Rabbi O’s Weekly: Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) The $120,000 Banana

 If you’ve never heard of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, don’t feel bad, he’s not the Rembrandt of this generation. But this past weekend, he created a work for art elites from all over the world who converged on Miami for Art Basel, a global platform connecting collectors, galleries, and artists. Cattelan went to a local supermarket, purchased a banana, taped it to a blank wall with a piece of duct tape, and called it “Comedian.” Within a short amount of time the banana duct taped to the wall sold for $120,000. This piece of “art” received substantial attention and mockery on social media and the press, and people in Miami came to see it. As the story was unfolding, another artist, David Datuna, walked up to the banana duck taped to the wall, pulled it off and ate it in front of onlookers. He also claimed to be creating a work of art, an “art performance” called “Hungry Artist.” The gallery quickly taped another banana to the wall and claimed that it wasn’t about the banana, it was about the concept. Some have noted that Datuna was really just taking Cattelan’s idea to the next level. By taping a banana that will rot in a few days to a wall, he was mocking the art world for what they consider valuable. Cattelan was showing the world that he could artificially give value to something which is clearly not valuable. This point was driven home when people were shocked that Datuna ate the banana; did they think it was going to remain there forever? Did they expect the fruit flies and bacteria to appreciate and respect the value of this piece of ‘art?’ This week’s Parsha records the story of Yaakov (Jacob) meeting his ignoble brother, Esav (Esau). In order to appease him, Yaakov sends valuable gifts; then a telling conversation ensues. Esau said, “I have much, my brother; let what you have remain yours…[Jacob said]Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for G-d has been gracious to me; I have everything.” (Gen. 33:9, 11) If we contrast the different language of the two brothers, we notice that Esau says he has “much” but Jacob says he has “everything”-he needs no more. The commentary Kli Yakar (1550-1619) notes this disparity. Esau said “I have much.” Meaning much, but not everything [but] Jacob said ‘G-d blessed me and I have everything.’ The wicked even if they have all the silver and gold in the world, still feel they are missing something, and [even if] they have much, they still feel they need more. Therefore, Esau said, “I have much,” but not everything; there was something missing. If he has a hundred in his hand, he desires two hundred. The upright and decent, on the other hand, even if they have little in their hands, they are satisfied and happy with their share, and it seems to them that they have everything. Whether it’s Al Capone or a drug lord, there’s never enough. Even if one isn’t a rogue outlaw, many people suffer from the ‘not being content with what I have’ syndrome. The way to avoid this counterproductive attitude is to learn from Jacob’ example. Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) explains (the above verse) that before Jacob said I have everything, he acknowledged that G-d has been gracious to me. When people think it was their own efforts that brought about their success, they always want more, but when they see it as coming from G-d, even though they worked hard to get it, they are satisfied with what they have.  Many work hard but get sick, have investments that fail, have a boss who destroys their career trajectory, or encounter other issues in life that don’t allow them to make or keep the money they were so sure they deserved whereas others with the same work ethic, diligence, level of intelligence, and desire to succeed end up amassing fortunes. “Who is rich,” asks Ben Zoma? “One who is happy with his lot.” Happiness is having the wisdom to take pleasure in what you have. Unhappiness is the foolishness of focusing on what you don’t have. Catellan and Datuna used art to teach us that we sometimes allow others to put an artificial price tag on something. In the real world, in the lives of most of us, that happens more often than we would like to admit. A large part of our economy is comprised of items that people buy solely because of what others are observing or even monitoring. In the world of Esav, you can have a lot, but not enjoy it. There are always new social ladders to climb, always more to have. But in the world of Yaakov (Jacob), for a discounted price, you can have it all. May we absorb the message of Yaakov and get the inner peace that comes with taking pleasure with what one has.   (Sources: Kli Yakar 33:9; Ksav Sofer al HaTorah, quoting his father, Chasam Sofer; Pirkei Avos 4:1)
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center