When you work in your fellow’s vineyard, you have a license to eat his grapes. When you visit your neighbor’s vineyard, you don’t have a license to eat. If you pluck a grape during a visit without permission, it is theft.
How much can you eat if you work in the vineyard? You have a license to eat until you are sated. but you can’t overeat, and you can’t take any grapes home to share with your family and friends.
This is a straightforward rule that makes sense. The Torah is compassionate. If you hire someone to work in your vineyard under the hot sun, don’t make him starve. If he is working with luscious grapes all day, don’t deny him the license to pop one or two into his mouth. At the same time, the law doesn’t allow him take advantage of you. He can’t eat beyond his fill, and he can’t take them home to throw a party.
Though there are many laws in the Torah that apply to a narrow group of people, each law has relevance to all Jews. Every passage in the Torah is the heritage of every Jew. How does this law apply to Jews who don’t own or work in vineyards?
We have explained many times that when a law doesn’t have pragmatic relevance, it has spiritual relevance. There are many laws in the Torah that apply narrowly to the Holy Land or to the times when the Temple stands on the Temple Mount. These laws are divinely given and are, therefore, eternally relevant. Jews who live outside of Israel or when the Temple is not standing, fulfill these laws in a spiritual sense.
The entire world is G-d’s vineyard. The first thing that strikes you about a vineyard is its order. The vines are planted in neat patterns that maximize the use of the space. The second thing that strikes you is the beauty of the vines and the fragrance of the grapes.
The world can seem chaotic at times. Unpredicted storms take out entire villages or waterfronts. Sudden plagues destroy entire human, animal, or botanical populations. The wheel of fortune seems fickle and dances to its own tune. Yet, if you peek under the surface, you discover that G-d is behind every seemingly random event. Nothing is perchance. Everything is well planned, and everything has a reason. We can’t always see the reason, but it is a vineyard. There is a pattern.
The world can seem mean and vindictive. There is crime, war, terrorism, violence, hatred, bigotry, discrimination, racism, and many other terrible forces that plague us. But if we think this way, we are narrowly focused on the negative. If we take in the entire picture, we see that the world is G-d’s beautiful vineyard. It is planted with fragrant beautiful vines that produce luscious, delicious fruit.
Working for G-d
If the world is G-d’s vineyard, then we need permission to be in it. We are not automatically entitled to enter another’s vineyard. Our license to enter the vineyard is on account of our work here. G-d placed us in His vineyard to tend to it and to harvest it. The fruits that we harvest are the good deeds that we do.
So long as we perform Mitzvot, and discharge our duties as G-d’s employees, we are entitled to partake of G-d’s largess. We have a license to enjoy the resources of the world. We can eat its food, cut down its trees to build houses, and utilize its vast resources to provide for our needs.
But there are several caveats. We can’t take more than we need, and we can’t take it home. Let’s unpack each of these separately.
More Than You Need
There is no need to make do with the bare minimum. The Torah tells us that the employee has a license to eat until he is sated and that is a highly subjective limit. One person is sated with more, another other with less. It depends on what each person is accustomed to.
A prince is accustomed to eating more than a peasant. A larger person requires more than a smaller person. As G-d’s children and divine princes, we are entitled to live in luxury. A pious person need not live in poverty. We are allowed to have a nice house, comfortable cars, a vacation home, and enough money to provide for our family prosperously.
But if we buy something we really don’t need and we want it only because it is a status symbol, we have taken more than we need. If we buy a mansion that has more rooms than we can use, we are exceeding our needs. If we buy a Bentley only to show off to our friends, we are exceeding our needs. When we pay extra for something that has no practical benefit except for the social value conferred by the label, we are stoking our ego, not serving our needs. If we have a need for something, we have a license to buy it. If it is beyond our needs, we lose our license.
Don’t Take It Home
The other piece to remember is that we can’t take it home. We live on earth temporarily. Before we were born, our souls were in heaven. After our passing, we will return to heaven. Heaven is our true home. Earth is just a stopover.
When we go home, we won’t be able to take our wealth with us. We can collect whatever we need to eat while we are in the vineyard until we are sated. But we can’t put it in our basket to take home. Don’t spend your life collecting a vast fortune that you can’t possibly spend during your lifetime. You can’t take it with you.
Remember, you are in the vineyard as an employee. You are here to work, not to collect the owner’s grapes. Take what you need, and the owner will be happy to let you have it. But don’t hoard. Don’t take more than you can use in a single lifetime.
Remember the Score
When we partake of the world’s largess, we must remember to whom it belongs. It does not belong to us. It belongs to G-d. He allows us to have it during our employment. So long as we work for G-d, we can use His bounty. If we stop working, G-d forbid, we lose our license to His bounty.
This also means that every time we enjoy His grapes, we must remember to acknowledge and thank Him. This is why a Jew recites a blessing before and after eating. We acknowledge that the fruits belong to G-d and that we eat at His pleasure. We ask Him for permission to partake of His largess, and we thank Him for it when we are done.