Marc or Moishe?

Friday, 10 March, 2017 - 6:49 am

Dear Friends,


Marc Chagall, the most famous and highly regarded Jewish painter, loved his people very much, and in his paintings he invoked his Chassidic childhood. One of many children in his family, he was born as Moshe Segal in Vitebsk, Bellarus. From there he emigrated to Paris and became the famous Marc Chagall. 

During his visit to Israel in 1957 (5717), Chagall, who was already very well regarded at that time, asked to visit Kfar Chabad. “In Kfar Chabad,” he said, “I have a childhood friend from Vitebsk, R. Eli Pe’er.”

Well, imagine it: Marc Chagall, the famous Parisian artist, who had been hosted the day before by the prime minister and the president, no less, arriving with an entourage of friends and journalists in a small Chassidic village that has one grocery store, one car and a few telephone lines.

R. Eli Pe’er was an impressive Chassid. Just a few years before he had been tortured in a Soviet prison for his devotion to the upkeep of underground Chabad yeshivas. A thick white beard covered his wide face, and broad, brown pair of Tzitzit enwrapped him, and in his world, “There is no other than Him (Hashem).”

So Marc Chagall knocked on Eli’s door and the long-lost friends hugged each other warmly. They were probably remembering the Cheder they had learned in and the Melamed (teacher) who had taught them “Chumash mit Teitsch” – the Torah together with its Yiddish translation.

I can imagine Chagall’s distinguished entourage looking on and seeing the dissimilarity between them. Here was Chagall, who had had the sense to leave Vitebsk and go to the City of Lights, becoming an international artist. And here was a Chassid, who had remained just like he was in his childhood. How lucky Chagall was, they probably thought, that he had left that village, otherwise he would have turned out like his friend Eli.

But suddenly Eli turned to his friend, and said to him in Yiddish, “Moishe, what has become of you?”

Suddenly they all understood that from R. Eli Pe’er’s point of view, Marc Chagall was still Moishe Segal from the Chassidic Cheder, and what he had become was not at all natural to him; because Eli saw into his friend’s inner world, and wondered: “Moishe, what has become of you?”

Dear friends, we are fast approaching Purim. This is a moment of self-examination and introspection: which is the masquerade and which is our true inner world? Every one of us has a few ways of expressing himself – “poses,” or “acts,” as they are called today. We have the external pose that everyone knows, and there is a more internal one, which only our close friends and wife and children are familiar with. But there is an even more internal point to our “I”, and we might live for many years expressing only our external poses without ever touching that inner point. And that is a pity, a great pity. For that we have Purim, when we can find out which is the fancy costume we put on and which is our true self.

Personally, from a familiarity with Chagall’s artwork, and in spite of my limited understanding of art, it is impossible to miss the fact that in a great many of Chagall’s creations he expresses specifically little Moishe Segal.

And in that spirit, I hereby suggest: On Purim between the Shaloch Manos and the fancy costumes, it would be good to settle in a quiet corner and ask ourselves: “What has become of you?”


Shabbat Shalom and a very Happy Purim,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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