From Tragedy to the Art of the Human Soul

Parashat Shmini describes the day the Tabernacle is inaugurated. A day of festivity in which a terrible tragedy takes place:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.

Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon and Elisheva, die. Rashi suggests that Moses tries to comfort Aharon in his bereavement by saying that Nadav and Avihu were the ones who were chosen to sanctify the Tabernacle: “Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified.”

The Haftarah for Parashat Shmini tells a similar story, in which Uzzah touches the Ark and dies:

And David again gathered together all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him, from Baale-judah, to bring up from thence the ark of God, whereupon is called the Name, even the name of the LORD of hosts that sitteth upon the cherubim. And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart. And they brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was in the hill, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. And David and all the house of Israel played before the LORD with all manner of instruments made of cypress-wood, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with sistra, and with cymbals. And when they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God. And David was displeased, because the LORD had broken forth upon Uzzah; and that place was called Perez-uzzah, unto this day. And David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said: ‘How shall the ark of the LORD come unto me?’

It is very difficult to accept a sudden death, that lacks a clear reason, of an individual whose actions and intentions are good. A sudden death represents a cruel reality, in which human beings have no control over their lives, a reality in which the presence of God is lacking. It is easier to create order in what seems like arbitrary occurrence, if we find fault in the individual’s actions or deeds. Many Sages explain the death of Nadav and Avihu, and the death of Uzzah, by pointing out a sin in their actions, thoughts or intentions. The path of acceptance is more challenging, but potentially offers more freedom.

Acceptance without Judgement

Migasala was a young monk who claimed to have knowledge of people’s sins and their future punishments. The Buddha reproached Migasala, asking him, “How can you fathom the complexity of human lives and circumstances?” The Buddha warns that the people who judge others are likely to harm themselves.

Pain and loss are not inherently good or evil. The perspective that sees only good and evil shrinks our world into constant struggle against pain and loss. Our inability to accept the events in our life just as they are, without judgement, marks the limitation of our freedom.

Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael suggests a multi-faceted way to interpret the ark, the incense and the staff; instruments which in one context bring punishment and disaster, and in another context bring blessing and healing:

…These are the three instances where Israel “murmured” against the Lord and Moses and said: They (the following) are instruments of punishment, (but not of good): the incense, the ark, and the staff.

They said: This incense is an instrument of punishment. It killed Nadav and Avihu, viz. (Leviticus 10:1) “And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his coal-pan, etc.” Therefore, let all of Israel know that it can (also) effect atonement, viz. (Numbers 17:12) “and he put on the incense and he atoned for the people.”

They said: This ark is an instrument of punishment. It smote the men of Beth Shemesh, viz. (I Samuel 6:19) “And He smote the men of Beth Shemesh because they looked into the ark of the Lord, etc.” And it smote Uzzah, viz. (II Samuel 6:7) “and the wrath of the Lord burned against Uzzah … and he died there by the ark of God.” Therefore, let Israel know that it can (also) effect blessing, as it is written (Ibid. 11) “And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Oved-Edom the Gittite … and the Lord blessed Oved-Edom, etc.”

They said: This staff is an instrument of punishment. It brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians in Egypt and ten upon the sea. Therefore, let them know that it can (also) effect (beneficent) miracles, as it is written “And your staff with which you smote the Nile, etc.” … because of their “murmurings.”

Paint Me a Tragedy

Jacques Joseph Tissot, who will be better known as James Tissot, was born in 1836. His father was a successful drapery merchant. His mother was a devout Catholic. When he was 17 he announced that he intends to become a painter, and devote his life to art. His father disapproved, but his mother supported his vocation. Tissot traveled to Paris and started to learn in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. During the Franco-Prussian War Tissot took part of the defense of Paris, and later joined the Paris Commune. When the Commune failed he fled to London.

Tissot lived in London from 1871 until 1882. He gained commercial success with paintings depicting fashionable women and scenes of fashionable life in London. He also met Kathleen Newton, who became his companion, his muse and the love of his life. The Victorian society judged Kathleen as a fallen woman, because she lived with Tissot outside of wedlock and also gave birth to his son. However, the public outcry did not harm their love, and Tissot and Kathleen lived and loved in harmony. When Kathleen fell ill with the late stages of consumption, Tissot cared for her until her death in 1882. He later referred to his life with Kathleen as the happiest time in his life.

After Kathleen’s death, Tissot returned to Paris. He mourned Kathleen, and never established a meaningful relationship with another woman. In 1885 he experienced a religious vision that made him return to the Catholic fold. Tissot would devote the rest of his life to painting scenes from the Old and New Testament. His approach to biblical painting was realistic and innovative. Tissot traveled to the Middle East and to the Land of Israel in an attempt to recreate the reality of biblical times. He created a multitude of drawings, depicting the landscape, the people and the cities in nineteenth century Palestine. These drawing formed the basis for his biblical paintings; cinematic visions which would influence and inspire writers, film directors and producers.

James Tissot, The Chastisement of Ussah

In “The Chastisement of Uzzah,” Tissot paints Uzzah falling backwards. The procession of worshipers who are playing the tambourine and harp continues, without noticing the fall of Uzzah. Only one person looks towards Uzzah, and perhaps also looks simultaneously at the viewer who is watching the painting. The gaze is an invitation to observe the magnitude of the loss, from the individual’s perspective, while, simultaneously, inviting awareness of the uninterrupted nature of life, the way life goes on regardless of the individual’s loss.

The whole scene is not heroic or magnificent. The death of Uzzah can be seen as a punishment for sin, or as the result of an innocent human error that is severely punished. The individual loses his life, but life, represented by the ongoing procession of people walking and playing musical instruments, goes on. Perhaps the painting captures Tissot’s personal experience of loss. From a religious-Catholic perspective Kathleen’s death can be seen as punishment. From a spiritual-artistic point of view, death, as painful as it might be, is part of the fabric of life, part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Writing about Tissot’s art Vincent van Gogh suggests, “there is something of the human soul in his work and that is why he is great, immense, infinite.”

Feature Photo: James Tissot, The Chastisement of Uzzah (1904)

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