Lekh Lekha: Proper Property
Why do bad things happen to good people? The age-old question, and for a change we need not ask it. Parshat Lekh Lekha introduces us to divine justice (and divine mercy) at their best—for it is in Parshat Lekh Lekha where we have the very beginning of the story of Sodom and Gemorrah, one of the comparatively few places were we see bad things happening to bad people, even when Avraham pleads to save the bad for the sake of the good therein.
On the face of it, that story is an odd one: God tells Avraham a bit of His master plan…in and of itself, that is unusual. Much of the time, humanity wonders whether God in fact has a plan, and people tend to be thrilled when they get a glimmer of a sense of what it might be. Avraham is told directly…more, God says that He could not put the plan into practice without informing Avraham! And then Avraham has the audacity—though perhaps many of us would as well—to take issue with God’s master plan. He doesn’t only argue, he debates, he cajoles, he negotiates, and in the end, he desists, for he is certain that he has won the day. How could there be fewer than 10 righteous people in Sodom? And for the sake of the righteous, all the wicked will be lucky to be saved. Presumably, this interaction is the reason that God shows His hand; we read this troubling story ever year, and even the most zealous amongst us learn the kindness of Avraham. What a message: for the sake of the goodness in all we encounter, we discover the ability to turn a blind eye to the judgments we would otherwise cast.
We should not be surprised, however, that God does put His plan into action. After all, He knows His customers. Sodom does not have the 10 righteous individuals who might have saved the undeserving wicked. Only Lot and his family merit their own salvation (and Mrs. Lot can’t quite manage even that)! But what is Sodom that God cannot tolerate the city’s presence on earth any longer? In the many generations since then, for example, no destruction has been as complete. Indeed, Sodom and Gemorrah introduce the cliché for destruction, and sermons have preached “fire and brimstone” ever since!
The classical commentaries devote themselves to the nature and identity of Sodom, but perhaps we may glean surprising insight simply from the child-like sing-song of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot. We are told that humanity functions in one of four ways in approaching property:
“Sheli sheli ve-shelkha shelkha, zo midat beinonit. Ve-yesh omrim, zo midat s’dom. Sheli shelakh ve-shelakh sheli, am ha-aretz. Sheli shelakh ve-shelakh shelakh, hasid. Sheli sheli ve-shelakh sheli, rasha.”
What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours is the trait of the average (or the normal). Some say, this is the trait of Sodom. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine, ignoramus. What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours, pious. What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine, wicked one.
So much of the creative innovation and oppressive tyranny of the twentieth century, nay, of all economic history, in what appears to be a jingle! Socialism, communism, fascism, capitalism.…Wickedness is obvious: one who considers the entirety of the world to be his own to the exclusion of everyone else is selfish in a way that is not to be countenanced. So too is piety: those who divest themselves even of that which is legitimately their own for the sake of others—they are not only righteous, exerting justice in the world, but pious. Going beyond their own boundaries, their own norms, for the sake of another’s well-being. Those who mix and match property, saying, what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine (quite possibly a hallmark of twentieth-century economic thought) are ignorant, or fool-hardy. Humanity does not function well with no sense of ownership…we may frown on materialism, but a sense of personal property would seem to be key to an individual’s well-being. Even the Gemara acknowledges that nice garments and a nice home engender a sense of tranquility and comfort. And indeed our norms are the Mishnah’s trait of the average: we pride ourselves on individual rights to property, and relish the idea that strong fences make good neighbors. We draw boundaries and we identify where we each stand. Good solid citizens…nothing wicked nor pious nor foolish…
Yet some call this trait the trait of Sodom. And Sodom (next week) is destroyed by divine fiat. What about personal ownership is the trait of Sodom? Consider this week’s parsha, where the 4 kings battle the 5 kings, including the fiefdoms around Sodom. Most often, we focus on the captivity of Lot, but let us note that the “all the property of Sodom and Gemorrah” was taken in plunder. The Netziv points out that warring peoples traditionally went after the treasure houses of their kings; in this battle, all property is fair game. And in that attack on personal property, we find the suffering of Sodom. Perhaps we may surmise that it is the beginning of their downfall…Perhaps personal property is necessary for the average person’s well-being, and Sodom was corrupted by their own losses to an unhealthy grasp on the material world. Certainly, a desire for immediate hedonism seems to underlie the welcome that the people of Sodom offer Lot’s illustrious visitors (in next week’s parsha). In the wrong culture, even the personal norms that are valuable and even necessary for the average person may not provide the healthy boundaries. Rather, we need exert our own efforts to relate to property in a healthy way. Piety is not a trait all can aim for; preventing an attitude of “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” from becoming a corrupt trait of Sodom reflects a seeking after balance in all we do. A worthy message in our modern times.