Parshat Beshalach: Life as Art

Once there was a painter who decided the time had come to create his masterpiece. Shunning the accepted trend of his time, he decided that rather than paint a portrait of the king, as all great artists did, he would create something more interesting: A life-size portrait of the king’s horse. For many years he labored, until at last the great day arrived, his masterpiece was complete. Eager to hear the praise he was sure would pour forth, he hung the enormous masterpiece on the walls of the king’s palace, and waited for the people’s reaction. Yet to his disappointment, he heard not a word. People passed back and forth before his magnificent painting, yet no one made the slightest remark. In fact, people seemed barely to notice it, and paid no attention at all.

Painting of HorseFinally, he could no longer restrain himself. “Excuse me, sir,” he asked, approaching one of the passerby, “what do you think of that painting.” The man looked up, confused. “I’m terribly sorry,” he answered, “but I’m afraid I can’t see the painting at all – the king’s horse is blocking it completely.” Suddenly the painter understood the problem, and knew how he had to fix it. He drew his knife, stepped up to his masterpiece, and split it from top to bottom, cleaving it into two. He then re-positioned the two pieces, leaving a small gap between the painting’s right and left halves. Only then did people realize that it was a picture, and gave it the attention and wonder it deserved.

Rabbi Shlomo Kruger used this parable to explain the primary event of Parshat Beshalach: the splitting of the Red Sea. In today’s reality, that which is plainly visible to our eyes is hidden from our perception. We expect to see only that which we are used to seeing, and thus are unable to truly see much of what surrounds us.

What do we register when we look at the world? How much does the tremendous wonder, the exalted beauty and wisdom of creation which surrounds us constantly, right in front of our eyes, actually penetrate our senses? So little. Our senses are dulled to it all, because we are so used to seeing it. The childlike excitement that we once felt toward everything around us has faded, and we no longer wonder at that which we see. It is because of this that the depths of reality have been hidden to us. We could find it in every beautiful sunset, in every newborn baby, and in the health that pumps through our veins, but our eyes are blind to it.

The parable of the painter teaches us that when we look at the world, we behold a work of art. The story directs us to see the world with fresh eyes, to understand that all of creation is a work of art, and to rejoice in it. As Marcel Proust put it,

the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

The next step is to realize that creation has a Creator, to know that G-d is present in reality and the world: in the motions of the sea and its waves, in the grandeur of the mountains, and in the grace of nature in all her manifestations. In the words of the Gemara, “there is no painter like our G-d” (Brachot 10a). What can help us break free of our blindness and wake us up to see the hidden reality? When reality itself is changed or broken. When the sea was split, it enabled us to behold the beauty of the sea. It awoke in us a desire to burst forth to G-d in praise, and we sang the Song of the Sea. The splitting of the sea returned us to a state of wonder and astonishment.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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