Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
“On Passover: Lingering in the Present”
Rabbi David Lyon, Congregation Beth Israel, Houston
April 11, 2017
A story is told about a Jewish art lover who brought home a large canvas in an ornate frame. Showing it to his wife with great pride, he said:
“Look at this beautiful Passover painting I bought!”
The wife stared in amazement at the canvas. It was completely blank.
“I don’t see anything on this canvas. “What is it supposed to be?”
The husband said, “This is a painting of the Jews crossing the Red Sea,”
“But where are the Jews?”
“The Jews already passed through the Sea; they’re on the shore.”
“And where are the Egyptians?”
“The Egyptians are still pursuing the children of Israel; they haven’t yet reached the sea.”
“And where is the sea, itself?”
“The waters of the sea are divided and have receded to the shores so that the Jews should be able to cross.”
Art is in the eye of the beholder, but, this case, the husband was actually on to something important. So, let’s ask a better question: why is this painting different from all other paintings of the Exodus?
All other paintings of the Exodus depict Moses on the edge of the waters, his arm stretched high; or, the Egyptians drowning in the sea; or, the Israelites celebrating their liberation from bondage. Of all the places described by storytellers and moviemakers about the Israelites’ experience, nobody depicted the stillness of the dry riverbed through the eyes and experience of even one Israelite, who, for just a moment, was unencumbered by the past or the future. This one Israelite doesn’t see the Egyptians who are still in hot pursuit. He doesn’t see freedom still ahead of him. In just that moment, he was alive only in the present. To be truly present, there is no past or future. It’s quiet. It’s still.
Stories of Jewish life are usually told about Jews who have one metaphorical foot in the past and one in the future, standing between times. When we were driven from our homes, we needed to know where our pursuers were so we looked back. As we made our way forward, we had to know where we were going so we looked ahead. Rarely, have we had the luxury of time to linger. But, this painting, oddly noting the context of the quick departure from Egypt, highlighted a moment that lingered in the present.
The source of the story is the “Passover Anthology”1 which was edited in the mid-20th century. It shouldn’t surprise you. It was a time of unprecedented Jewish growth and emerging stability in the Jewish community set against fears of rampant assimilation with its own inherent threats. That’s why the wife in the story also asks her husband, “Did you buy the painting at the Gallery of Modern Art?” In the mid-20th century, still hurting from the Holocaust, it was premature, if not presumptuous, to think that the Jewish people were now a modern people and no longer an ancient one always emerging from bondage and exile. In effect, the wife asked her husband, “Who do you think you are, a modern Jew with no pain or suffering in his past? Suddenly you’re a person who has time to linger in the present without concern for the place he’s still trying to reach? We’re Jewish!”
Obviously, the husband saw what his wife and Jews like her failed to see. In that modern and present moment, the blank canvas revealed, even if it were just for an extended moment in which he lingered alone, that the past was far behind and the future could wait. In that moment, he found calm. There was stillness. This was what a free modern man, who also leaned at his Passover table, longed to know.
Two weeks ago, when Deborah Lipstadt was our Scholar-in-Residence, she said many times that, while we should always be cognizant of our history, we shouldn’t live as if our only purpose was to defend it and who we are. Rather, she urged us to promote and cherish all the positive qualities about Judaism, and its unique worldview. She highlighted the remarkable contributions that Jews have made to our civilization, our way of life, and, out of Israel, in just 70 years, an unparalleled investment in technology, medical innovation, and, by necessity, military systems and weaponry.
To a young person who asked how to defend herself against anti-Semitism, Lipstadt said that she should be proud of being Jewish. By extension, she said to arm herself with Jewish knowledge, facts, understanding, and experiences. Then when someone challenges your Jewish identity, Lipstadt said to her, you can draw on ready-facts and personal evidence that make you stronger, even when you have to stand alone. Lipstadt, who defended herself against a Holocaust denier and certified liar, and won, would have seen in that blank canvas what the mid-century modern American Jew saw, too. She would have acknowledged the past and been quite certain about the future; but, she would have paused long enough to see how far we’ve come without fear that we lingered there. A knowledgeable and participating Jew, Lipstadt said that the hope in the future has always been on our side. She said in Hebrew, “Af al pi sheyit’mamei’ah, im kol zeh ani ma’amin,” Though the Messiah may tarry, despite all this, I still believe.
The court in the U.K. found for Deborah Lipstadt and laid to rest any chance that her courtroom opponent could accuse her again, or deny that the truth about the Holocaust is the truth. Perhaps that’s the gift of modern Jewish life for us. Though we feel more threatened today than we have in recent years, we can believe that our own nation’s institutions, our Jewish agencies, and our neighbors will support us just as we support them, too. The truth has a place where it’s valued and celebrated. In our post-modern age, it finally speaks for the martyrs of our people, too.
I’d like to believe that the end of the story in the Passover Anthology, the man sat down at his Seder table, read from the Haggadah, broke the middle matzah, and ate the bitter herbs. But, I’d also like to believe that he glimpsed at the blank canvas that hung on the wall. Though he saw himself as modern, and uniquely able to see in a blank canvas the stillness of the dry riverbed into which the Israelites fled, the Haggadah, no doubt stained with wine and discolored by charoset, drew him back to his roots when Jews were driven but also hoped. So, when he glimpsed at the painting and then at those who sat around the table, he cherished the present moment in which he found himself.
I’ve seen blank white canvases in modern art museums. None of them was called, “Leaving Egypt” or “Lingering in the Reed Sea”. Some of us will never be convinced that a blank canvas should belong in an art gallery. It’s not because we’re not art connoisseurs, or that we lack creative insight; it’s because we’re Jewish and it’s in our DNA to look behind us and ahead of us, constantly. But, next time I see such a canvas, I will linger there.
On Passover, we remember that our people was once enslaved in Egypt, and then God heard our cries and redeemed us from there. We also look ahead to the dream that continues to be Israel, where more than 6 million Jews are at home. Today, our obligations as Jews, no matter where we live or from where we came, is to tell the old Passover story as well as the eternal hope of our people in our land. Standing between them, we cherish the freedom that affords us the moments to be still and calm in the present. To see the blank canvas isn’t to be blind to all that surrounds us; it’s to be present where we are.
So, what would you pay for a blank canvas? Of course, the man’s wife must have thought anything more than the price of the frame was too much. But, I think the price is the one we already paid with the history of our people. Therefore, it’s too expensive for anyone to own this painting, except in a story like this. It’s 2017, but there are too many people who are still in bondage, unable to reach safety in a land of freedom. They should be able to rely on us, because we “know the heart of the stranger, for we were once slaves in Egypt.” “Let all who are hungry come and eat” isn’t just figurative. On Monday night, we welcomed newcomers to our table, and Second night, at Beth Israel, we welcomed 330 people into Wolff-Toomim Hall. It isn’t just cliché to say, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” It’s a call for peace in all places. It’s a hope that one day more people will know that their bondage is far behind them, and that they, too, may linger in the present, because hope is always connected to the future.