He is considered by many to be the greatest artist of modern times – maybe the greatest of all time. Vincent Van Gogh is famed for his inventiveness, his unique use of color and shade and palette. He is also known for his chronic depression, his loneliness, and his death – thought by many to have been a suicide.
When you think of Van Gogh, you think the psychedelic dreaminess of Starry Night or the imaginative and colorful depictions of landscapes and shepherds and sunflowers. But Don and I had a chance to learn a lot more about Van Gogh last week at an exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art.
The exhibit focused on the many other artists whose work influenced Van Gogh. Impressionists, yes – but also traditional portrait painters across France who captured the essence of the human form. Landscape artists from the Dutch school, who drew in darkness and shadows. Japanese woodblock printers whose gift for story-telling guided his own.
A dozen of Van Gogh’s own works were included. None was particularly famous. No starry night. No sunflowers. Only a couple were recognizably his, including one self-portrait in which both ears were still intact. There were pen and ink drawings, and what looked like studies of other artists. The point was to show how Van Gogh became the Van Gogh we know.
The display included insightful historical and artistic commentary on each work and each artist, provided by authors of a New York Times best-seller on Van Gogh and his life.
It was, in essence, a narrative, through which you could see the little bits and pieces he picked up from all of these artists and how he merged them into a style that was unmistakably his own.
But the exhibit was much more than a display by and about an artist. It was the story of a human being. A man both brilliant and deeply flawed. A man with insecurities, familial fallouts, and a false belief that he could manage his troubled life better all by himself.
And it occurred to me that this story is a parallel to the tale of our patriarch Jacob, which is at the heart of the Torah portions for this Shabbat and next week’s. Well, it’s a parallel up to a point – when the choices they made sealed their fates one way or another.
Like Jacob, Vincent Van Gogh was born into a family of believers.
Both Vincent’s grandfather – also named Vincent – and his father Theodorus were ministers. Jacob, of course, was the grandson of Abraham, with whom God made an eternal covenant and for whom God provided a land and descendants to inherit that land. His father Isaac literally followed in Abraham’s footsteps, sojourning in the same places and re-digging the same wells.
Vincent thought at one point he’d be a minister, too. His parents even paid for his lessons to gain entry to the official ministry. But he never made it through. He rejected mainstream church theology and practice. As he wrote to his brother Theo: “”I find Father and Mother’s sermons and ideas about God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense.”
For a while he became an itinerant evangelist in a mining town. But after just one contract, the folks there apparently had had enough of his bizarre ideas and his rough personality. And that was the end of his career in ministry.
As for Jacob, well, as this week’s Torah portion show, he too had ideas about God that went far afield from that of his parents and grandparents. In the famous scene with the dream of Jacob’s ladder and the angels moving up and down from heaven and Jacob’s astonishment that God could be in such an ordinary place in the wilderness and God’s promise of land and protection – with all that, we sometimes skip over what Jacob said in response:
“Jacob then made a vow, saying, ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”
God made the promises. Jacob wouldn’t believe them. He had to see the results before he would commit to the relationship.
Both men seemed to suffer from a lack of humility. But that hurt their relationships with their families as much as with God.
Jacob, as we know, was turned out of his parents’ house for cheating his brother and hoodwinking his father.
He later worked in the family business of his father-in-law Laban. But that relationship ended when he fled the farm, taking with him what he felt was owed to him for his years of service, including Laban’s daughters as his wives.
Vincent didn’t do any better. His parents despaired of his erratic behavior and his inability to hold down a job, much less decide on a career. Over the years, he went back to live with them, on and off. But they turned responsibility for him over to his brother Theo – who was settled and successful.
Vincent moved frequently, staying with family or friends and taking up lessons or appointments –but never for very long. Then he’d retreat into social isolation. The evolution of the images that would become the hallmark of his work was the result of lonely surveillance. He came to see himself as the solitary shepherd or the lone farmer depicted in several of his major works.
Both Vincent and Jacob had families that loved them and sometimes despaired of them. But they lived inside themselves. They trusted only themselves. And they did become successful. Jacob amassed a great fortune and a large household. Vincent, when he had finally absorbed what everyone else could teach him, began painting with astonishing and distinctive brilliance that no one could match.
But a life spent living in his own head took its toll on Vincent. The fears of mental illness that his parents had expressed years earlier became reality. In late 1888, when Van Gogh was only 35, he began having delusions and psychotic attacks. That’s when he cut off his ear.
By the next year, when he was actually becoming popular and successful, depression took over and he pronounced himself a failure. He continued to work but lost not only his passion but his will to live. The one doctor he allowed to try and treat him finally gave up. In the summer of 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach, and died two days later, at the age of 37.
I think there’s a reason why the Torah portions are separated the way they are, between this week and next week. Things could have ended badly for Jacob this week, as he was being chased down by his irate father-in-law. As this week’s portion closes, he manages to negotiate a peaceful separation.
That peaceful separation showed God that something was changing in Jacob – a maturity, a sense of social and familial responsibility. In the closing verses this week, we read:
“Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he named that place Mahanaim.”
In Hebrew, that means two camps – his and God’s, now working as one. And it signals to us what’s going to happen in next week’s portion.
There, Jacob is on his way to face his brother Esau and own up to the grievous harm he has caused. That night, Jacob has the struggle with the angel in the middle of the stream. Maybe he’s struggling with his own demons as well. But Jacob succeeds where Vincent could not.
He is ready, willing and able to accept both the rewards and the punishments of that life brings. He makes the commitment of faith that God has long been looking for. So Jacob can strive with the angel and survive. He rightfully demands a blessing. And the blessing is his new name – Israel.
Here’s what I take away from the story of these two lives juxtaposed with each other.
The truth is that no one can live a totally solitary life – out in a field or in one’s own mind.
The truth is that no one can survive without mutual love and trust and support of other people.
Vincent refused all of that – or simply could not give it. And in the end, it killed him.
Jacob finally realized and acknowledged the need for love and trust and faith. And Jacob became Israel.
Many of you in the sanctuary tonight know this to be true.
A lot of us try to shoulder our troubles alone. We think: I don’t want to be a burden. Or: I’m a grown-up, I can handle this. Sometimes we can. But sometimes we can’t. And it takes a lot of courage to admit we need help – and then accept it.
That’s one of the reasons for Temple Beth Israel’s existence. There’s no shame in asking for support: We are a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. It’s our mitzvah, and our blessing, to help each other.
We are here when you need care and consolation. We are here to help you celebrate your joys. And, as your rabbi, I always try to make sure you are never alone to face whatever life throws at you. The lonely shepherd or the solitary farmer may be a captivating image in a painting. But it’s no way to go through life.
As we witness the evolution of Jacob into Israel, we recognize how much we need one another.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Gen: 28: 20-22
 Gen. 32:2-3.