December 7, 2022 -

Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Chanukah, Da Vinci and Judah Maccabee (Miketz 12/16)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Chanukah, Da Vinci and Judah Maccabee
Recently, Christie’s Auction House announced that it had sold a 600-year-old painting entitled, “Salvatore Mundi,” reputedly the work of Leonardo da Vinci, for $450 million, a world record.
Some art critics question whether, in fact, this is a work of Leonardo da Vinci, and quite a few art critics do not think it’s a great painting and certainly not a masterpiece.  One art critic in New York Magazine called it “dead” and “inert.”
Why pay $450 million for it? Because it is believed to have been the work of Leonardo da Vinci!
In 1958, before it was attributed to Da Vinci, it went at auction for $60. On its own it was worth $60, but if it’s a Da Vinci, nearly a half billion! What’s the reason? The painting is not the essential item, rather the name of the artist.
Likewise, in 2011 it was discovered that a Jackson Pollock painting that had been purchased for $17 million had a kind of paint that didn’t exist in Pollock’s lifetime. Soon it was discovered that many other paintings coming from that same gallery were all forgeries, painted by a 73-year-old Chinese immigrant in his garage in Queens! Beautiful paintings that had sold for millions were now looked upon as worthless imitations. The paintings hadn’t changed though, only the name of the painter.
This fickleness of human nature, that we make judgments based not on what it is, but by who it is, is certainly not limited to the arena of collectible art. An incident took place in 2007 in Washington, DC where a violinist stood inside a Metro train station playing six Bach pieces for around 45 minutes. It was during rush hour when thousands of people passed by him. Only seven individuals stopped to listen and roughly twenty people gave him money. All together he collected $32. No one knew, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violinists in the world. He was playing on a violin worth $3.5 million. Two days before his subway performance, Mr. Bell had sold out a theater in Boston with seats costing on average $100. The same concert in anonymity was worth a grand total of $32.
On the surface, this aspect of our nature makes us out to be superficial fools; nonetheless, when we attribute value to the person as opposed to the product, it’s a statement of how dear the human component is to us.
In a similar vein, Chanukah is not so much about the miracle of the menorah, oil burning longer than it should; rather, it’s about the miracle of the successful rebellion and the people behind it.
In our prayers, the only reference we have to Chanukah is in the Al HaNissin paragraph of the Amidah, and, surprisingly, there’s no mention of the miracle of the lights burning for eight nights. It’s all about the participants’ efforts and G-d’s assistance.
“In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Chashmonayim and his sons, when the Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will…
You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous…

Chanukah is about those who fought and risked their lives to save our ethnicity and religion. It’s about recognizing and thanking G-d for helping them succeed in their endeavors, enabling the preservation of our faith.

Who are our DaVincis?

Matityahu, the real founder and father of the rebellion. He said, “Who’s for G-d with me?” when he felt that Judaism was on the verge of being stamped out.

Judah Maccabee, the leader of our small band of warriors. He led small guerilla outfits against large standing Syrian armies.
Judith, the woman who seduced and slew the Syrian general and gave the whole nation hope.

And Chana and her seven sons, whose dedication and sacrifice defied a powerful monarch and emboldened the entire population.(This past Shabbat we had our own Judith and Chana, as our Bat Mitzvah celebrant, Rebecca Ganzekaufer, skillfully led the Shacharit, Torah and Musaf services all one her own. Her mother, Jeri, is also a hero, for over a year straight she came to services with her daughter.)

It’s both a superficiality and grandeur in mankind that we elevate the person over the objective value of the action or item. Chanukah embraces this psychology, for as we kindle the lights recalling the miracle in the Temple Menorah, we then remember the sacrifice of those giants who risked their lives to enable Judaism to survive for the next 2200 years.

It’s fascinating, for it’s only because of Da Vinci’s large body of amazing work when he was still unknown, that now anything even not so great by him is considered special. It’s because of Joshua Bell’s previous superb performances, that now people are willing to pay big money to see him, no matter what he plays.

Once we develop our body of work, then our reputation precedes us. This Chanukah, let us not only work on developing our own body of work, but also think about what we can do to keep the sacrifice of those great Jewish leaders burning brightly for the next generations.

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