The controversy over reports of thefts from the British Museum throws into focus the importance of such institutions as being the custodians of the cultural heritage of mankind. Gazing at an ancient monument can give a graphic insight into the world and values of a civilization long past on.
The construction of a monument in the ancient world was often an indication of power. The Arch of Titus, for example, celebrated his victory over the Jews in Israel and destroying their Temple.
A very different kind of monument is described in this week’s parasha. (Devarim 27:1-8.) The children of Israel are commanded that when they cross the river Jordan, they are to take twelve large stones, cover them with plaster, and inscribe on them words of the Torah. Sadly, no remnant of these stones is in existence today.
The great Portuguese commentator, Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), notes that this monument is in sharp contrast to many other monuments of the ancient world. Instead of celebrating the Israelites’ victory in entering the land of Canaan, the monument recorded their responsibilities and obligations, to challenge them to uphold the role for which they were entering the land. The stones are like a Mezuza, seen on entering the land. They are to be a visible reminder of the presence of G-d and the task that He has set out for us. Jews and non-Jews, residents and visitors to the land would see the values that our Torah has set forth for us to undertake.
A modern parallel to this kind of monument is the Statue of Liberty, symbolizing the American ideal of liberty and the hope offered to aspiring migrants. In the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, inscribed on a tablet within the pedestal on which the statue stands:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.