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11/10/2022 10:05:13 AM


Rabbi Batsheva Appel

Sometimes we see something that everyone else misses. And sometimes we miss something that is obvious to everyone else.  

In the news this week was a story about the unfinished Mondrian work, “New York City I”, which currently is in a museum in Dusseldorf, Germany. The question raised by an Italian artist is whether the work, which is a canvas layered with red, blue, yellow and black lines of tape in his very clear style, is currently hung upside down. 

The artist bases his suggestion that the work should be rotated 180 degrees on a picture of this work on an easel in Mondrian’s studio as well as a display of a similar work, “New York City” which was painted rather than created with adhesive tape.

Given that this is an unsigned abstract work, there is disagreement among art historians. None of you is surprised. And of course, we are getting the reaction that many pieces of abstract art receive: “This is ridiculous. I could do that.” My cousin, who works in an art gallery in New York City, reacts to such statements with “But you didn’t. And you certainly weren’t the one to create the De Stijl movement in 1917.” 

Piet Mondrian is among the innovators who developed De Stijl to be a contrast with Art Deco. Think of the Durham Museum and you can visualize Art Deco. He wanted to base the works on geometric forms and primary colors [blue, red, yellow] and black and white.  He wanted balance in surfaces and colors used while avoiding symmetry.iv  Mondrian saw the world very differently and created a brand-new approach to art. Francesco Visalli, the Italian painter who pointed out that the work was likely upside down, saw something that had been missed by everyone else for more than seventy-five years. 

Sometimes we see something that everyone misses. And sometimes we miss something that is obvious to everyone else. 

“The Eternal said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”v This is not the start of Abraham & Sarah’s story, but it is the moment in the story that the promise and covenant that they accept are described and God’s request of them is understood. They will leave everything behind to become a great nation, to be blessed, to have a great name, and all they need to do is to go to a place that will be shown to them later. They accept. But why Abraham and Sarah? 

Most would share the midrash, the story not found in the Torah, of young Abram working in his father, Terach’s idol emporium and destroying the stock. There is another story in Genesis Rabbah, a midrash on the Book of Genesis:  

The Eternal said to Abram, “Go you forth from your land…” … Rabbi Yitzchak said: this may be compared to a person who was traveling from place to place when they saw a castle aflame/aglow/burning/full of light. They said, “Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?” The owner of the building looked out and said, “I am the owner of the castle.” Similarly, because Abraham our ancestor said, “Is it possible that this castle has no owner, no one to look after it?,” the Holy Blessed One looked out and said to him, “I am the sovereign of the Universe.” … Hence, God said to Abraham, Lech Lecha. 

According to this story, Abraham was the first person to see something that everyone else missed. He overcame the way everyone else thought of the world and religion in his time. He was able to understand that there is one God, who is the sovereign of the Universe. 

Sometimes we see something that everyone else misses. And sometimes we miss something that is obvious to everyone else. 

Lot, Abraham’s nephew, came with them from Haran. Eventually, there was fighting between their servants over the grazing of their cattle. We then read Abram’s solution:  

Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate, if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” 

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Eternal had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Eternal, like the land of Egypt. 

So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other… 

We, as the readers, can see very easily what Lot has missed in his choosing, that maybe he should have paid attention to his uncle Abe suggesting that he go north or south, and avoid going east towards Sodom and Gomorrah. 

Lot will not understand how bad a choice he has made until years later, after he has settled and has had a family, and then has to flee while the towns he thought looked so amazing are destroyed.  

Abraham and Sarah understand their relationship with the one God. They turn their lives upside down and create a new understanding for the world that affects everything that we do to this very day. 

And “New York I” by Piet Mondrian? It will not be turned upside down to correct it. There is great worry that it will weaken the work too much after 75 years and cause it to disintegrate. We do have a new understanding of Mondrian and his work though. 

As we enter Shabbat, how can we understand our world with a new sense of awareness? What are we missing that is right in front of us? What are others missing that we understand in ways that they don’t? What happens when we turn things upside down, and over, and inside out, and thoroughly consider our assumptions? Maybe we also have the chance to find a new understanding in the reflection of Shabbat. 

Watch the recording of our Friday Shabbat Service here

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon. 

Mon, November 28 2022 4 Kislev 5783