Ethics Now & Then 85 – Avot 5:13

Pirkei Avot 5:13

There are four character types among men: He who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” is an average character; some say this is the character of Sodom. He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,” is an ignoramus. He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours,” is godly; [He who says:] “What is yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” is a wicked and lawless man.

Star of David ENT

There are four character types among men: He who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” is an average character, some say this is the character of Sodom.

On an individual level, this principle is just and reasonable. The assets one has earned and gained belong to the person and those of one’s neighbor belong to him. This appears to be the balanced, average and ethical attitude. However, some Sages point out, rather dauntingly, that this is “the character of Sodom.” We can understand, from a wider perspective, that if the wealthy maintained this attitude toward those who have very little means of their own, and, as a result, neglected the needs of others when they are in a position to extend help, they will evidence the character of Sodom. A law in Sodom “…forbade its people, on pain of death, to feed [i.e., extend any charity or hospitality to] any needy persons or a passing stranger.”*

There is a  danger that, when carried to an extreme, “What’s mine is mine” can become a dire form of selfishness, the very opposite of what God’s Word teaches. Also, what is practiced on an individual basis sooner or later can become a general rule in the larger society. The view of the Sages is that a generous attitude between people and a ready willingness to give charity are qualities that highlight the difference between a good society and a bad one.

He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,” is an ignoramus. 

This belief might work in a very close marriage relationship or in situations of extreme emergency. In general, however, it would be foolish to maintain that whatever a person has belongs to his neighbor and vice versa.

This policy can work, as was seen in the early kibbutz (communal living and farming) system in the pioneering days of Israel, when all willingly and freely co-operate interdependently for the common good. Historically, however, we have seen examples of this policy applied nationally by law  in the form of Communism, which has proven to be a travesty of humanity and the quenching of hope and creativity for the masses by a powerful elite.

He who says: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours,” is godly [a chassid].

At first glance, this attitude also seems foolish and yet the Sages attribute it to a pious and godly person. A chassid, from the root word chessed – lovingkindness, is described by Irving Bunim as “…a man of faith who does not stand on the letter of the law but does even more than what is required of him.”** With love and kindness he will do whatever is in his power to assist others. He will, as the saying goes, “…walk the extra mile.” Also, he will give cheerfully and will not keep a record of what is due to him

He is practical and wise, however, as Bunim adds, “…he is not a complete fool who will give away his wallet to the first person he meets. It means that if a dispute arises in which the lines of demarcation of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ are not clear, the chassid is willing to yield, to give up what might really be his, rather than fight to the bitter end.”*** One should not give all one has and thereby deliberately impoverish oneself and become, in turn, unnecessarily dependent on others for survival.

He who says: “What is yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” is a wicked and lawless man [a rashah].

This, clearly, is the attitude of the criminal mind, of one who does not respect the rights of another, whether it be their property and, in the extreme, even their very life. They will callously justify their acquisition or taking of it.  In less clear circumstances, at the root of this attitude we find envy and greed and we all are warned in the last of the Ten Commandments to beware of any envy and covetousness that may creep into our own hearts. A person’s covetousness and greed may lead him to think he deserves to take everything he can for himself and will harden his heart against the will of God in the process.

Star of David ENT

In all four descriptions above, we only can hope to follow the way of the chassid, the godly person. How is this possible? Maybe if we keep a light hold on our worldly goods and read the statement as a declaration before our faithful and loving God, to Whom indeed all things belong, including our lives. “What’s mine is Yours and what is Yours is Yours.”

 

Footnotes:

* Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 109b; Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 49:6

** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, 144

*** Ibid., 144

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