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Pirkei Avot: Midat Sedom

Any society is only as strong as its combined ability to respond to, and protect the needs of it weakest members.
Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, Israel.

Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, Israel.
Photo Credit: vbm-torah.org

By Rav Moshe Taragin

The fifth perek begins by noting that “ten declarations accompanied the creation of the world”; based on this introduction much of the remainder of the perek provides other enumerations and listings of this nature. Mishna 10 enumerates four attitudes governing human beings and the manner in which they interact with one another. As the mishna announces, “There are four postures which characterize Man… ” As always, clarity resides at the extremes; the extreme positions at either end – the pious (“what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours”) and the wicked (“what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours”) – require little elaboration. The intermediate positions, however, require more attention.

(1) “Sheli sheli ve-shelkha shelkha” (“What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours”)

This is perhaps the most intriguing of the four categories, especially in light of a perceived disagreement among the Tana’im. Unlike the soon-to-be-mentioned chassid (pious individual), who freely shares his resources with others, this individual protects the rights of others while preserving his own estate. What is so problematic about this disposition that it is described as midat Sedom – an attribute of the corrupt city of Sedom? Indeed, one opinion in the mishna describes him accurately as a ‘beinoni‘ – one who adopts a moderately admirable position which doesn’t aspire to great virtue, but also does not descend to degeneracy. In fact, as Rashi himself comments, the willingness to abstain from the resources of others and achieve financial independence is, itself, noteworthy and reminiscent of the career of Shemuel Ha-navi. As the gemara in Berakhot (10b) describes, Shemuel would always travel with a portable, tent-like abode, as well as a full range of domestic utensils, to avoid material dependence on others. That same gemara allows a different posture – the one adopted by Elisha, who DID embrace the gracious generosity of others. However, one senses a subtle and implicit preference for the stance of Shemuel – a stance highlighted by the attitude of this portrait – “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” The first opinion in the mishnah does not view this attitude as unpardonable.

As mentioned, however, the mishna quotes an opinion which likens this behavior to the populace of Sedom. Even acknowledging certain concerns which this attitude may evoke, it seems astonishing that this fairly innocuous position should be equated with the complete moral corruption of Sedom. After all, this person vows to uphold the law and carries the banner of the protection of basic human rights. In what manner can this be compared to Sedom??

In his work Netivot Olam, the Maharal portrays the swift deterioration of the culture of Sedom. This polis witnessed a rapid economic boom creating an environment of universal affluence. Able to service their own respective needs and breaking free of dependence upon others, this culture abolished the notion of chesed.

Sacrifice for others presumes the presence of need; people without their own dependencies lose the ability to locate need in others and completely sever themselves from the world of chesed. Once disengaged from that world, the population of Sedom experienced an inevitable descent into the world of selfishness, ruthlessness, and both moral vice and religious breakdown. According to the Maharal, their inability to perform chesed catalyzed their fall into a pit of immorality and precipitated their eradication from history.

Confirmation of the Maharal’s position and of the second recorded opinion of the mishna stems from the legal institution known as lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Based on a pasuk in Vaetchanan – “You shall perform what is noble and moral in the eyes of Hashem” (Devarim 6:18) – halakha recognizes the ideal of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din – the moral calling to behave beyond the letter of the law. Both Rashi and the Ramban, in their respective commentaries to Devarim, acknowledge this value, and several gemarot describe situations in which Sages opted to pay even when they were innocent, or to waive monetary obligations (see Bava Metzia 30b and 83a). Though this behavior seems optional and is recorded as the voluntary choice of a pious elite, the gemara does recognize certain minimum ‘options’ which halakha is willing to enforce universally. This minimum level of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din is known as ‘kofin al midat sedom” (literally, “we block attempts to behave as in Sedom”). For example, the gemara in Bava Metzia (108a) awards first right of land purchase to an adjacent neighbor. The original owner cannot freely sell his land parcel on the open market, since it is more valuable to an adjacent neighbor who can potentially combine the contiguous lands and create one larger, more economically fertile tract. Insistence on selling to another would constitute midat Sedom and is actively prevented. A second example (see, among other gemarot, Bava Kama 20b) concerns a homeless person who has squatted in an empty apartment which was not available for rent. Compelling retroactive payment for residence would constitute Sedom-like behavior and is disallowed. “After all,” we challenge the owner, “zeh neheneh ve-zeh lo chaser” – “this one (the squatter) has profited, and the other (the homeowner) has not incurred a loss).” The gemara applies these restraints in a universal fashion, asserting an extra-legal minimum expected of everyone. It also spotlights Sedom as the antithesis of this attitude.

Instinctively, extralegal moral behavior may be justified for three different reasons – and the Maharal targets one of them. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, morality should be pursued on its own merits and as a self-sufficient goal. As the Ramban, in his commentary to that pasuk, already notes, this summons echoes the directive of ‘Kedoshim tihyu‘ (Vayikra 19:2), which itself expects extralegal behavior in the realm of bein adam la-Makom.

Legally, a hedonistic and self-indulgent lifestyle may be pursued in complete violation of the spirit of the law. Cautioning against this, the Torah demands that we act not just halakhic, but also holy, and avoid the danger of ‘naval bi-rshut ha-Torah‘ – acting in a dissolute fashion while maintaining strict halakhic fidelity. The Ramban – who amplified this concept of kedoshim tihyu - does not advocate a lifestyle of kedusha simply to avoid greater religious failure. He endorses this approach because it represents the highest religious ideal and a behavior which most accurately reflects Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu, as the pasuk itself concludes: “You shall be holy BECAUSE I, THE LORD YOUR GOD, AM HOLY.” Similarly, extralegal moral behavior is desirable on its own merits. This is especially correct in light of the fact that morality to a Jew is Divinely inspired. In addition to the typical sources for chesed (Ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha, tzelem Elokim), the gemara in Sota (14a) adds the ethic of Imitatio Dei – imitating our Creator. Just as He clothes the bare, so should we; just as He visits the ill, so should we; just as He buries the dead, so should we, and so on. Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu, by His very nature, acts ‘beyond the letter of the law,” and our ambitions of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din assure that our moral quest be Divinely inspired.

A second basis for lifnim mi-shurat ha-din may stem from a gemara in Bava Metzia (30b) which initially asserts that Jerusalem was destroyed during the Second Temple era because they zealously applied Torah law. The gemara ponders, “Should they have implemented pagan law [that they were punished for exercising Torah law]?” The gemara responds that, in fact, Jerusalem’s destruction was caused by STRICT application of Torah law without allowances of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Quite possibly, this legal obsession was not the reason that they punished as much as the origin of their social collapse. A society cannot function solely upon justice or solely upon strict application of the law. Without readiness to sacrifice personal interest or resource for the ‘other,’ and especially for a needy, impoverished ‘other,’ society is doomed to failure. Many readers will recall the political platform of the elder George Bush, who sought to downsize a ‘bloated’ government which he believed was exclusively bearing the weight of social welfare. Instead of looking to government to deliver benefits and aid, he encouraged ’1000 points of light’ in the form of religious institutions, communal organizations, family environments and the like, to rebuild a ‘decayed’ society. Jerusalem wasn’t punished for its behavior, but it simply collapsed under the weight of attempting to carry a society solely upon the shoulders of justice.

Any society is only as strong as its combined ability to respond to, and protect the needs of it weakest members. The thirtieth chapter of Avot De-Rabbi Natan begins with Rabbi Yonatan’s declaration that various forms of chesed provide benefit and prosperity to society, again affirming the need for chesed within any society. In fact, the very pasuk in Vaetchanan which serves as the source of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din implies this result, when it concludes, “so that you will prosper and inherit the good land which Hashem promised your fathers.” By appending to this command the promise of reward, the Torah is, in effect, underscoring the pivotal nature of extralegal ethics in building a just and sustainable society. Typically, the Torah does not record rewards for mitzva observance or avoidance of aveirot. In this instance, though, as the promise is not a reward as much as a natural consequence, social stability is highlighted. As King David himself avows, “Olam chesed yibaneh” – the world is built through chesed (Tehilim 99:3).

The Maharal’s profile of Sedom hints at yet a third motive for lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Independent of a higher theological calling, and quite apart from its role in assuring social stability, an extralegal ethic prevents slippage into an unrecoverable state of complete moral decomposition. Sedom descended into the infamous state of ‘ra’im ve-chata’im le-Hashem me’od‘ (‘extremely evil and sinful to Hashem)’ because it institutionalized a strictly legal attitude. It is precisely for this reason that the second opinion in the mishna identified ‘sheli sheli, shelakh shelakh‘ as the defining trait of Sedom – because it was this attitude that was responsible for the city’s moral deterioration.

(2) Sheli shelakh ve-shelakh sheli

A person who offers a complete reversal of resources, and perhaps a total relaxation of property rights, is deemed an ignoramus, an ‘am ha-aretz.’ Of all monikers, why is this freethinker considered an ignoramus? Rabbenu Yona already notices this incongruity and suggests that this person has erred in his readiness to accept the donations of others. Rabbenu Yona claims that the term am ha-aretz, though typically reserved for the ignorant, may also describe those who, in sincere pursuit of social prosperity, are not able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate policies. Though this person’s attitude may seem progressive, it ignores Chazal‘s aversion towards accepting the gifts of others and is therefore morally deficient. In a broader sense, by ‘redistributing’ resources, he is mandating broader financial dependence, which may constitute an even greater moral offense.

Rashi takes a slightly different strategy in explaining the policies of the am ha-aretz. He claims that such behavior is lacking ‘tarbut‘ (which may be explained as civil application of basic concepts). Though the attitude may seem altruistic – encouraging the relinquishing of property and the free sharing of resources – it may also degenerate into anarchic chaos, with the disappearance of the concept of property or privacy. Chazal evidently supported the notion of property, while warning against allowing either privacy or property to seal our hearts from the needs of the destitute or the daily needs of the average citizen. Property is the primary bulwark of freedom and forms the basic grounds of human experience. Noting not just the moral suitability of this policy, but also the personal viability, the mishna labels the approach of sheli shelakh ve-shelakh sheli as the attitude of the ignorant.
This originally appeared at the Virtual Bet Midrash, which is maintained by the Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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