Beshallaĥ: Life as a Painting

There was once a painter who resolved to create his magnum opus. Although in his time it was customary to paint portraits of the gentry, this painter thought that rather than paint the king, it would be more interesting to paint his horse. He toiled long at his work, until finally the task was complete. The painter loved to receive praise – it’s only human nature – so he decided to hang the painting in a hall of the royal place and wait for the compliments to pour in. But to his disappointment, many people passed by the painting, but almost no one spared it a glance. Needless to say, none were impressed by it.

When he could no longer contain himself, the artist approached one man and asked his opinion of the painting. “I am sorry,” said the man, who was embarrassed by the question, “but I cannot see the painting, for it is obstructed by the king’s horse.” The painter, immediately realizing the problem, walked up to the painting, tore it down the middle, and hung the halves a few inches apart. It was only then that people realized it was a painting, and were duly impressed.

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger would use the above story as an allegory for the main occurrence in Parashat Beshallaĥ – the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds. In the reality of our lives, he taught, we are blind even to that which lies right before our eyes; we expect to see what we have become accustomed to seeing, and are therefore oblivious to the way things really are.

How much of the vast reality surrounding us do we truly see? How much of the immense wonder, sublime beauty, and wisdom of creation lying before us at any given moment do our senses apprehend? Very little. We are oblivious to it all because we are used to seeing it. The wonder that everything around us inspired in us as children wears thin as the years go by, and we are left only with what our eyes perceive. That is the main reason for the inaccessibility of true reality: it is there – in every beautiful sunset, in every child born, in the life  gushing through our veins – but our senses are oblivious.

The story of the painter teaches us, first and foremost, to overcome the primary obstacle – our inability to discern creation and our attendant blindness to the beauty of life and the world. It reminds us to look at that beauty with new eyes; to understand that the entire world is a work of art and allow ourselves to be moved by it.

Life’s great adventure, as formulated by Marcel Proust, is not to discover new landscapes, but rather to see old landscapes with new eyes. The next stage is to discern that the landscape has a Creator, to realize that God indwells in reality, in creation: in the beauty of the ocean and its swells, in the power of the mountains, and in the vitality of nature. As the Talmud says, “There is no artist like our God” (Berakhot 10a). What can help awaken us and open our eyes to this hidden reality? Only the changing or shattering of reality itself. Just like the painting, the Splitting of the Sea allowed us to see it as it is, and kindled our desire to sing a hymn to God, the Song of the Sea. The Splitting of the Sea flooded us with fresh wonder, with the astonishment that only nature can inspire.

I heard the allegory of the painter at a memorial for Ilana Blidstein of blessed memory, a dear woman whose life was brief but rich with meaning. The eulogizer linked it to her capacity to truly be moved by every meeting with another human being and by every moment in life. He concluded by noting that the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer does not deal directly with death, but rather opens with praise for heaven: “May His great name be exalted and sanctified.” It seems that this is due to the fact that when faced with death, one gains a heightened capacity to contemplate life and stop taking it for granted. The death of another is an opportunity to set aside our routines and reflect on our own lives. It is through such contemplation, and wonder at God’s creation, that we glorify God’s name in the world.

The moral of the allegory of the painter has played a crucial role in my life, because it drives me to perceive the beauty of the world and life’s light, and to apprehend God’s presence therein. While in previous parashot we found representations of life as a story, in our parasha it seems more akin to a painting.

God and Aesthetics

When the Israeli sculptor Daniel Kafri created a piece he felt was among the most significant in his oeuvre, he expected reactions and criticism, but they did not come. The indifference frustrated him – a feeling he shared with a hitchhiker he picked up one day. During the drive, Kafri expressed his disappointment with what he said was Israeli society’s ingratitude toward its artists. The hitchhiker remained silent throughout. It was only when it was time for him to get out of the car that he turned to Kafri and said, “You know, you complain about people’s ingratitude toward you. Are you not grateful to God for giving you life?” Years later, Kafri would describe the encounter as a formative moment in his life, one that set him on the path to becoming religious.

Kafri’s story recalls the allegory of the painter in that it conveys a moral imperative to contemplate creation in depth. Moreover, this story later led Kafri  to an insight that can be said to underpin the allegory. Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to which only the best-adapted survive, offers no explanation for the abundance of beauty in the world. Kafri, as an artist, knew how hard it is to create beauty, and the radiance of the world became his proof for the existence of God. That may not be the most convincing proof of God’s existence, but it is certainly the most beautiful.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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