at the beginning of the art fair for $120,000, and another one was sold for an additional $120,000. Soon after a third one was bought by a museum for $150,000.
Maurizio Cattelan has a long history of pushing boundaries in the art world. His most famous piece of art, titled “America” is an 18-carat gold toilet bowl, which was recently stolen from where it was on display in Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill. There, it was plumbed into the building and visitors were allowed to use it as a toilet. Aside from that, he’s known for making massive sculptures of hands making a vulgar gesture (oooh! So daring!!). He’s also done a lot of work with taxidermized animals, and has a famous sculpture of Hitler praying as well as Nazi-salute hands coming out of the wall, just enough to make him audacious and daring!
So what was Comedian? The darling display of Art Basel Miami? The piece that sold three copies for $390,000 in two days? The display that was so popular that they actually closed it down during the last day of the show so that people would go visit the other displays as well? It was a banana duct-taped to a wall. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less. See, I told you there would be art on display that was shockingly minimalist! I told you that it would still be screaming in volumes, and soul-searing, and courageous, and uncurbed, and fearless, and free!
For days, thousands of people waited in line for hours to get into the gallery holding this priceless piece of art. Everyone wanted to take selfies with Comedian, the most expensive banana in human history (not really, remember, the third copy sold for $150,000 a full 25% increase from the price of the original one which hung in Art Basel and sold for a mere $120,000). It was all anyone who was anyone in the world of Modern Art was talking about. The cognoscenti claimed it was “a symbol of global trade, a double entendre, as well as a classic device for humor” but I’m not part of the cognoscenti, so I can’t honestly say I see it…
About a week into Art Basel, disaster struck. David Datuna, who calls himself a performance artist, walked up to the $120,000 banana duct taped to the wall, removed it from the wall, peeled it, and ate it proclaiming, “This is art performance, art performance, hungry artist… I respect Maurizio (the creator of the Comedian), but it’s art performance, hungry artist, thank you very good, very good… $150,000 tasting good.”
What do you do? If a banana duct taped to a wall is a $120,000 piece of art, than eating it is also a piece of art… On the other hand, the art is now gone, so do you arrest David Datuna, the hungry artist? Do you force him to pay back $120,000? What if he says, “I’ll give you back what I stole,” and gives back a piece of duct tape and a banana?
Fifteen minutes later, the problem was solved. The art gallery brought out a new banana and a new piece of duct tape and put Comedian back on the wall. One of the gallery directors explained, “Datuna did not destroy the artwork. The banana is the idea.” Meaning, the banana was going to rot eventually and have to be replaced. After reusing the duct tape multiple times to place fresh bananas the duct tape was going to lose it’s stickiness and have to be replaced as well. So the artwork was never really about the original banana or the original duct tape. The buyers bought the idea of the banana and duct tape, and they even got a certificate of authenticity that says they were the original owners of the idea of the banana and duct tape which is “a symbol for global trade and a double entendre” so you can’t really steal it from them. One banana goes and another one comes, but the idea of the art remains forever.
If at some point in this true story, you started wondering if all this played out in alternate universe, you would not be alone, but it very much did happen. And by the way, I’m selling a line of modern art as well, here are the pieces:
World 2020 – Chess pieces glued upside down to a chess board – $230,000
Special – A potato stabbed on the side with a chicken scissors – $1.2MM
Seven – Six red bricks placed next to each other on the floor – $650,000
How did we get here? How did we go from a world in which Michaelangelo spent over ten years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with incredible detail to a world in which an artist duct tapes a banana to a well? How did we go from Rembrandt’s masterpieces that he spent years painting to an artist eating said duct-taped banana? Where is the art-world going, how much more craziness do we have to celebrate, how many more bananas do we need to buy for $150,000 before someone wakes up and points out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes? And how do we understand a world so untethered from reality?
In a way this whole situation can be traced back to Athens and Jerusalem, the Greeks and the Jews. Both nations valued wisdom, the Jews have always been highly literate and have always produced scholars and deep thinkers, and the Greeks invented philosophy and the Socratic method of thinking. We both also enjoyed beautiful things, the Jews had a beautiful temple, beautiful silver Kiddush cups, golden Menorahs, and the Greeks had beautiful temples, coliseums, and spas, filled with beautiful art. So why didn’t they get along, and why did the Greeks feel the need to ban practicing Judaism on pain of death?
If you get down to it, the crucial difference between Greek philosophy and Judaism is who’s in charge. According to the North Carolina State University introduction to classical Greek literature, “Socrates attempted to establish an ethical system based upon human reason rather than upon theological directives.” At the end of the day, Greeks wanted to be in charge of themselves, they didn’t want there to be any greater wisdom that humans should follow. It is not surprising, people have an inner drive for freedom to do as we please, the Greeks just created an entire philosophy out of that drive, validating and celebrating mankind doing whatever he thinks is best.
Judaism is the opposite. It believes that our ethical system is created by G-d, and given to us through the Torah, a set of G-dly directives. Our job is to use our wisdom to understand as much of it as possible, so that we can appreciate it, teach it to others, and deepen our practice through our understanding of the nuances of G-dly wisdom. But we recognize that ultimately there will be reaches of G-dly wisdom that we won’t understand. It is interesting to note, that we call the areas of G-dly wisdom that we can’t understand chukim, and the Greeks specifically tried to separate use from those areas of Jewish life, “U’lihaveeram meichukei ritzonecha,” they attempted to remove of from the Chukim that are G-d’s Divine Will. The Greeks, seeing man’s wisdom as the ultimate wisdom were driven to a frenzy by anyone claiming that there is wisdom out there beyond the ken of mankind.
The outcome of this is a tension, between Athens and Jerusalem, is ultimately a tension between unity and individualism. Judaism values unity, as the goal is for us all to use our talents toward the common goal of bringing the world closer to the Divine wisdom. It’s not that Judaism doesn’t have a place for individualism, we believe that individuality is very important. G-d created us all different and unique so that each one of us can use our unique set of talents to bring the world toward it’s Divine Perfection, and in doing so we all have a part in this most noble endeavor. We each have a unique way of working, but we work to the exact same purpose, thus giving us tremendous unity. I recognize that I can’t do it all on my own, and thus appreciate it when you fill in the gaps for what I can’t do.
The Greek philosophy, that puts human reason at the center is going to be splintered into so much individualism that there is almost no structure, because each person pulls the philosophy into their corner and soon there is nothing left in the middle, it’s each man for his own. There’s no right and no wrong, no moral and immoral, everyone gets to decide for himself because there are no theological directives. This is the world we live in, where many traditional baselines have been destroyed and derided, and everyone gets to create their own moral code and identity and can even try to impose it on everyone else.
This is a world where the more absurd the artistic expression you can come up with, the more the world will dance to your individualistic definition of art. There are no rules, no schooling is required, no investment of great time and effort, just the ability to make something “more individualistic, more creative” than the last guy. Hence, we have a world filled with paintings of the color blue, or a dead shark in a box filled with formaldehyde, or a painting of a Campbell soup can, or a mirror dipped in red paint, or a banana duct taped to the wall.
It is interesting to note that when Noach blessed his sons, he recognized the great artistic talent of his son Yefes, the progenitor of Greece. He therefore blessed him, “Let G-d give beauty to Yefes, but let him dwell in the tents of Shem.” He was saying I want Yefes to use his artistic talent, but in a structured environment, the tents of Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people. If Yefes were to use his artistic talents toward the purpose of bringing about the Divine will, it would have tremendous value to the world. Indeed, Jews have used artistic expression for millennia to beautify our synagogues and temples, to bring greater recognition of G-d’s majesty to the world. But Yefes didn’t stick to the plan, he used the artistic expression, but to his own ends, his own every-man-to-his-own individualistic ends, and he created a world in which ethics and morality swing like a pendulum and society is pulled apart from within.
This year, as we look at the Chanukah candles, let’s think about how we use the great talents that G-d gave us; like Athens or Jerusalem? Are we using them to promote our own self-interests often at the expense of others, or are we using our unique talents to bring about a G-dly world, a world filled with selflessness, giving, holiness, tolerance, love, sanctity, and kindness? Are we using our talents for us, to differentiate ourselves and separate ourselves out above the masses, or to unify us and connect us more deeply with everyone around us?
As we light those candles proudly in our windows, we affirm that we side with the Maccabbees, the people who said, “Mi laHashem eilay! Let he who wishes to use his talents for G-dly purposes join with us!” We are here to use our talents not for ourselves, but for a greater good, the betterment of mankind in line with G-d’s vision for a perfect world.
Chanukah Dvar Torah
One of the primary functions of lighting the menora is pirsumei nissa, publicizing the great miracle that G-d performed on our behalf. This is why we only light the menora in a place that is highly visible such as a window open to a public thoroughfare. This idea also dictates the ideal time for lighting the menora. We should try to light it as it as it starts to get dark outside and people are heading home. During this time, our menoras can get the maximum exposure. If we can not light it then, we can light it later but preferably while there is still some traffic outside.
Based on the desire to publicize the miracle, the ideal place for a menorah would be right next to the door. Indeed in Israel, most people light their menorahs in that spot. The Sages teach us that a person should place the menorah on the left side of the door. Since the mezuzah is on the right, he will be surrounded by mitzvos when entering his home. Obviously, whatever is on the right when you walk in the door will be on the left when you walk out. So the menora which is on the left of the door when you walk in, would be on the right when you walk out. Is there any significance to which mitzvos are on what side when one walks in or out of his home?
The truth is that the mezuzah and the menorah represent two opposing ideas. The mezuzah is representative of compromise. There is an argument between two early commentators in the Talmud (Tractate Menachos folio 33A), Rashi and Rabeinu Tam, on how to properly place a mezuzah. Rashi says we should place it vertically, and Rabeinu Tam says we should place it horizontally. In practice, we place it diagonally in a compromise between the two opinions. This is the only time in all of Jewish Law where we have an argument in Halacha and rule in manner which strikes a compromise between the two views.
The Menorah represents being steadfast, unwavering, and obdurate. It commemorates a miracle that occurred to a small group of people that refused to be washed over in the tide of assimilation. A group of people who tenaciously hung on to their practices and beliefs even at a time when most of the world mocked them as old-fashioned, unrealistic, uncooperative, and foolishly superstitious. This group merited seeing the last open miracle that the Jewish people witnessed. They also merited having us commemorate that resolve every year, in an attempt to instill the lesson into our souls.
Let’s get back to the placement of these objects in our doorway. As we walk into our homes, the Mezuzah is on our right sight, the dominant side, reminding us that when a Jew comes into his home he must be prepared to make compromises in order to uphold the Shalom Bayis, the peace of the home. He cannot be rigid and unflinching, as that will cause his home to be rife with tension, arguing, and dispute.
However, as one walks out of his house, the menorah is on the dominant right side to signify to us that we cannot compromise our Jewish values even one iota when we are out in the big world. We cannot allow ourselves to do things that we normally wouldn’t do at home just to help the deal go through smoothly. We cannot allow our morals to become a bit more relaxed around the office, nor can we go hang out with friends in a setting that contrasts to the sanctity of our Jewish home. We need to take every aspect of the moral fiber of the Jewish home and bring it with us into the world outside, without a smidgen of adjustment or modification. This is the message of the placement of the Menorah and the Mezuzah, those two opposing symbols surrounding the Jewish home’s door. Together they make it into a Portal of Perfection!
This Parsha begins with Pharaoh having two very strange, yet similar, dreams. In the first one, he sees seven fat cows grazing in the marshes. Suddenly, seven thin, sickly cows consume the seven fat cows, but they don’t gain any weight. In the second dream, the same episode occurs with fat and thin stalks of grain. Pharaoh brings in all the wise people to help him interpret the dream but no one can do so.
Suddenly, the king’s butler remembers that there had been a Jewish boy in prison with him who properly interpreted his dream. He tells Pharaoh about Yosef, and Yosef is taken out of prison, bathed, barbered, and brought before the king (how did you like that alliteration?).
Yosef tells the king that with the help of G-d he will interpret the dreams. He explains that the dreams portend of seven years whence the land will experience great abundance (the 7 fat cows/ stalks), which will be succeeded by seven years of such hunger (the 7 thin cows/ stalks) that no one will be able to tell that there had once been an abundance (the thin cows/ grains not gaining weight). The fact that there were two dreams indicates that what they reveal will begin immediately.
Yosef then continues to advise Pharaoh to store up all the extra grain during the seven years of abundance so that there would be enough food to keep everyone alive during the famine. Pharaoh likes the idea and gives Yosef the job. He grants Yosef the title vice-king (Viceroy = Vice Roi, roi meaning king in French), and declares that Yosef shall run the entire Egypt, and that the only person with more power than Yosef will be Pharaoh himself.
Sure enough, things go as foretold. There are 7 years of plenty, Yosef gathers massive stores of food essentials, and then the famine begins. Oh, I forgot, in the middle Yosef gets married and had two children, Ephraim and Menasheh.
Soon, the famine reaches Israel and Yaakov sends 10 of his children down to Egypt to procure provisions for his progeny. He keeps Binyamin with him as he can’t bear to lose both of Rachel’s children, and he already lost Yosef (or so he thought). Now, it is important to remember that the string of events which follow were all devised by Yosef to help his siblings see the mistake they made in selling him, so that they could properly repent.
When the brothers come into Egypt they are rounded up and brought before Yosef who begins to interrogate them. They explain that they are from a family of 11 brothers and that they had another brother who is no longer with them. Yosef accuses them of being liars and spies and tells them that the only way they can prove that they are saying the truth is by bring down their remaining brother so that Yosef can see him.
Yosef instructs his servants to load up their donkeys and send them back home. However, he keeps one brother (Shimon) as a hostage and tells them that they cannot get any more food unless they bring Binyamin down with them. He then instructs his son Menashe to put each brother’s moneybag back into their sacks. When the brothers find their money, they become even more nervous, as now it looks like they stole!
The brothers go back to their father, Yaakov, and relate to him the events that transpired. He refuses to allow Binyamin to go down. Finally, the food runs out again, and Yehuda, the brother with inherent leadership capabilities, tells his father that he will take personal responsibility for bringing Binyamin back, to the point that he is willing to use his share in the World to Come as security. Yaakov relents and the brothers go back to Egypt with Binyamin.
The brothers bring money to the head of Yosef’s home and explain that they found it in their bags, but they are told to keep it. Yosef arranges for them to have a special meal with him. Yosef enters and inquires about his father, then turns to Binyamin and blesses him. Overcome with emotion, Yosef rushes out to weep and then comes back after regaining his composure. He then seats the brothers in order of age, telling them that his magic goblet told him their ages. He gives Binyamin a special portion 5 times larger than the brothers’ portions.
The next morning, when the brothers set out, he again instructs Menashe to put their money back in the bag, but he also tells him to hide his goblet in Binyamin’s sack. Soon after they set out, Menashe chases them down with a small army and asks them why they returned Yosef’s kindness with thievery, stealing the goblet they know is especially dear to Yosef. Yehuda speaks up for them and denies any liability, going as far as to say that if the goblet is found with any of the brothers, they can kill that brother and the rest of the brothers will be slaves.
Of course, they find the goblet with Binyamin, and Menashe tells the brothers that he won’t kill Binyamin, he will just take him as a slave, and the rest are free to go. They all go back to the palace, where Yehuda pleads before Yosef and tells him that all the brothers wish to remain together and that they will all become slaves. However, Yosef refuses, saying that he is not corrupt and he won’t take the others because they did no crime, but that Binyamin has to stay. In that tension-filled palace room, the Parsha ends, and I know you will be back next week to see what goes down!!
Quote of the Week: Worry is interest paid on trouble before if comes due. ~ William Ralph Inge
Random Fact of the Week: After a three week vacation, your IQ can drop by as much as 20%!
Funny Line of the Week: Hospitality: making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.
Have a Glowing Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham