Last Shabbat evening, I was in Chicago with 5000 other Jews (including 11 other TBA board members and staff). I could go on and on about what we experienced: the people who spoke, the old friends we encountered, the new ideas emerging, the reassuring truth that we are doing so well as a congregation, and so on.
I could go on and on… but the ripples from the Chicago Reform Biennial will be spreading out at our temple and throughout Reform congregations nationwide. You will feel them and see them and hear all about them. The TBA delegation learned a lot. Our collective and individual experiences will coalesce as a decisive change agent in our community.
It is exciting to see how the Reform movement continues to grow, unafraid to embrace the reality of the American Jewish community. We are on a strong trajectory, always moving up with a deep commitment to our ever-renewing covenant.
But I did something else while in Chicago. I actually left the convention center from time to time. I got to the Art Institute, second in size, and depth of collection only to the Met.
The Institute is extraordinary. I felt immediately overwhelmed by the vastness of the galleries and the sheer variety: from Andy Warhol to Mesopotamian pottery to Alaskan war masks to photography to Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
At one point as I wandered, a bit slack-jawed I’m sure, I bumped into Edward Hopper’s 1942 masterpiece, Nighthawks. I didn’t know it was at the Art Institute. And it took my breath away. There was no bench in front of it, no place I could sit down and take it in. The dimensions are 30″x60″; not big at all. But so powerful!
To stand in front of the masterpiece was to be drawn into Hopper’s world, awed by the brushstrokes and the texture and the colors. Is the painting about isolation? Is it about loneliness? Or is it a warm place for a late-night cup of joe?
I will forget some of the things I learned in Chicago at the Biennial. Some of the speakers I heard will recede from my conscious mind. The names of the prayer leaders or the new melody of a prayer will evaporate.
But the pure, absolute pleasure; the thrill of being so up-close, looking at the original — THE Nighthawks – was a life-affirming event. It was a check off my bucket list that I didn’t even know existed. Or, as my wife says, it was a shechechiyanu moment.
I love my access to so many resources on the Internet. The information I can find at any moment, day or night, is a staggering new human experience that we are only just barely beginning to understand and incorporate into our consciousness. I love it and grow from it.
But it’s one thing to look at something online, even in HD quality, and quite another to be right there. Which is my biggest concern about the digital/virtual world.
My Hanukkah wish is to remind everyone – including myself! – that, like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang it in 1968, “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.” The moment of true encounter with a great masterpiece is sacred. And so is looking into the face of another human being. You can only get the sacred encounter with Nighthawks in a gallery at the Art Institute. But the holy moment of encounter with an other is around us every day. Don’t substitute it for a screen.

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