No one ever lost money betting on the depths of humanity’s stupidity. Somehow, whenever you think that humanity has hit rock bottom, and that we must evolve into smarter beings in order for our species to survive, some event happens that demonstrates that the bottom has yet to be reached. 

A few years ago, we talked about how a $120,000 banana duct taped to the wall stole the show at Art Basel, despite the fact that the banana would rot and have to be replaced and the duct tape would have to be replaced as well! We talked about how multiple copies of it were sold (and yes, I’m still offering to sell a perfect replica for just $5,000!) We believed at the time that the world of art and the millions of humans who support it with generous dollars and much of their time could not get any more ridiculous, but one should never bet on the limits of the foolishness people will display while trying to look sophisticated. 

Last week, Italian artist Salvatore Garau auctioned off an invisible sculpture. Titled, “Lo Sono,” which means “I am” in Italian, the sculpture actually isn’t. To the untrained eye, there is nothing to this sculpture, no material, no base, no sculpture, just one big nothingburger. But the trained artistic mind sees that it’s not nothing, it’s a vacuum. As Garau explained to all the art-ignorant unwashed masses, “The vacuum is nothing more than a space full of energy, and even if we empty it and there is nothing left, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that ‘nothing’ has a weight, therefore, it has energy that is condensed and transformed into particles, that is, into us.”

I really want to describe the sculpture for you so that you can visualize just how much of a nothing “I am” is, but I don’t have the right words; every time I try to describe it, my words sound empty. Instead let’s examine what the buyer gets, and what they need to do. Italy 24 News reported that per Garau’s instructions, the sculpture must be displayed in a private home free from any obstruction, in an area that is about 5 ft. long by 5 ft. wide. Because the piece does not exist, there are no special lighting or climate requirements. The only tangible item the buyer will receive is a certificate of authentication that is both signed and stamped by Garau, yes, both signed and stamped. 

Amazingly, this was not the first piece of invisible artwork made by Garau, he already made an invisible sculpture called “Buddha in Contemplation” that he placed in a large open plaza, the Piazza della Scala in Milan, near the entrance to the world famous art museum Gallerie d’Italia. In a video he posted showing off this artwork, he explains that since he placed the artwork there, “Now it exists and will remain in this space forever. You do not see it, but it exists. It is made of air and spirit.” Invisible art does a service to humanity because it helps them activate the power of imagination, a power that often lays dormant for too long. 

Garau further explained, “When I decide to ‘exhibit’ an immaterial sculpture in a given space, that space will concentrate a certain amount and density of thoughts at a precise point, creating a sculpture that, from my title, will only take the most varied forms,” 

It was one thing when Garau donated invisible artwork to the people of Milan and indeed the millions of world tourists who pass by it annually, but selling a piece of invisible art was considered to be more challenging. Most people were confident that it wouldn’t sell, but most people don’t understand modern art, the trials and tribulations inherent in collecting the works that challenge humanity to think about existence and life in novel and innovative ways. The bidding started at 6,000 euro, and the hammer price was expected to be in the area of 9,000 euro, but art collectors were tripping over themselves to be the buyer of this rare and brand new type of artwork, and eventually it sold 15,000 euro, (about $18,200 at the time of this article). 

It is a rare and celebratory moment in the art world, when a whole new class of art is introduced, the invisible artwork. It also introduces a whole host of complicated questions:

  1. Does the artwork teleport around the world instantaneously, or does it need to be transported in a truck like regular art?
  2. If it needs to be transported, does it still need the same five feet by five feet or does it fold into a smaller space for transportation?
  3. I transported the artwork along with a few cheaper replicas I was planning on giving to my friends, but they got loose while in route and now I’m not sure which is the original and which are the replicas?
  4. If someone walks through the artwork, does it get broken, and if yes, can we get a discount on buying a replacement? 
  5. I just had a party at my house for a lot of my artsy friends and I think someone stole the artwork, but I can’t see anything in my security cameras. Is the artwork still there? How do I catch the thief? (I think it was Paul, he always stuffs himself on the canapes and champagne at every art soiree and he has no artistic restraint.)

It also will usher in many new jobs. I have already offered my services for fixing broken invisible art. I used highly sophisticated invisible restoration tools. I charge only $500, and my only requirement is that I be left totally alone in the room with the artwork for a minimum of three hours, and please give me the Wifi password. Alternatively, you can ship it to me, and I’ll fix it in the invisible workshop in my backyard. I guarantee that I can fix any invisible sculptures for a flat fee of $800. I stand by my work; if it breaks again, just sent it back and I’ll fix it for free of charge the second time. 

When I first heard about this story I knew right away that I needed to write about it. I often scour the world for fascinating tidbits that I can turn into an essay, so when I found this, I immediately did the research and got the whole story lined up. Now all I needed was the message. My initial thought was to talk about how crazy people are, that they are ready to part with real money to buy the emperors clothes. I could talk about the misguidedness of the art world and the intelligentsia in general, But then I remembered a story told by Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pachuda in his 11th Century Masterpiece, Chovos Halevavos, the Duties of the Hear. In the Sixth Treatise, On Submission, Rabbenu Bachya tells of a group of students that were walking with their teacher on a country where they passed a rotting corpse of a dog. One of the students remarked, “How foul smelling is this corpse!” and the teacher responded by saying, “How white are its teeth!” Immediately the students regretted saying something negative when they could have said something positive. Rabbenu Bachya continues by saying that if it is erroneous to speak about a dead corpse, how much more so is it wrong to speak bad about living people! 

My next job was to find the positive spin in the invisible art story, and it was actually quite easy. Think about how imaginative and creative it is for Salvatore Garau to sell nothing for something! I laud him! He’s 67 years old, and possibly doesn’t have enough money to retire with security so he came up with the brilliant idea that he could sell people nothing while telling them that he was selling them nothing! He’s not lying about his product, he’s not pretending that there is something there (like those nefarious tailors who sold the emperor his new wardrobe), he’s telling people that he’s selling them an invisible piece filled with energy, and it is. Our atmosphere is roughly 79% nitrogen, 1% carbon dioxide, and 20% oxygen. All those gases are zooming around invisibly with incredible energy. 

When describing the most successful salesmen, people often use the phrase, “He could sell ice to Eskimos!” In this case, Salvatore has sold air to humans, along with a certificate that is stamped and signed, yes, stamped AND signed! Hopefully more senior citizens can fund their retirement by selling air to absurdly wealth art collectors, the kind that can drop $18,200 on an invisible sculpture and feel good about it. It’s a total win-win situation. Garua gets money to pay for medical treatments, food and housing, and artsy people get to make soirees and show off their invisible sculptures to their friends (with the signed and stamped certificates!). 

Now, to be quite honest and transparent, I’m still struggling here between “the carcass smells so foul,” and “its teeth are so white.” But that has more to do with my imperfection than with the news story. I need to work on my Lev Tov, my good heart. There is a Mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers (2:9), in which Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai sent out his five prime disciples and told them to find “which is the right way to which a man should cleave.” The students each came back with different traits, but the final student Reb Elazar Ben Aruch, said a Lev Tov, a good heart, and Rabbi Yochanan agreed with him, saying that his trait of a good heart, eclipsed and contained all the others. So what exactly is a good heart?

The Yachin U’Boaz, one of the prime commentators of the Mishnah defines a good heart as: “That his heart is always happy and always prepared to do good for others,” indicating that having a good heart is about being happy and ready to confer goodness on others in any form, from monetary assistance to benefit of the doubt, to happiness for their success. The Vilna Goan is very brief in his explanation of the Lev Tov, he simply points us to the following verse, (Proverbs, 15:15) “All the days of a poor man are wretched, But contentment is a feast without end.” Contentment is a feast without an end, what a blessed statement! It’s like King Solomon, the author of Proverbs, is telling us that we can decided to be rich or poor, but it has nothing to do with our bank account it has to do with our level of contentment in the world. If we seek to be happy and appreciate everything, and see everything with a good light, that itself is a feast without an end, but if we seek to be cynical, judgmental, and critical, then we are so poor, and “all the days of the poor man are wretched.”

“The carcass smells so foul vs. The teeth are so white” is a battle that plays out inside of us all the time. It could also be called, “The Wretched Poor Man vs The Contented Endless Feast,” or “The Good Heart vs the Evil Heart.” We live in a world where there is so much focus on the negative, and that is obviously because negativity sells, but we have to take control of the narrative. Sure we can laugh and scorn at the Salvatore Garau and the people who bought his invisible art. But what does that do to us? Do we become better people because we laughed at just a few more people? Are we more likely to notice flaws in people around us after accustoming ourselves to pointing out the flaws of people far away? Have we perhaps gotten sucked into a “The carcass smells so foul” world and we don’t even realize it? 

Amazingly, the process of finding all the quotes about positivity, and fleshing it out into a coherent thought has undoubtedly left a whole lot more “The teeth are so white,” then the initial foray into finding the good spin on the story. There is no question that some 67 year old artist selling invisible sculptures halfway around the world could have passed by without my life changing much, but the experience of finding it, processing the good the bad and the weird of it, starting an article with humanity’s stupidity and ending with the joys of a positive outlook, has reminded me a lot more of who I want to be and how I need to get there. What a wild world, it’s teeth indeed are so white!!!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Parsha we read of the rebellion of Korach, a man driven by his blind desire for honor. We read of the terrible fate that befell him and his cohorts for bringing divisiveness to the Jewish people. Let us focus on the ketores, the incense that twice plays a vital role in our parsha.

When Korach brings 250 leaders with him, all claiming that Moshe and Aaron should step down, Moshe tells them that ketores will test them. The next day every man should bring a fire pan filled with ketores, and Aaron the High Priest will do the same. G-d will show whom He favors by sending down a fire from heaven to light the ketores of the chosen one, while everyone else will die. Sure enough, the next day the test is performed, a heavenly fire comes down and ignites Aaron’s ketores, and at the same time a fire burns the other 250 rebels to death. 

Later in the Parsha, the Jewish people gather around Moshe and Aaron, accusing them of killing people from G-d’s Holy Nation. (They don’t seem to get it, do they? Moshe and Aaron clearly seem to have the winning team, but you always have people rooting for the “underdog”) A plague breaks out amongst the people, and they begin dropping like flies. Moshe tells Aaron to hurry out with the ketores as a plague has started. Aaron brings out a firepan filled with burning ketores and by this act he stops the plague.

What exactly is the nature of this ketores? Is it a killer, as it killed 250 men, or is it a savior, as it stepped into the middle of a plague and halted the dying? Why is it that the same item is used both ways in the same Parsha?

One answer is that the ketores represents the idea that no thing in this world is essentially either good or bad. Good or bad are only defined by our reaction to those things. Wealth is neither good nor bad. We all have seen people whose wealth has ruined them and their families. We have also seen people who have used their wealth properly, bringing greatness to them and their families. So what is wealth, good or bad? In that same vein, is the internet good or bad? Is free speech good or bad? Is being smart good or bad?

Even something as seemingly deleterious as cancer can’t be classified as good or bad. I worked with people suffering from cancer for years. I have seen people who have changed their entire lives for the better after living through cancer. I have seen others who unfortunately passed away, but who, during the time of their illness, reached greatness unimaginable to most people of their age or of any age, for that matter. Of course, there are also those who succumb not only to the illness, but also to despair, anger, rage and disillusionment. The message of the ketores is this duality, that every object in the world contains the possibility of bringing salvation or desolation. Our actions, and our actions alone, merit the titles Good and Bad.

But why is the ketores specifically singled out to teach us this lesson? The ketores was made of many different spices. One of them was known as chelbona, and the Sages tell us that it had an exceedingly foul odor. Yet, when mixed with the other spices, it actually benefited the overall fragrance of the ketores. The chelbona is neither good nor bad; it depends on what you do with it. The very makeup of ketores contained a proof of this concept, and hence it was used to show us this powerful message.

Parsha Summary 

This week’s entire Parsha focuses primarily on one story, the story of Korach. Being from the tribe of Levi, Korach had an elevated status compared to most other Jews, but he wanted more power and honor. There are several opinions in the commentaries as to what exactly he wanted. Some say that he was a firstborn, and was angry that the Temple service had been taken from the firstborns and given to the Kohanim. Others say that he wanted to be the Kohen Gadol, or the leader of the Kehas clan, a job given to his younger cousin. Regardless of what exactly he was after, we know exactly how he went about getting it, and it is a perfect study in undermining authority. 

Step #1 Gather a large group of followers (a.k.a. rabble), with as many famous people as possible (Yes, this is why you constantly find actors and musicians speaking out on areas of politics where their knowledge is nebulous). Step #2 Feed them well. Step #3 Make mockery of anything the other side holds sacred. Step #4 Publicly challenge your opponent. 

Let’s see how Korach did this. Step #1 He gathers 250 leaders from his neighboring tribe, Reuben, among them some noted trouble-makers named Dasan and Aviram, who already had an entire file at central booking for their previous run-ins with authority. Step #2 He feeds them a delicious meal where the wine flows like right-wing rhetoric from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. Step #3 He starts mocking some of the laws of the Torah which Moshe had taught, thus implying that the entire Torah could have been made up by Moshe. Lastly, step #4, Korach challenges Moshe publicly, claiming, “We are all a holy nation, so who do you think you are to exalt yourselves (Moshe and his brother Aaron) over us?

Moshe falls on his face before them in humility, and begs them to change their mind. Upon being rebuffed, he says “O.K., lets take this one outside. Tomorrow morning everyone should bring a fire pan with incense. G-d will miraculously bring down fire in just one pan, and everyone else will die. But remember, sons of Levi, you have so much already, why are you demanding more? Be happy with your lot.” (Here is an incredible lesson. All 250+ people knew that only one person was going to emerge standing, yet they all showed up in the morning, each sure that he would be the single winner. When arrogance and jealousy get the better of you, it is clear that you lose the ability to think clearly!) 

That afternoon, Moshe, the paradigm of humility, attempts to end the rebellion peacefully by going personally to the tents of Dasan and Aviram to beg them to retract their evil mutiny. They reply with an emphatic “Even if someone were to gouge our eyes out, we would not make peace!” The next morning Moshe delivers the following ultimatum; “If these men die normal deaths, you will know that G-d didn’t send me, but if the earth opens its mouth and swallows these people alive, then you shall know that I did everything I did by the word of G-d!” 

Moshe tells everyone to step back from the camp of Korach, in order to save themselves from sharing in his punishment. Sure enough, the earth opens wide and swallows up not only Korach, Dasan, Aviram, and their familes, but also everything they owned in this world, down to the last bobby pin. The 250 men did not fall into the earth – the same fire they were hoping was going to prove their supremacy over Moshe and Aaron comes down and enters their nostrils, and kills them instantaneously. This shows us the horrific results of machlokes, or divisiveness. It not only destroys the original antagonist, but also his family, and anyone around him. The fire pans of the 250 rebels were taken and beaten into sheets which were then placed on the altar in the Temple to remind everyone never to try to usurp the leadership positions that G-d dictates.  

In response to this event, the people complained to Moshe and Aaron, saying “You killed the nation of G-d” (obviously, they hadn’t learnt the two key lessons of the story of Korach: that one is better off not rebelling against Moshe and Aaron (it does terrible things to your life expectancy), and that G-d is the one running the show here, not Moshe and Aaron.) A plague erupts in the camp, executing the people who were slandering Moshe and Aaron. Moshe tells Aaron that he should quickly bring a fire pan of incense and walk amongst the people to stop the plague. (Moshe learnt this trick from the Angel of Death when he went up to heaven to receive the Torah.) Aaron does so, and the plague stops. 

G-d tells Moshe to conduct one final test to demonstrate to everyone that Aaron is the one picked by G-d to be the Kohen Gadol. Aaron and the leaders of the twelve tribes all bring their staffs. The staffs are deposited in the Temple, and everyone waits to see whose staff would blossom. Sure as turkeys hate Thanksgiving, Aaron’s staff is the one in full bloom the next morning. Now the people are shaken up, and express their fears (not complaints) to Moshe, that anyone who gets too close to the Temple will die! Moshe allays their fears by explaining that it is the Kohen’s job to ensure that people don’t go beyond their proper places. As the leaders of the Jews, their duty is to bring people as close to G-d as they can, but also to remind them that one must be careful with that which is holy. Judaism is a system of living, which expects one to understand the importantce of structure and boundaries.

The final portion of the Parsha discusses the various gifts given by the Jewish people to the Kohanim and Levi’im in return for their dedication to the Jewish people. The tribe of Levi received no portion in the Holy Land (save a few cities), in order that they devote themselves to promoting spirituality. In return, we are commanded to help support them. The Torah here lays down the idea that it is incumbent upon a society to support those charged with facilitating its spiritual growth. The same way we understand that we must pay taxes to support those who keep our streets clean and safe, we must also support those who keep our spirit alive and healthy. That’s all, Folks!

Quote of the Week: “When inspiration does not come to me, I go to meet it.”- Anonymous

Random Fact of the Week: A woodpecker’s tongue actually wraps all the way around its brain, protecting it from damage when it’s hammering into a tree.

Funny Line of the Week: Despite the rapidly rising cost of living, have you noticed that it remains so popular?

Have a Marvelous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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