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Rabbi Dan Ornstein - Lessons at the Clark

The Clark Art Museum once hosted an exhibition of the works of the great French artist Jacques Louis David, whose magnificent scenes chronicled the French revolution and the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.  David was a close friend of Napoleon’s as well as his official painter. Napoleon was not at all a modest man.  He once declared, “Power is my mistress,” and looking at his life, we know that he meant it.  A brigadier general at twenty four, Napoleon’s vision of himself was matched fully by his ambitious successes.  Since it’s in the best interests of a court painter to flatter the rulers that he paints, David spared no effort to portray Napoleon, a man of no small ego and accomplishment, as smarter, braver, taller, and stronger than everyone around him.  My favorite example of David’s flattery is his painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps to defeat the Austrians.  Napoleon is dressed regally, exuding confidence, courage and power.  As his troops move forward in the background, he takes a moment from battle to look imperiously at the artist and at us. To lend even greater mightiness and grandeur to Napoleon’s image, David painted him on a sleek, muscular, white battle horse, an awesome example of natural beauty and power.

I stood in the Clark one day, mesmerized by this painting which dominated the rest of the exhibition and many of the other works in the museum.  It was an ode of artistic glory to one of history’s greatest leaders who changed the course of humanity. Then I read the curator’s notes about it. To cross the Alps or any mountains, you don’t ride a horse, you ride a donkey.  David placed his beloved friend on a horse, but he actually rode an ass.  So much for the mighty Napoleon.

Later, in another gallery of the museum, I was drawn to a nondescript painting by a little known French artist, Jean Augustin Franquelin, entitled, “Reading To The Convalescent.” In it a man sits in a dimly lit room reading to a sick woman whose hand is slipped through his arm, while another woman gazes quietly at the couple.  I was unimpressed by the artistry and the style of the painting, and I wasn’t surprised to find that the museum’s gallery anthologies gave it little attention.  Further, my internet search to find out more about the artist and the painting revealed almost nothing as well.  Compared with the flamboyant grandeur of David’s works, this little painting of a man reading to a sick woman is artistically irrelevant.  Yet it said more to me about true greatness than all of Napoleon’s exploits and their artistic records. Imagine that dimly lit room where three anonymous people were brought together by illness and suffering.  No one will remember them save for this tiny painting.  Yet that man’s simple act of compassion could have had a greater impact on that sick woman and on society than the mightiest exploits of that leader.  What the man did exemplifies for me the timeless Jewish teaching that a person who saves a single life saves an entire world. 

The traditional explanation of this teaching is that by saving one person you also save his or her potential descendants.  Yet this teaching has an even deeper meaning. According to Jewish mystical tradition, you and I are microcosms of everything that God plans, hopes for, and does with the universe. As mini-blueprints of all existence, each of us is so unique and complex, there will never be another person exactly like us. Therefore, when we save or even just support each other, we are saving or supporting an entire world.  

Because we mostly lack celebrity, power and wealth, we too often assume that our lives cannot have lasting, substantive impact. My trip to the Clark reminded me that human greatness is not about grandiosity.  It’s about goodness.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany.