Monday, November 7, 2011

What's Mine Is Whose

On September 17, 2011, Zuccotti Park, in downtown Manhattan, became the center of what would become an international protest movement. Occupy Wall Street was organized as a statement against economic inequality and political corruption fostered by economic systems throughout the world. Reports on the ongoing protest repeatedly refer to the 1% wealthiest citizens who control more wealth than the other 99% of the citizenry.

While the Torah addresses the question of economic equality in many different ways (giving charity, leaving a corner of one's fields for the poor, tithing, etc.) there is an interesting discussion about the proper attitude toward possessions in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Father), a tractate of the Mishna composed of ethically oriented statements of the great sages.

“There are four types of people:
The person who says, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’--this is the average type, though some say that this is the attitude of Sodom.

The person who says, ‘What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine’--this is an ignorant person.

The person who says, ‘What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is your own’--this is a saintly person.

And the person who says, ‘What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine’--this is a wicked person” (Pirkei Avot 5:13).

Read the list carefully. It is interesting to note that while the fourth person is listed as wicked, the first person, the average person who feels that “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” is compared by some to a person of Sodom. The city of Sodom, which was destroyed by God in the days of Abraham (Genesis 19), was known as an evil city. One might therefore believe that it was full of thieves. The above statement, however, provides the fascinating insight asserting that it is even wrong to take no interest in other people and to be uninvolved with the community at large.

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