Monday, June 02, 2008

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers - Chapter 5

Pirkei Avot 5:13

ארבע מדות באדם. האומר שלי שלי ושלך שלך, זו מדה בינונית. ויש אומרים, זו מדת סדום. שלי שלך ושלך שלי, עם הארץ. שלי שלך ושלך שלך, חסיד. שלי שלי ושלך שלי, רשע

Kuatro kondisyones en el ombre, El ke dizo lo mio mio i lo tuyo tuyo esta kondisyon medyana, I ay dizyentes esta kondisyon de Sedom. Lo mio tuyo i lo tuyo mio Am A'arets, Lo mio tuyo i lo tuyo tuyo bueno. Lo mio mio i lo tuyo mio malo.

People have four characteristics: there is the person who says, "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours"; such a person is average (neither pious nor wicked), although some believe that the people of Sodom were like this. Another one says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine." One who says that is a fool (am ha-aretz). He who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours, is yours," is a pious person. But one who says, "What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine", is wicked

I have two questions (& hopefully answers too) about the above mishna ...

1. It seems that the four people mentioned in the mishna are discussed relative to their desire to give tzedaka (charity). So how exactly is the first person, one who doesn't give (mine is mine) or take (what is yours is yours), fit into the equation? One of the reasons for this, as discussed by Rambam (Maimonides) in Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Gerushin 2:20), is that every Jew's inner desire is to give and help the less fortunate, and in the process distancing oneself away from sin. So what stops us from being charitable? I think this is why the Mishnah compares this person to one from Sodom (for more on the Sodomites, click here) as they were so wrapped up in their own existences that they forgot about those around them. Rabbi Melamed explains this far more eloquently, "A person who gives nothing of his own may be indifferent to the welfare of others out of selfishness, much like the people of Sodom." Perhaps this 'first' person is intentionally mentioned as a warning to the outcome of those who self indulge and in the process, fail to even notice and help those around them.

2. How can a 'pious' person live by the ethos, "what is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine,"? It seems quite a bit too much to ask of one person. I somehow doubt that the writer of this mishnah expects us to give all our possessions away. Building on the previous question, the essence of being a human being is understanding those around you, and trying to live within that environment peacefully and happily. One cannot be happy in any group, be it your family or an office or society, if he's indifferent to those around him. Hence, a pious person, while not expected to give everything he owns (The Talmud says an individual should give no more than one fifth of his assets), is expected to understand his environment well enough to know when to give to those around him (whatever aid this may be).

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