5761 - #12

Concern for Property

Bereishit 32:25 presents a textual problem. Bereishit 32:23-24 states that Yaakov Avinu took his entire camp across the river; the implication is that Yaakov joined his camp, in fact led his camp, in the crossing of the river. Verse 25 then states that Yaakov was left alone. Why was Yaakov alone? Why was Yaakov left on the other side of the river? Ramban explains, simply, that Yaakov directed the movement across the river, choosing to be the last to actually cross the river.1 Rashi explains that actually Yaakov did cross the river with his camp but then returned because he left behind some small jars. From here, T.B. Chullin 91a states, we learn that to the righteous their money (i.e. possessions) is dearer to them than their bodies.2
The understanding of property presented in Nishma Insight 5761-11 may be of assistance in explaining this attitude of the righteous. Our financial assets provide part of our resources in life by which we are able to meet our goals; they are thus to be managed very carefully. It is this recognition that could have induced Yaakov to return to collect the small jars. This understanding alone, though, cannot fully explain the statement of the gemara. The gemara clarifies that the reason the righteous value their money over their bodies is because they are not involved in theft. It would seem that it is not simply the recognition of the importance of property as an asset in life that gives it its importance to the righteous. It would seem to be the absence of theft that gives property its importance to the righteous.
Many commentators explain the gemara by emphasizing that the absence of theft reinforces the importance of one's property as a resource in life. Indeed the value given to property arises from the recognition of its significance in achieving life's goals. The fact that one's property is only gained through honest toil and not through any dishonesty attaches greater value to one's assets. According to these commentators, the gemara is informing us that resources in life are important and since for the righteous they are achieved only through effort, righteous individuals value their property even more.
3 Yet, the gemara seems to indicate a more direct connection between the absence of theft and the value the righteous give their property. It is not the potential use of the property that seems to be significant; in fact, the small jars that Yaakov left behind probably would have limited usage. It would seem that it is the inherent fact that the jars were not the product of theft, assets of an individual who would have no part in theft, that gave them their unique value to the righteous Yaakov.4
The absence of theft in the life of the righteous is something that we would expect. T.B. Sanhedrin 99b, however, implies otherwise. This gemara discloses that the statement that Reuven collected dudaim (mandrake flowers) during the wheat harvest
5 informs us that the righteous refrain from theft. Do we actually need a verse to inform us that the righteous refrain from theft? By definition, if someone is a thief we would not consider him/her righteous and if someone is righteous, he/she would not be a thief.
Avot 5:10 describes four different types of individuals based upon their attitude to possessions. The one who says what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine is described as being an am ha'aretz. Rashi explains that such an individual is boorish and lacking culture; indeed, throughout the Talmud, the term am ha'aretz has negative connotations. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine implies a lack of parameters and with it a potential lack of responsibility.
6 Rabbeinu Yonah, however, describes this individual in a positive way. He defines an am ha'aretz in this context literally as one who is part of the nation of the world, one who wishes to see the perfection of the world and through mutual sharing wishes to increase love amongst humanity. I would say that both Rashi and Rabbeinu Yonah are correct.
Theft may be a direct violation against the other. Theft can also occur with the perception that the other is not offended. As we develop communal bonds, as we begin to share, we also begin to lose sight of the boundaries between individuals. The righteous individual is at the forefront of the movement to increase mutual concern and care. He is thus extremely susceptible to such feelings of "no boundaries" and able to project upon the other a lack of concern if the other's property is used for a good cause or to brighten someone's life. Indeed this may be true but the property still belongs to the other and it is for the other to make the decision and thereby accept the responsibility. The truly righteous individual is concerned about this other form of theft - that arises from a projection that the use of the other's property is alright - and thus property is dear to him. It marks his/her realm of responsibility and decision making.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See also Rashbam and, most interestingly, Malbim who explain, in different ways, that Yaakov's plan was actually to remain alone after sending the camp across the river.

2 See also T.B. Sotah 12a. In this gemara, it is clear that what is meant by a concern for body is a concern for bodily comfort. In the same vein, the concern for body in the case of Yaakov must be seen as a concern for bodily exertion, although in the case of Yaakov, as the gemara in Chullin further explains, there was also danger involved in returning to the other side of the river alone.

3 See Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, Bereishit 32:25. See also Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez, Bereishit 32:25 who further explains the matter in terms of opportunity costs, specifically time for Torah learning. In that the righteous' assets only arise from their own efforts, they protect these assets as a loss will mean less time to learn Torah.

4 Rabbi Hirsch does seem to also recognize this fact in further outlining the value of property, when achieved honestly, as "God's Providence and Goodness... and God's Blessing and hence of invaluable worth" regardless of actual monetary value.

5 See Bereishit 30:14. Rashi explains that although wheat was then being harvested, Reuven still only took mandrakes which were available to all. See however Rashi, Sanhedrin 99b, d.h. bimei and the comments of Maharsha.

6 See also Rabbi Reuven Bulka, As a Tree by the Waters 5:13.

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