Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ki Teitzei

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Dt. 22:1-3)
Torah teaches that in truth, the only owner in the universe is God. We are caretakers of the items we possess, stewards for a time, but not ultimate owners. Nonetheless, to get along with one another, we must respect the boundaries of possession and stewardship.

The Babylonian Talmud devotes considerable energy to elucidating the various conditions under which one might find a lost object and whether and how it must be announced publicly and returned to its owner (masechet Baba Metzia), and when it may be kept by the finder. Why so much concern? Because civilization is based on respect for others and the institution of proper boundaries. Thus in last week’s parashah we read, You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess (Dt. 19:4).

Pirke Avot 5:12 posits four types of people (numbers added for reference):
There are four character traits among people. Some say:
[1] “Mine is mine, and yours is yours” – this is the beinonit (average person).
However, some say this trait is characteristic of Sodom.
[2] “Mine is yours, and yours is mine” – the am ha-aretz (simpleton).
[3] “Mine is yours, and yours is yours” – the chasid (saint).
[4] “Yours is mine, and mine is mine” – the rasha (evil person).
The beinonit [1] is easy to understand and at first blush sounds reasonable: this person recognizes proper boundaries. We’ll return to the jarring comment about Sodom in a moment.

The am ha-aretz [2] also seems self-evident: only a fool would suggest that there are no boundaries at all and everything is a free-for-all.

The chasid [3] is generous, perhaps to a fault. He is aware of, and acknowledges, possession, but is generous in wanting to share what he has with others. He inspires our generosity, but there is no expectation that we will all operate as he does.

The rasha [4] is also easy to comprehend: to claim everything for oneself is selfish. The rasha has no sense of boundaries or respect for others.

But if the rasha [4] is evil, why is the seemingly most reasonable perspective, the beinonit [1] compared with the quintessentially evil inhabitants of Sodom (Genesis, chapter 19), who epitomize inhospitality, violence, and corruption? I believe that their sin was not just wickedness, but the types of wickedness that lead to a breakdown of the social order. Perfectly legal boundaries taken to an extreme result in a society in which people do not take care of one another: they live in separate spheres, isolated and unresponsive to the needs of others. “Mine is mine, and yours is yours” shuts the door to tzedakah and chesed; it shuts out the very love and compassion that are the crucial lubricants for civilization.

One last observation: our Torah passage ends with the warning, you must not remain indifferent.

On April 12, 1999, Elie Wiesel delivered a speech in the East Room of the White House, as part of the Millennium Lecture series (the entire speech is available online at http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/wiesel-transcript.htm). Wiesel addressed the plague of indifference:
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering [in Auschwitz, as well as human suffering around the globe] is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred…

Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.

Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century's wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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