‘Stolen Goods’ Parashat Naso – Shavuot 5783

Recently I have been spending a considerable amount of “quantity time” (as opposed to “quality time”) in my car. To pass the time, I have been catching up on podcasts. One of my favourite podcasts is “Freakonomics Radio”, from Steven Dubner, one of the authors of the outrageously successful “Freakonomics”. “Freakonomics (The Hidden Side of Everything)” is a sort of Dummies Guide to Behavioural Economics. It is the brainchild of Stephen Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, and Steven Dubner, a columnist formerly of the New York Times. Levitt and Dubner have grown the Freakonomics brand into a multi-media franchise, with sequel books, a feature film, a regular radio segment on National Public Radio, and a weekly podcast, called “Freakonomics Radio”.

The last few episodes of Freakonomics Radio have been part of a series titled “Stealing Art Is Easy. Giving It Back Is Hard”. We begin with a joke: Q: Why are the Pyramids located in Egypt? A: Because they didn’t fit into the British Museum. Freakonomics Radio looks at the considerable amount of stolen and looted archaeological artefacts around the world and asks: “What should we do with them?” The series revolves around a set of artefacts called the “Benin Bronzes”. During the scramble for Africa in 1897, about 1,200 British troops armed with newly-invented machine-guns launched a “punitive expedition” into the kingdom of Benin, in modern-day Nigeria. Massacring an unknown number of people, they scorched Benin, burnt down its royal palace and carried away about 10,000 artefacts, among them many extraordinary brass plaques and sculptures. The Benin Bronzes have since been dispersed around the world with the bulk of them now residing in museums in Europe. Many of them lie in the British Museum, a large portion of them hidden out of public sight. The British Museum has been extremely secretive about their “stash”. A best-selling book has been written about the Benin Bronzes, called “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution”. Since the Freakonomics Radio series has been released, gaining on-line library access to this book has been nearly impossible.

Because the Benin Bronzes left Africa as a result of a colonial conquest, their current owners have faced calls for their return, both from within Nigeria and outside it. The question that Freakonomics Radio asks is “Who should they be returned to?” Three potential recipients include [1] the modern-day Republic of Benin, which lies nowhere near where the Benin Bronzes came from, [2] the modern-day Republic of Nigeria, which never owned the bronzes, and [3] descendants of the original owner, the Oba (King) Ovonramwen, ruler of then-day Benin. Pros and cons of each solution are discussed and in the end, what remains is a big mess. Restitution of the goods is proving to be far more difficult than ever imagined.

It is easy to stand at the sidelines and to chide the British Museum for refusing to be forthright in returning artefacts that clearly do not belong to them. It is another thing altogether when the State of Israel is accused of similar misdeeds. The artefact in question is the “Aleppo Codex”, or the “Keter Aram Tzova”. The Aleppo Codex is the earliest known Hebrew manuscript comprising the full text of the Bible (Tanach). It is the most authoritative, accurate, and sacred source document in existence, both for the biblical text and for its vocalization, cantillation and Mesorah (literally, “transmission” of the Tanach, the oral and written tradition by which the Holy Scriptures have been preserved and passed on from generation to generation). The Aleppo Codex was copied over one thousand years ago. The text was then verified, vocalized, and provided with the Mesorah, which shaped the Hebrew text of the Tanach. It was probably the manuscript used by the Rambam when he set down the exact rules for writing scrolls of the Torah. The Codex was written in Tiberias in the early 10th century, looted and transferred to Egypt at the end of the 11th century, and deposited with the Jewish community of Aleppo in Syria at the end of the 14th century. The rabbis and elders of the community guarded it zealously for over six hundred years. During the riots against Jews and Jewish property in Aleppo in December 1947, Aleppo’s ancient synagogue was set on fire and the Codex suffered extensive damage such that no more than 295 of the original 487 leaves survived. Eventually, the Codex was smuggled out of Syria by Murad Faham, an Aleppo Jewish merchant. According to the Israel Museum website, “In January 1958 the Aleppo Codex was brought to the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Today it is on display at the Israel Museum”. The best-selling and utterly fascinating “The Aleppo Codex” by Matti Friedman, tells a much more lurid story. According to Friedman, the Codex was not significantly damaged by the synagogue fire. Friedman has unearthed documents suggesting that the manuscript was damaged by years of neglect at the Ben-Zvi Institute and that officials censored a version of the Codex’s history published in the 1980’s in order to protect the Israeli government and the institute itself. In 1958, the Jewish Community of Aleppo sued the Ben-Zvi Institute for the return of the Codex but a rabbinical court ruled against them and mysteriously suppressed publication of the proceedings. Friedman recently managed to obtain the secret trial transcripts. During the trial, representatives of the Aleppo Jewish community accused Faham of accepting perks from the Israeli government in exchange for handing the Codex over to them, a charge that Faham denied. Who, then, is the rightful owner of the Aleppo Codex: The Ben-Zvi Institute? The Jewish Community of Aleppo? Or maybe the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums?

I do not dare attempt to adjudicate[1] but the Portion of Naso contains a discussion that can perhaps give us some insight. The Torah is reviewing the laws pertaining to one who has stolen goods and has subsequently sworn that he does not have them in his possession. If he chooses to repent, he must return the goods to their original owner, pay a twenty percent fine, and offer a sacrifice to complete his atonement. The Torah describes the special case in which the owner of the stolen goods has died without leaving an heir [Bemidbar 5:8]: “If that party [is deceased and] has no kin to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to G-d for the Priest (Kohen)”. Rashi[2] explains that the goods are returned to G-d, Who gives them over to one of the Kohanim who happens to be on duty at the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) on that particular day. It seems rather odd that if a person steals another person’s BMW and then the original owner dies without an heir that a Kohen inherits his Beemer. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin[3] explains why the Kohen receives the returned stolen goods by pointing out that the only kind of person alive that has no living heir is the convert (Ger)[4]. The Torah commands no less than thirty-six times to love the convert, to welcome the convert, to provide and care for the convert, to not oppress the convert, because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. To steal from this person and then to deny under oath any wrongdoing is a heinous crime not only against the convert but against G-d. Rabbi Sorotzkin notes that the Kohanim are responsible not only for serving in the Beit HaMikdash, but also for teaching the people the laws of the Torah. Moshe blesses the Tribe of Levi with the words [Devarim 33:10] “They shall teach Your statutes to Jacob and your Torah to Israel”. If people are acting with such blatant disregard towards converts, it means that the Kohanim are not doing their job, most likely due to their low teacher’s salary[5]. They receive the stolen goods so as to augment their poor salary in order to free them to turn their full attention to teaching Torah. In a similar vein, if the State of Israel cannot safeguard the most important biblical manuscript in existence, it means that somebody is not doing his or her job. Food for thought on the eve of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] That said, it is clear that the Codex should not be returned to Syria.

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[3] Rabbi Sorotzkin lived in Pinsk, Belarus, and in Israel in the previous century.

[4] See Rashi on Bemidbar [5:8]. A convert is considered newly born.

[5] We will resist the urge to sound off on the current teacher’s strike in Israel.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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