She’s all of two and a half feet tall, much smaller than most of her peers. She lives a life of quiet solitude, passing her time in a small glass house, all by herself. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t have visitors. When you live in a glass house, you shouldn’t throw stones and you have no privacy. Throngs of people come to watch her, spending a minute or two before being ushered away to make room for others. At least they leave her alone at night. Except that time she was kidnapped.
Of course I’m talking about the Mona Lisa, arguably the world’s most famous and most valuable piece of art. It hangs on a wall in the Louvre, the most visited museum in the world, where she receives about 30,000 visitors each day (about 8 million a year in a pre-pandemic world!), almost all of whom line up for hours just to get one minute in the crowded gallery, pretty much long enough to take a selfie with the Mona and be ushered out by the docents. Of the few things agreed upon is that it was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the Italian Renaissance greats. After that, pretty much everything is in contention. When was it painted? Some say between 1503-1506, others believe it to be closer to 1517. Who is the painting of? Most attribute it to Lisa del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine woman, while others believe it was his mother, and some even believe it was a self portrait with him depicted as a woman!
Interestingly, the Mona Lisa was not famous at all for the first 80% of her life, or about 400 years. She was brought from Italy to France during the reign of Francis I, who as a great patron of the arts, brought many Italian Renaissance painters to France, usually buying their artwork as part of the deal. He was enamored by Leonardo da Vinci, according to some accounts even sat at his deathbed until the great artist drew his last breaths! The Mona Lisa was kept in the Palace of Fontainebleau for about a hundred years, until Louis XIV brought it to the Palace of Versailles, where it remained for about 150 years.
After the French Revolution, the Louvre was established as a national museum of arts, and the Mona Lisa was hung on the wall in the Francis I gallery. It was only in the late 1800’s that people began to notice this small painting of a woman with no eyebrows and a mysterious smile, and to call it a masterpiece of the Renaissance. But this description was only whispered among the French Intelligentsia, the lay people found no great pleasure in viewing the Mona Lisa. All that changed on a Monday morning in August of 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen and the painting became instantaneously the most famous painting in the world.
The team that stole the Mona Lisa was made up of three Italians, and one of them, Vincenzo Perugia, was intimately knowledgeable of the security setup for the Mona Lisa, he was hired to place a protective glass cover over it, and had just finished the job! He, and his two accomplices, brothers Michele and Vincenzo Lancelotti, visited the Louvre as customers on Sunday, and while no one was looking crammed themselves into an art supply closet.
On Monday morning, while most of Paris was working through their weekend hangovers, they crept out of the closet, lifted the 200 pound glass case, painting and frame, off the wall and stripped off the heavy glass case and frame, leaving only the painting itself. The Mona Lisa, which was painted on a piece of wood, was slipped under a blanket, and the three thieves carried it out of the museum, made a beeline for the Quai d’Orsay train station, where they took the 7:47am express train out of the city.
For 28 hours, no one even noticed that the painting was missing, and in its place were just the four hooks that used to hold the case. On Tuesday afternoon, an artist came to paint that gallery, and noticed that something was missing, and inquired about it. At that time, all of the art in the Louvre was in middle of being photographed, and because the early cameras were not very good indoors, most of the art was carried to the roof to be photographed. The artist asked for permission to go to the roof to find out when the Mona Lisa would be returned, but the photographers told him that they had not touched the Mona Lisa, and the theft was finally discovered.
The very next day, newspapers across the world carried headlines announcing the theft of the Mona Lisa, and the French public was enraged and humiliated. Suddenly, the Mona Lisa was the most famous painting in the world! Sixty detectives were assigned exclusively to the case, but nothing turned up. The suspects included American robber barons, who were in the midst of buying the most famous artworks in the world to display in their new mansions, the Kaiser of Germany who was on the brink of war with France, and even other artists like Pablo Picasso, who was called in and questioned extensively. The Louvre was shut down for a week, and when it finally reopened, throngs gathered to see the empty spot where the Mona Lisa once hung, the “Mark of Shame of France.”
Extraordinary rewards were offered to anyone who could find the painting and its thieves, and the three robbers knew they had to lay low, it was simply too hot to sell. For twenty eight months, Mona Lisa hung out in the false bottom of a trunk sitting in Vincenzo Perugia’s rented room in a boarding house. Finally, Perugia took it out and brought it to an art dealer in Florence and offered it for sale. The dealer brought in the owner of a prestigious local gallery, and they determined that it was authentic based on the stamp on the back. They explained to Perugia that it was stolen, and told him to leave it with them and that they would make sure he got a generous reward for bringing it in. Instead, he got a platoon of police knocking down his door within thirty minutes. Fascinatingly, after pleading guilty to the theft he was sentenced to only eight months in prison.
The kidnapping of Mona Lisa may not have done much for Vincenzo Perugia and his merry band of thieves, it certainly did benefit the Mona. She went from being a relatively minor Renaissance painting to becoming the most famous painting in the world. The world is entranced by her enigmatic smile, her serene gaze, her eyebrowless serenity, and every single day tens of thousands of people line up for over two hours just to get a moment in her presence. I think I’d like to be kidnapped.
In Judaism we have a concept called Yerida L’tzorech Aliya, which loosely translates as falling for the need of rising. The idea is that often there is a fall, a crisis, a failing that leads to growth to a far higher level than previously held. Our world was formed that way, our nation was formed that way, and our final salvation will come through that. In the creation of the universe, every day of creation is described by the Torah as “there was evening and there was morning, Day 1,” “there was evening and there was morning the Second Day…” Before the glorious achievements of each day could be fully realized, there needed to be a period of darkness and chaos, when the previous day’s accomplishments are being cast aside, being shown to be deficient and inadequate. But out of the chaos emerges a new day, one in which the results and our world is far more remarkable that it was the day before.
The Hebrews, the twelve children of Jacob and their families seemed to be doing just fine, living in the Holy Land and maintaining their unique identity. But they get sent down to Egypt, where they undergo over a century of slavery and suffering, only to emerge in a stunning display of miracles, and travel to Mt Sinai where they become elevated into a “Nation of ministers and a Holy People.” Indeed the Messiah that will come to save all of us, and elevate us all out of our millennia of exile will come from the House of David, whose lineage is beset with challenge on all sides, from Lot and his daughters, to Yehuda and Tamar, to David and Batsheva. But from the challenges of the Davidic Line comes the humility and readiness to repent which are the ultimate tools for humanity, a frail species, with powers unrivaled for those who can turn their fallibility into power. The world seems to have this pattern woven into its fabric, which is why repentance was created before the world. G-d wasn’t trying to create a perfect world, but rather a world of challenge and reparative triumph.
It is often only when a person falls and hits a new low that they are shaken out of their calcified stupor and indifference to their lackings, and is finally ready to put in the work needed to better themselves. No one realizes how powerful the Mona Lisa is until they are confronted with some empty hooks in the Louvre, and no one realizes how much they need to work on their gossip until they end up causing someone to lose their job through a mindless criticism. There are some people who drift in a marriage that really isn’t working for years until the marriage almost dissolves itself. Then there are other people who face a massive challenge in the marriage, some cataclysmic event which suddenly brings the marriage to the brink of divorce, but the couple decides to dig in and fight for their marriage, and deploys every resource they can to making it work. That relationship will often end up far stronger than it was before their fall, it is truly a Yerida L’tzorech Aliya, a fall that leads to elevation.
Maybe I don’t need to be kidnapped, maybe I just need to see those moments of failure and mistakes in my life not as who I am, but as the empty space between the rungs of the ladder. They may feel chaotic, there may be nothing to support me, and I may feel like I’m free falling, but if I can just dig in, and hold on, I can get to a higher rung than I’ve ever been in before.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this weeks Parsha, we begin reading about the Ten Plagues. To some, the ten plagues seem like what we would call today “excessive force!” Why couldn’t G-d just use a couple of them, not harden Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh would’ve for sure caved in and let the Jews go. Theoretically, G-d could’ve even just gone in right away with the “nuclear option,” the Death of the Firstborn, and probably could’ve ended the Jewish slavery with just one plague! What was so many plagues supposed to achieve?
Let’s look at an answer given by Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000, Belarus – Israel), the Chassidic master of the Slonim dynasty, in his magnum opus, the Nesivos Shalom.
During the Passover seder, when we recount the Ten Plagues, we say the following teaching, “Rabbi Yehuda used to give them signs, דצ”ח אד”ש באח”ב.” The letters that Rabbi Yehuda groups together are the initials of the Ten plagues and together they form the mnemonic seen above. What exactly is Rabbi Yehuda trying to teach us with this statement? Is he simply teaching us that we can form mnemonics by taking the first letter of a bunch of words and putting them together?
What Rabbi Yehuda is really trying to do is to point out that there were actually three different categories of plagues, each with a different role to play in bringing to fruition the overall goal of the plagues. Before we can see what each grouping added, we need to look at what the stated goal of the plagues is. When Moshe came to Pharaoh the first time and told him that the G-d of the Hebrews said that he should let the Jewish people go, Pharaoh responded by saying “I don’t know who this G-d is!” G-d’s response was the ten plagues, whose stated goal was “with this you will know that I am G-d!” (Exodus 7:17).
Each set of plagues in Rabbi Yehuda’s mnemonic showed G-d’s mastery in a different area. The first set showed His mastery over all things beneath the surface of the earth. The blood in the rivers, the frogs coming out of the rivers, and the earth turning into teeming lice, were all clear supernatural phenomena showing G-d’s mastery over things beneath the earth.
The plagues indicated in the second mnemonic set showed G-d’s mastery over everything on the surface of earth. Wild animals roaming the streets, pestilence killing off all of the Egyptian’s domestic animals, and boils appearing on all the Egyptian’s skin, are all things that took place on the surface, showing G-d’s mastery over all things terrestrial. The plagues indicated in the last mnemonic set showed G-d’s mastery over all things in the heavens above. Hailstones made of fire and ice, locust blowing in from the heavens, absolute darkness, and G-d Himself snuffing out the life of every firstborn in Egypt in one microsecond, are clear indications that the heavens above are also under the absolute control of G-d.
The idea of the different sets of plagues demonstrating G-d’s control over different parts of nature is underscored clearly in the text. Each time a new set of plagues is about to begin, G-d reiterates to Moshe that this is being done so that everyone should know that the G-d of the Hebrews is the G-d who controls everything (Exodus 7:17 before the plague of blood, 8:18 before the plague of wild animals, and 9:14 before the plague of hail). Besides the three major categories; beneath the surface, on the surface, and the heavens, each plague showed mastery over a different sub category as well. Rivers, amphibians, insects, wild animals, astronomy, climate, and human health all proved to be putty in the hands of the Master Shaper.
These lesson were extremely important in the overall scheme of the Exodus, because at that time almost everyone in the world was a polytheist, believing in a panoply of gods that each controlled his or her little fiefdom, and the idea of a single G-d controlling all the forces and energies was extremely foreign. The Exodus is the one time in history where G-d demonstrated His absolute control over all of nature. These lessons were even more important for the Jews who had been living amongst and were influenced by the Egyptians, as it was for the Egyptians themselves. It is for this reason that we reference the Exodus from Egypt so many times in our prayers and blessings. It was an event that created the bedrock of our monotheist beliefs.
A one-dimensional “nuclear option” like the Death of the Firstborn might have been enough to convince Pharaoh to let the Jews free, but it would not accomplish the goals of the three-dimensional Ten Plagues which revealed the true essence of G-d to the world. That lesson still reverberates throughout the world, not only in the Jewish community, but in the majority of the civilized world that still beliefs in One Omnipotent G-d.
One plague could have been enough to get the Jews out of Egypt, but the Ten Plagues were able to get Egypt out of the Jews!
The Parsha starts with G-d reassuring Moshe that he has a special covenant with the Jewish people and that He will take them out of Egypt with great wonders and bring them to the land He promised their forefathers. Moshe conveys this message to the Jewish people, but they don’t believe him, due to their hard work, and distress.
Then the Torah gives a quick recap of the lineage of the first three tribes leading up to Moshe and Aaron, just to give us a proper perspective on who the Moshe and Aaron we will be talking about for the next few parshiot are. At the end of that we find Moshe demurring for the last time, this time based on his speech impediments, after which G-d tells him that Aaron will be his interpreter.
Moshe and Aaron come before Pharaoh and show him a miracle in which Aaron casts his staff to the floor, and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh starts laughing and calls in his wife, then his children, then the school children, and they all do the same with their staffs. However, when Aaron picks up his snake it returns to its staff form and then proceeds to swallow all the other staffs without changing size. After that, Moshe warns Pharaoh of the first of the Ten Plagues – blood.
After Pharaoh doesn’t heed the warning, Aaron raises his staff and hits the Nile which turns to blood. For the next week, the Egyptians could only find blood no matter where they looked, even in wells, reservoirs, and houses. The only way they could drink water was by buying it from a Jew. (No kids outside selling lemonade for 5 cents a cup, more like kids selling water for $10 a cup and having a line of customers!) Pharaoh called his magicians who could also produce blood. This hardened his heart, and he did not let the Jews go.
Then Moshe warned Pharaoh of the frogs and, sure enough, soon the entire Egrypt was covered in frogs. The frogs even went into burning ovens and the people’s stomachs. Pharaoh’s magicians could also produce frogs, but they couldn’t get rid of them, so Pharaoh tells Moshe he will let the people go if the frogs go as well. Moshe davens, the frogs all die, but Pharaoh doesn’t keep his part of the deal.
Next G-d tells Aaron to hit the ground with his staff, and the entire earth of Egypt turns into a teeming mass of lice. This the magicians cannot reproduce, as they have no control over anything smaller than a grain of barley, and they are forced to admit that it is the finger of G-d. But Pharaoh was of the hardened heart type, and he did not let the Jews go.
G-d tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh about the next plague, assorted wild animals, and when Pharaoh doesn’t change his mind, they descend on Egypt and wreak havoc. Pharaoh cries uncle and offers to let the Jews go but, once again, as soon as the plague is over he changes his mind. This pattern continues through the end of the Parsha, as the fifth plague, pestilence, the sixth plague, boils, and the seventh plague, hail, unfold. After watching the miraculous hail, which was a combination of fire and ice, Pharaoh admits that he and his people have been wrong and that G-d was right. But after the hail stops, guess what happens? You got it, he changes his mind and goes back to the old “I will not let them go” line. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: All know the way, few actually walk it. – Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: All the insects on earth weigh three times as much as all other animals combined.
Funny Line of the Week: Why don’t they just make mouse-flavored cat food?
Have a Dandy Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham