You might have heard a curious news blip a few weeks back about an extraordinarily unusual art auction. The artwork, by the American artist known as Beeple, was a collage of 5,000 individual digital images, assembled over nearly 14 years. Beeple, whose birth name is Mike Winkelmann, made one image each day, beginning on May 1, 2007, and the collage, entitled “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for an astonishing $69.3 million, the third-highest price paid for the work of a living artist.
Now, what is most curious about this? That the purchaser has nothing to show for his $69.3 million other than a JPEG file, about 21,000 x 21,000 pixels, with a size of about 320 megabytes. No canvas, no paint, not even a carved, gilt frame. Theoretically, anybody with a computer could easily make and distribute innumerable copies of the file and share it online with a few clicks.
You heard that right: the owner paid nearly $70 million for a computer file.
So how is it that this work could be sold for such an exorbitant sum? Because it is a so-called “non-fungible token,” or NFT.
What’s a non-fungible token, you ask? You’re not alone. Saturday Night Live actually put together a musical skit about it last week, in which a befuddled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (played by Kate McKinnon) seems to be at a loss to explain it.
As briefly and as simply as I can explain it, an NFT is any unique item of digital content – art, tweets, music, etc. – that can be verified as the original version through a series of secure, verifiable, time-stamped files that attest to its legitimacy. And why the need for this verifiability? So that the creator can sell the original digital content, and its ownership, or transfer of ownership, can therefore be proven. Many people can possess a digital copy, but there is only one non-fungible token of any digital content that exists anywhere, and the proof of that ownership is entrusted to thousands of computer servers, scattered around the world, so that the ownership can always be proven. (Some of you may have heard of Blockchain – NFTs use that technology.)
In short, this enables people to assign a dollar value to something that is effectively a set of ones and zeros that only computers can translate for us. Completely intangible. And the records that make it “real” are entrusted on a whole bunch of secure servers, ostensibly forever.
Other items that have sold as NFTs are the first tweet by Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, for nearly $3 million, and a digital picture of a column by New York Times Technology columnist Kevin Roose, which netted $560,000, which is I presume far more than Mr. Roose earns in a year. (He donated the money to a charity.)
Now, why is this interesting, other than the absurd amounts of money involved?
First, because it means that art, and specifically ownership of art, has moved beyond the physical product into a kind of spiritual state. It effectively means that you can own an idea, and not just the Earthly manifestation of that idea. (I suppose that the concept is not too different from the principle of intellectual property, except that usually people want to own their intellectual property because it can be used to create physical things of value. That does not seem necessarily to be the situation here. Hence the novelty.)
But second, as curious as the principles behind non-fungible tokens may seem, the concept suggests something very powerful: that intangible items are truly valuable. And, particularly relevant on a Yizkor day, that our relationships, our sets of memories of those whom we recall today, are something like NFTs in that they are unique, real, and non-fungible. But these relationships are much richer, and effectively priceless.
Let me explain:
When I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I recall a discussion with some fellow Jewish grad students over a Shabbat dinner at the Hillel building there. One of my colleagues opined that it was essential to publish academic papers, because it meant that when we were gone, there would be something tangible to show that we had made an impact on the world, in print and therefore “official.” (Since he was a grad student, I’m guessing that he was also trying to rationalize what he was doing in graduate school.)
You could extend this to any particular product: inventing a gadget, say, or building a house. When we create tangible things in this world, we can point to them and say, “Aha! I have left something for the world that will remain after my death.”
But I must say that I disagree with my grad school buddy. An object is just an object; it will eventually crumble and return to dust. A paper in a journal, no matter how essential it might seem right now, will ultimately become obsolete. Yes, it is true that we read words from the Torah today, a book that is still with us after over 3,000 years, but how many other books can you name that are that old? (The Torah is clearly exceptional, for several reasons.)
Rather, I am convinced that the greatest impact that we can have on the world is to place a little bit of the intangible pieces of ourselves – our wisdom, our love, our emotional support, our humor, our personality – into all the people we know.
And, in fact, that is what every single person on this Earth fundamentally creates during our lifetimes: the intangible dust of relationships. Memories, sentiments, shared experiences, wisdom, cherished moments, expectations fulfilled, or not, and so forth. That is the content of our relationships, much more comprehensive than the pixels arranged on a screen by a digital artist.
And, almost miraculously, we give out these bits of ourselves to others every time we interact, every time we speak, every moment we share with others. Taken together, all of those create a unique, non-fungible collection of us as individuals, a collection that will remain long after we have departed our physical bodies.
And, unlike an NFT, the content of these vouchsafed bits of ourselves is much more rich. My relationship with my wife, for example, is quite different than my relationship with my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Welsh. OK, so Beeple spent 5,000 days creating the piece that sold for $69 million. But I have spent already more than 18,000 days on this planet, and within that over 300,000 waking hours, much of that time engaging with others in all the ways that people interact. And nobody can ever take that away from me. Or from you. Or from all the people we know.
The total value of the unique relational moments of my life, if it could be sold, would easily eclipse any NFT by an infinite number of orders of magnitude.
And that is precisely the point. Our relationships are priceless, and they are forever. Even if one cannot recall a specific interaction, it leaves an emotional residue – cumulative and integrated into the totality of relationship. Even when all those who knew us personally are gone, the dust of our relationships continues to echo in all relationships, in all the collective facets of humanity.
In a commentary on Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, from which we read this morning, Rav Avraham Yitzḥaq Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, teaches us that, “Each worldly song is linked to all other songs, and their totality expresses the supernal harmony of the divine whole.” That is, the songs of our individual lives are interconnected. The relational dust that we all leave is a part of the greater song of humanity.
That is, I think, the very meaning of the term “Tzeror haḥayyim,” the bond of life, which appears in the El Male Raḥamim memorial prayer, which we will recite in a few minutes. We are all tzerurim bitzror haḥayyim, bound up in the bond of life together, inextricably interconnected in all the relational material that we share and re-share.
On this day of hazkarat neshamot / remembrance of souls, we recall those whom we have lost by singing their songs, by recalling the holy moments we spent with them, by engaging with that relational residue. We understand that our lives were not only enriched, but in fact defined by those pieces of themselves that they placed in us. Those memories are unique, and together they define those whom we remember today.
We carry them with us. We attest to not only their existence, not only the non-fungibility of their lives, not only how very real they surely still are, but how those relationships shape our lives, our world, our outlook, and our ongoing relationships, which we continue to share with others.
And that, hevreh, is truly priceless.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Eighth Day of Pesaḥ, 4/4/2021.)