Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse thirteen

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The next verse was one of my favorites as a kid, mostly I think because of the Saul Raskin illustration in my mother’s copy. I don’t think I ever actually understood the verse, and I’m not sure I do now. On the other hand, I didn’t understand that I didn’t understand it, and now perhaps I do:

There are four characters among men: he who says, What is mine is mine and what is thine is thine, his is a neutral character (some say, this is a character like that of Sodom); he who says, What is mine is thine and what is thine is mine, is a boor; he who says, What is mine is thine and what is thine is thine is a saint; he who says, What is thine is mine and what is mine is mine, is a wicked man.

The translation is from Joseph Hertz; the attempt with the thine language is, I think, to convey some of the idea of the Hebrew, which uses the possessive shel with appropriate complications for the person possessing, so that one person says shelee shelee v’shelchah shelach , another shelee shelach v’shelchah shelee, the third shelee shelach v’shelchah shelach and the last shelchah shelee v’shelee shelee. But that’s neither here nor there for the meaning of the verse.

It seems obvious, and the last part, dealing with person who covets everyone’s possessions and the one who gives them all away, is pretty clear, actually. But the first two— start with the second one: who actually thinks that my stuff is your stuff and your stuff is my stuff? And that person, the boor is the man of the earth, the am ha’aretz, the common everyday ignorant man. Does that make any sense at all? And while I understand that the mine is mine and yours is yours is not ideal, how can some say that it is the attitude of Sodom?

As far as that first type of man, I think that what may be happening is a debate between the sages who felt that selfishness was typical, and those who felt that were it not encouraged, selfishness would be the province of the unusually wicked. It is the atmosphere of Sodom that makes people selfish, or at least makes people sufficiently proud of their selfishness that they say that they regard their stuff as theirs alone. It should be added that Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham considered that we were talking here only about one’s attitude toward one’s possessions after one has donated to charity. Of course, one expects that the average person will contribute the expected amount to charity; the question is whether the person then says the rest is mine or still views it all as in trust for the Divine.

But the second type is more troublesome. I did not understand it until I read the commentary of ibn Aknin who says that the verse is not meant to denigrate the am ha’aretz. Instead, it is meant to speak of him is a bit higher than the first type, the neutral type, because he does understand that he and his neighbor are meant to help each other, that possessions are meant to be used for the benefit of all. And yet, this person is still, according to ibn Aknin, focused too much on possessions, and noticing what belongs to who, and is prone to envy and jealousy. I think this is an excellent insight—as a bit of a communitarian myself, I think that it would be good if everybody thought that what is mine is thine and what is thine is mine, not in the sense of confusing who actually owns what, but acknowledging that sometimes your need is more important than my ownership.

There’s a distinction there between the obligation to charity, to share your possessions with the less fortunate, and a right to (f’r’ex) not starve to death, which entails a right to somebody else’s possessions. I think that the second type, the type that recognizes that his right to his own stuff is not absolute, even if he still wants to hang on to as much of it as he can within that moral framework, is that man of the earth that we are talking about here, and it’s that person that we can legitimately aspire to be, as we are not all saints.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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