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According to the New York Times (June 5, 2016), more than 1,000,000 artistic masterpieces from Roman sculptures to Van Gogh oils – including 1,000 works by Picasso alone - are warehoused in facilities around the world where they will never be shown.  These works are consigned to “free ports” where storage assures that no sales taxes are paid so long as the art remains.  For collectors who simply have no wall space to display their treasures, these storage facilities provide protection in climate –controlled, fire-resistant environments. 

Some argue that the display of art is of little concern since the sale of art is what keeps living artists alive and productive and what increases the value of art created by dead artists.  But critics disagree.   The director of the Louvre, for instance, Jean-Luc Martinez, insists that: “Works of art are created to be viewed.”  Likewise, Joanne Heyler, director of the Broad Museum, argues that storage puts art “intellectually almost in a coma.”  And even a collector like Helly Nahmad who is said to store 4,500 works in the Geneva free port admits that storing away art “is like a composer making a piece of music and no one listens to it.”

A similar debate is included in Talmudic sources, though not about art but about Torah.  As much as study was an integral part of Rabbi Tarfon’s life, he argued (Kiddushin 40b) that action is greater than study.  Without action, he seems to think, the content of the Torah remains a hidden treasure.   Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, argued that study is greater than action because study leads to action.  Rabbi Akiva seems certain this would be the case.  In fact, many would contend that it should be the case.  But worldly experience proves this is hardly the case at all.  There are many unfortunate and shameful instances, documented by Rabbi Aharon Fried (Hakirah Journal, Vol. 6 on the disconnection between learning and practice) in which students of Torah fail to act on the values they learned.  That is why Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (Avot 1:17) says that: “What is more essential is not study but practice” and Rav Huna teaches that: “He who occupies himself only with the study of Torah acts as if he has no God” (Avodah Zarah 17b). 

The beauty of Judaism cannot be stored in the mind but must be displayed for all to see.  It is only when observers can appreciate its practice that Judaism will be viewed as the treasure it is.

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Balak, King of Moab, seeks to destroy the people Israel whom he considers a threat to his territory.  Those who have engaged Israel in military combat have all been vanquished, so Balak tries a different approach.  He hires a Midianite shaman named Bil’a, to curse Israel and thereby annihilate them by supernatural mean.  Yet God thwarts Balak’s plans and Bil’am is compelled to praise Israel instead.

To most moderns, Balak’s premise is almost laughable.  The efficacy of incantations is no more accepted than alchemy or astrology. But to the sixteenth century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah ben Jacob Seforno (Commentary on Numbers 22:6), the power of blessings and curses was real.  The pertinent question, therefore, was not why Balak asked Bil’am to curse Israel.  Rather, the question is why Balak did not hire Bil’am to bless Moab!

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When the Israelites grew weary of the journey and bemoaned the lack of variety in their diet, they again complained to Moses.  This time, however, God pre-empted Moses and reacted with fury.  Poisonous snakes were sent against the Israelites.  Many die as a result of their bites.  Confessing their sin, the Israelites came to Moses and pleaded for him to intervene on their behalf.  The remedy was unusual.  God directs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and place it atop a wooden staff.  All who look up at the serpent will live (Numbers 21:8).  Moses follows God’s instructions and the Israelites are saved.

But what happened to that bronze serpent that saved Israel?  The Torah is silent. 

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Words to live by

 

Expecting the unexpected makes the unexpected expected

- Anonymous