Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Question of Theft

Most cases of theft are black and white but not all. For instance, is it a problem to use a neighbor’s wireless router (bandwidth) without permission?

Questions of contested ownership have always existed. While Alexander Graham Bell is famed as the inventor of the telephone, a man named Elisha Gray filed a similar patent on the very same day and there have always been questions as to whether Bell used Gray’s research.

Throughout history, Jews turn to one primary example when dealing with “murky” theft issues. In Genesis 13 (5-7), it is written that Abram traveled with his nephew Lot and leased/bought land from the Canaanites and the Perizzites. Abram and Lot had such a large camp and possessed such an enormous number of flocks and herds that “the land was not able to bear them.” This led to strife between the herdsmen of Abram and those of Lot.

The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 41:5) explains that Abram’s herdsmen questioned Lot’s herdsmen’s honesty for not muzzling their cattle (as Abram’s men did) when grazing on land not marked as their own. Lot’s herdsmen, however, quoted God’s promise to Abram to give all of the land to him. But, since Abram had no children, Lot was destined to be his only heir. Since they assumed that Lot would eventually inherit all of the land from Abram, grazing on it even before inheriting it was not theft. God, however, had also promised Abram that it would only be his actual decedents who would inherent the land and only after the removal of the seven nations from it.

Because Lot’s herdsmen refused to see the questionable ethics of their assumptions, Abram decided that he and Lot should best part ways, for Abram did not want there to be even the slightest question regarding his and his family's own honesty.

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