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Mishpatim(Exodus 21-24)

Give and Take


OVERVIEW

The way we treat other people's property, and our own, says a lot about who we are. It can show us how fair and just we really are. The ideal society is one in which each individual is generous and giving of his own property, while at the same time remaining respectful and undemanding of the other guy's. The Torah devotes most of this week's portion to teach us practical, spiritual guidelines on how to treat each other and each other's things in a way that will create happiness and peace.

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STORY

In our story, two boys learn a lesson about property and peace.

"GIVE AND TAKE"

      Any kid lucky enough to go to Olympia Sports Camp was glad he came. It was an athlete's dream-come-true. The sports facilities were world class, and the great food, and dormitory-style housing made the budding athletes feel as if they were real stars.

      The camp staff had made a big effort to match up roommates who would get along, and they seemed to do a pretty good job, as the dorm had a peaceful, friendly feel. That is, except for Room 16, which was quickly gaining the reputation of being a war-zone.

      Even though there were only two guys sharing the three-man room, the sounds of yelling, screaming and door slamming would ring through the hall day and night. The problem was that the two roommates, Alex and Dave, were driving each other crazy.

      It all started on the very first day when Alex came back to his room after taking a shower, and found two of his double-fudge cookies missing. The boy sat on the edge of his bed, fuming.

      "Who had the nerve to take my stuff?"

      A minute later, Dave came walking in smiling, holding a big bag of potato chips. "Hey buddy!" he said heartily. "I just scored us a bag of Jumbo Ruffles Bar-b-que potato chips. Dig in! By the way, I grabbed a couple of cookies on the way out. I was sure you wouldn't mind - after all we are roommates!"

      Alex stood in shock. Coldly, he replied. "No, thank you. I don't believe in taking things from others or giving away mine. So from now I leave your stuff alone, and you don't touch mine. Okay, roommate? Then we'll get along just fine."

      Dave looked confused. "What's the big deal?" he asked. "The way to get along is to share, and share alike. But don't worry, if anything, you'll get the better of the deal. My dad owns a candy factory, and I expect a healthy care package to arrive any day. You can help yourself to my stuff whenever you want. Could you pass me a couple of more of those double-fudges?"

      So began the infamous roommate war that had become the talk of the dorm. Every time Alex would refuse to share something of his, Dave would call him uptight and stingy. Whenever Dave would want to use something of his, Alex would call him a moocher, or worse.

      Things were really getting out of hand, but since there were no more empty spaces in the dorm, the camp staff had no choice but to leave things as they were. After a while, rumors started to spread that a new camper would be arriving, and since there was nowhere else to put him, the poor guy was going to have to move right into the middle of the war-zone.

      When Alex and Dave heard the news, they got an idea. "I think you're dead wrong, but we can't keep going on like this," Alex said. "Let's let the new guy decide how we run the room. Majority rules. If he agrees with me, then its 'hands-off', and we never touch each other's things..."

      "And if he agrees with me," Dave cut in, "then it's all for one, and one for all!"

      The boys agreed, and waited anxiously for the new kid to arrive. After a while they heard a knock on the door, and a tall, friendly-looking kid came in toting a big duffle bag.

      "Hey there, welcome!" called out Dave, handing him a can of soda. "Want a drink? I don't mind sharing my stuff," he said, sneering in Alex's direction.

      The boy, whose name was Josh, smiled. "No thanks," he said. "I brought my own drink. I try not to impose on people..."

      Alex perked up when he saw the new boy's reaction, and shot Dave a look of victory. But his triumph soon faded, as Josh pulled out a big three-liter bottle of Cherry Coke, and three plastic cups.

      "But I love to share!" he added with a smile. "Please help yourselves whenever you want. I brought it special from home. I heard it's hard to get this stuff out here in the country."

      Alex and Dave looked at each other, amazed. Here was a guy who liked to share, but didn't expect others to give him anything in return! The boys realized that this was the best of both worlds, and just the solution they had been waiting for.

      Slowly, but surely, the guys began to follow Josh's lead. Each would think of ways how to be a giver without being a taker, and it really felt good. Soon the whole atmosphere of the room transformed from a war-zone, to a room full of peace. All thanks to the new roommate who really knew how to give and (not) take!

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QUESTIONS

Ages 3-5

Q. How did Alex and Dave feel at first about having each other as a roommate?
A. They didn't get along. They had different ideas about sharing, and this caused them to fight.

Q. How did they feel after Josh moved in with them?
A. Much better. Josh taught them that the way to get along was to try to give to each other without taking in return.


Ages 6-9

Q. Alex and Dave each had very different ideas about how to get along. What do you think was right about each of the boy's attitudes, and what aspect needed improvement?
A. Alex was right to feel that he shouldn't freely take advantage of other people's things, even when they are offered. But he erred when he assumed that this entitled him also not to share what was his. Dave went to the opposite extreme. He was right to want to freely share his things, but he wrongly felt that this gave him license to demand the same from others without respecting their limits. The Torah ideal is to incorporate the good points in each of these attitudes, to try to give as much as possible, while also trying to take as little as we can from others.

Q. Won't a person always lose out if he acts like Josh - giving but not taking?
A. This attitude is actually a major key to happiness. When a person focuses on trying to give, without expecting back, he finds it easier to get along peacefully with others, who in turn will want to share with him. In the end, he's the one who really gains since he becomes a better person by being a true giver. That's worth a lot more than a bag of potato chips.

Q. What can you give to a friend without being concerned about what you'll get in return?


Ages 10 and Up

Q. What do the Torah's property and monetary laws have to do with spirituality?
A. Spirituality is about creating proper, loving, and just relationships with God and with each other. Nowhere do human relationships get tested more than they do in money and property matters. How we respond can elevate us to the heights of honesty and kindness, or sink us to the depths of selfishness and greed. God has given us many wise and insightful mitzvoth to help us to form a spiritually perfected society made up of individuals who are striving to be good.

Q. Alex's policy of "you don't touch mine, and I don't touch yours", and Dave's "Share and share alike," each sound like pretty fair ways of doing things. Is there really anything wrong with these systems?
A. Something important is missing. In essence, each system has a built-in fault in that it is easily abused for selfish ends. The first policy promises to respect others in order to 'purchase' the right to be left alone, and not have to give to others. The second system does the opposite - it offers to share of what he has, to 'buy' the right to take from others as he pleases. The Torah ideal of giving for the sake of giving, and respecting the possessions of others for its own sake, avoids these pitfalls and creates a society that is both fair and kind.

Q. What can you give to a friend without being concerned about what you'll get in return?


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Published: January 25, 2003

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