SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS
That phrase, all in capital letters, may not look like much to you, but it sure raised a lot of capital at an auction last year. Those words, put in black letters on a seven foot white background by the artist Christopher Wool make up a piece of art called Apocalypse Now (the words are from a line in the 1979 film called Apocalypse Now). And that piece of art cost an anonymous bidder $26.4 million dollars at a Christie’s auction last November. And Christopher Wool isn’t even a dead artist. He’s not dead, and if you ask me, he’s not much of an artist, he’s just good at putting phrases from movies in black letters on white backgrounds.
The art world has undergone explosive growth in the last decade. In a time when people don’t know where to park their money, where any investment seems risky, many have turned to art as an investment. The reasoning is that they may as well enjoy their venture while they have it, and there’s nothing like the feeling of coming home from a long day at work to a $26,000,000 seven foot white board with the bold words SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS.
It hasn’t been a bad investment. Contemporary art sales at auctions have gone up over 1,000% over the last decade, and if one were to include private sales and gallery purchases the number would be significantly higher. Individual pieces have also seen astronomical returns on investment. The first buyers of Apocalypse Now, Werner and Elaine Dannheisser , a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany in 1936 and his wife, bought the painting for an undisclosed sum, but based on Christopher Wool’s other sales at the time, the purchase prices is assumed to have been around $7,500. That was in 1983. Thirty years later, the piece had appreciated by a brain burning 35,000%.
The art world is a strange place to be these days. Beautiful masterpieces made by the Dutch Masters four hundred years ago sell for pithy sums, such as Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Garden of Eden With the Fall of Man, which sold for $11.7 million in July. But contemporary art created by artists still living or barely cold fetch sums double or triple that.
One of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold at an auction was a contemporary triptych by Francis Bacon depicting three versions of his friend and rival Lucian Freud, which sold for $142.2 million. Bacon is barely dead, as he only eternally stopped painting in 1992. An Andy Warhol painting of a Coke bottle sold for $57.3 million, and he might be dead since 1987, but he left behind 95,000 works of art! At the same time, a big shiny orange sculpture of a balloon dog (of the type your child might win at a carnival), created by Jeff Koons, who still walks among us, sold for $58.4 million! As art advisor Thea Westreich says, “If you’re looking for something rational in the art market, go fishing or go do something else instead.”
There is a huge debate around the central question “What is art?” Is a dead cow standing stationary in a box of formaldehyde considered art? If you said yes, you would have 16.3 million reasons and one Damien Hirst installation to back you up. Is a painting that is nothing other than red paint covering a mirror are? You could say not, but someone paid $1.1 million for that masterpiece by Gerhard Richter. (Yes, you can try that at home, although I think you’ll only get half that amount.) In my humble opinion art is anything that inspires you. If it fills you with wonderment, it’s art. If it doesn’t, you can buy it as an investment, but please don’t fill the world with dribble like: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our soul.” Or “Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth.”
But there is a much bigger question that needs to be addressed when talking about art. Not what is art, but for what is art. Not does it inspire you, but what does it inspire you to do? This question is nothing new, it is a question that goes back thousands of years.
A few years ago, Partners Detroit’s young professionals visited with Rabbi Aaron Feldman shlita, the Rosh Hayeshiva, the Rabbinical Dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, MD. After warmly welcoming us into his home, he spoke with us about the meaning of being a Jew. He quoted a book written by Leo Strauss an eminent professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. The book was called Athens and Jerusalem. It reflected upon the deep philosophical divide between Athens and Jerusalem. The goal of the Greeks was glorifying man, and making his life more beautiful. From the great emphasis on the body involved in Greek sports, to the great technologies they invented, the purpose was to make life better and more beautiful. The Greeks only failed to say what for.
Indeed there didn’t seem to be a need for a greater purpose. If it made life easier, and gave man more leisure time, it was good. If it inspired man, be it soaring Parthenon, great sculpture, imposing architecture, or other works of art, it was good. Life for the Greek was for the Greek. But Jerusalem had a very different philosophy. Life was for doing good. Like for the Jews was for others, for giving, helping, and uplifting. The directives that Jerusalem and the Jews lived by all pointed them to a higher purpose than simply beautifying their lives. The beauty in their lives only had meaning when it propelled them to a greater good.
Noah foresaw this great cultural divide. He knew that his sons Shem and Yefes would go on to father great civilizations, Jerusalem and Athens. And he knew that Yefes, the progenitor of Greece had an enormous appreciation of the aesthetic. So when he blessed them, he said the following, “May G-d give beauty to Yefes, but may he dwell in the tents of Shem.” Noah wanted Yefes to use his beauty for the purpose of Shem, for Athens to put its enormous talents to work for the goals of Jerusalem. Alas, Athens did not take that route, and instead found itself at great odds with Jerusalem.
This divergence created a great problem for the Greeks, it made their lives seem devoid of meaning, so they sought to destroy the philosophy of Jerusalem. They had nothing against the Jews, au contraire, they saw great beauty in Jerusalem with its soaring Temple, beauty they appreciated. But the philosophy of beauty needing to be attached to purpose in order to giving it meaning was one they fought. They banned those things that pointed to a more exalted purpose and mission; Shabbos, Bris Milah, and Rosh Chodesh. Shabbos is a day when we step back from doing in order to focus on what we are doing and why we do it. Bris Milah indicates that the human being needs to cut away from himself and his self-indulgence in order to make room for a higher purpose. And Rosh Chodesh is when we recognize that like the moon, our light in this world should be a reflection of a Greater Light.
The Greeks also tried to stop us from lighting the Menora. The Menora was the most beautiful and intricate of all the Temple vessels, yet it’s whole function was to hold up the lights, the lights that represented G-dly Wisdom. But the Maccabbees fought back valiantly, unwilling to yield Jerusalem’s idealism for Athens’ hedonism. And the light persevered, burning far brighter and longer than all the science and technology could possibly explain.
Art is a metaphor for life. Art is anything that inspires, but good art is that which inspires one to do good. Life too is filled with things that inspire and catch our interest, from plays to sports, from cooking to gardening, economics or math. But a good life is that which is lived purposefully, with the beauty in one’s life being harnessed to benefit others. And when we follow the path of Jerusalem, the path of the Maccabees, our light burns stronger, transcending the rules of nature, shining forth for eternity.
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: The greatest truths are the simplest, and so are the greatest people. – G. Yelnats
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