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Grand Larceny: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:17

Grand Larceny: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:17

As much as we owe the Almighty gratitude for our intrinsic natural abilities and talents, we owe Him even more for those blessings that are extrinsic.

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Rabbi Yossi said: Let your fellow's property be as dear to you as your own, prepare yourself to study Torah because it is not an inheritance to you, and all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven. -- Ethics of the Fathers, 2:17

The Talmud offers the astonishing observation that a tzaddik, a truly righteous person, values his money more than his own physical welfare. Readers of a certain age may find themselves wondering whether the sages inspired Jack Benny's classic gag when, threatened by a mugger demanding him to choose between his money and his life, he answered, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

Whereas Jewish tradition emphasizes repeatedly the dangers of excess and the pitfalls of overindulgence, it seems perplexing that we should hear that the tzaddik, presumably aspiring to spiritual heights by minimizing his involvement with the material world, should so keenly value personal wealth. How do we resolve this contradiction?

Imagine that a gentleman appears on your doorstep one morning and hands you an envelope inscribed with the words, "With my compliments." You open the envelope to find a $100 bill. The next day the man appears again with another $100. And the next day as well. And day after day for month after month.

After many months, the man appears one morning, but this time with no envelope. "Have a nice day," he says, tips his hat, turns around, and begins walking away.

"Hey!" you bellow. "Where's my money?!"

Of course, he owes you no money at all. But your expectation has produced such a sense of entitlement that you've already counted and budgeted the money before it even arrived.

A tzaddik has no such sense of expectation. Since he views everything as a gift from the Almighty, he doesn't take anything for granted. The clothes on his back, the roof over his head, even the food on his table -- every one of these is a blessing from Above that may be withdrawn in an instant.

Even his physical strength, his mental acuity, his eyesight and hearing and sense of taste, smell and touch, his natural talents and abilities -- all of these have been granted him by God, as if on loan, to be used to lead a life of righteousness. To misuse a single faculty or resource is, in a sense, to renege on his loan from the Master of the World. The tzaddik sees little difference between not repaying his debt to his Creator and robbing a storekeeper at gunpoint.

We find a distinction, however, between those natural gifts granted him as part of his physical and psychological makeup and those external gifts such as property and wealth. As much as we owe the Almighty gratitude for our intrinsic natural abilities and talents, we owe Him even more for those blessings that are extrinsic. In a sense, God had to give us our natural talents and strengths, since they form the essence of who we are; without them I wouldn't be me and you wouldn't be you. In contrast, any other material benefit we may receive is gravy since had God done nothing more than create us naked and helpless, we would still owe Him gratitude for life itself. Consequently, those additional blessings impose an even higher level of appreciation.

This is why the tzaddik values his money more than himself: according to his world view, to accept, to utilize, to benefit from his many gifts from God without employing them in the fulfillment of Divine service would be the equivalent of grand larceny.

One might think, therefore, that since the value of my money and property exceeds the value of myself, its value surely exceeds the value of my neighbor's property as well. I might logically assume that it is my own debt to God that I must repay first, before concerning myself with my neighbor's obligations, just as he must concern himself first with his own debt rather than with mine.

Rabbi Yossi comes to teach us the error of such reasoning. Since every Jew is responsible for every other, part of my debt to God is to help my neighbor carry the burden of his own obligation. This does not mean that I must carry his weight as well as mine, but that I exercise great caution never to pay off my own debt at his expense.

Jewish law provides many practical examples. I may not dig a hole on my property if it will cause erosion to my neighbor's land. Neither may I allow my tree to grow so high that it deprives sunlight from my neighbor's crops, nor divert rainwater so that it floods his land, nor deprives his land of runoff that he needs. I may not cause him undue inconvenience that robs him of time in which he could have been productive, nor deceive him into believing I'm interested in any business transaction when I have no intention at all of giving him my business.

As we have discussed in our previous mishnas, the tzaddik strives to perfect himself in three areas: in his relationship with his community, with his God, and with himself. Rabbi Yossi understands that one begins to perfect his relationship with others by respecting their property to the same degree that he concerns himself with his own.

The next stage of self-perfection begins with he recognition that the Torah, God's handbook for spiritual success and fulfillment, is not an inheritance but an acquisition. The refinement of character, teach our sages, is a prerequisite to acquiring Torah wisdom.

Just as a neglected vessel may develop cracks and fissures that compromise its ability to serve its intended purpose, so too are we -- each and every one of us -- vessels designed to receive and hold the Divine wisdom transmitted to the Jewish people at Sinai. Prepare yourself to study Torah, Rabbi Yossi says, by striving to refine and perfect your character, because it is not an inheritance to you, and you must earn it if you are to possess it. Only in this way can one approach perfection in his relationship with God.

Finally, says Rabbi Yossi, ensure that all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven. We can fool others, and we can delude ourselves into believing that we have fooled God. But ultimately, if we face ourselves in the mirror and seek to honestly look into our own souls, we know what our real motives truly are. Spiritual honesty and integrity form the basis of all our relationships. We may often wish to deceive ourselves, but we only succeed when we take part in the conspiracy.

Be honest with yourself, teaches Rabbi Yossi, and the fullness of life in this world -- and in the next -- will be your reward.

Published: October 15, 2005


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