Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Personal Morals, Safeguarding the Body and Soul, and Wealth Bava Metzia 33-36


God Leaves the Driving to You

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses an interesting intersection between the letter of the law and ethical obligations beyond legal requirements:

If one finds his lost item and his father’s lost item, tending to his own lost item takes precedence.

The Gemara provides a scriptural source that alludes to the need to ensure one doesn’t save others’ possessions to the extent that he himself becomes impoverished.

Only so that there shall be no needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). This verse can be understood as a command, indicating that it is incumbent upon each individual to ensure that he will not become needy. Therefore, your property takes precedence over the property of any other person.

Nevertheless, the Gemara warns:

Although that is the halakha, anyone who rigidly follows this principle with regard to his property at the expense of others’ property ultimately comes to experience that fate. 

Rashi explains:

If one is constantly following the technical rules, he would end up never doing chessed, as he will always prioritize his loss or gain. He should rank his need first only in a situation of a concrete, evident loss, not a vague loss, nor a vague possibility of loss.

Shulchan Aruch codifies it in accordance with Rashi’s definitions (CM, 264:1), that one should not resort to the legal standard of putting his own financial needs over saving others’ objects, unless there is a clear and evident resulting loss.

Shalah (Vavei HaAmudim 15) explains that this implies that one should risk possible financial loss to save another from imminent financial loss. He goes further to say that this also applies to life and death matters. One should incur moderate risk to save the life of another who is in immediate danger, such as saving a drowning person (Beis Yosef, CM:426)

Even though the Gemara (Yoma 83a) states:

In all cases of uncertainty concerning a life-threatening situation, the halacha is lenient. 

Apparently this rule of preserving your life, taking precedence does not apply when another person’s life is in immediate danger. In such a case, the danger of another’s certain death requires a person to put himself at moderate risk.

This principle has been applied to financial and health matters. Presumably, the same argument can be made regarding spiritual matters. One might be required to risk their own spiritual safety in order to save others from certain sins, such as moving one’s family to an area that has few religious Jews for the sake of kiruv, so long as the risk isn’t unreasonable.

The Torah was deliberately not legalistic about requirements for kindness, since by its very nature, it represents an impulse to voluntarily do something extra. Even though there are many halachos that seem to mandate kindness, there also are many areas left to human judgment, compassion and situational dynamics. Kindness cannot be held or contained in rules because it is about beyond the rules. To not steal from someone is a rule, but to be generous is a kindness. The laws in the Torah about kindness can be seen as road signs, in that they point you in a certain direction, but they still leave the driving to you.


Safeguard Your Body and Soul

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the responsibilities of a free watchman, who is exempt from financial obligations if he claims it was stolen while adequate safeguards were taken. He must make an oath to affirm this. If he is reluctant to swear (pious individuals avoid making oaths even when true), he has the option to pay for the object. In an interesting twist of fate, if the thief was found, the thief now pays the object plus his additional double fine to the watchman. By paying for the object, the watchman effectively bought the rights to any future recoveries.

The Sefas Emes (Mishpatim 4) explains these laws as metaphorically applying to spiritual obligations and consequences. The verses literally state (Shemos 22:6-8):

כִּֽי־יִתֵּן֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֜הוּ כֶּ֤סֶף אֽוֹ־כֵלִים֙ לִשְׁמֹ֔ר וְגֻנַּ֖ב מִבֵּ֣ית הָאִ֑ישׁ אִם־יִמָּצֵ֥א הַגַּנָּ֖ב יְשַׁלֵּ֥ם שְׁנָֽיִם׃

When any party gives silver money or goods to another for safekeeping, and they are stolen from that other party’s house: if caught, the thief shall pay double; 

אִם־לֹ֤א יִמָּצֵא֙ הַגַּנָּ֔ב וְנִקְרַ֥ב בַּֽעַל־הַבַּ֖יִת אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים אִם־לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֛ח יָד֖וֹ בִּמְלֶ֥אכֶת רֵעֵֽהוּ׃ 

If the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall depose before the court and deny laying hands on the other’s property. 

Sefas Emes explains, God too gives us utensils to safeguard. The Hebrew root for silver (K-S-F) is similar to that of the Hebrew word for desire. The utensils in the verse are a person’s own body, while the thief in the verse is the evil inclination, who seeks to steal us from God. The restoration made in court (Elohim – which means in Hebrew simultaneously God, and also a court of law) in the verse is representative of returning to God. Thus, one can read the verse as follows:

When God gives us desire, and our physical bodies, we must safeguard ourselves from our baser instincts. The thief, our desires and the evil inclination, may attempt to steal us from God. If the Tzaddik is careful not to “lay hands on the other person’s property”, that is, he moderates his lust and greed, then he will ultimately receive double reward.

Religion offers a humble and psychologically healthy perspective. We do not belong to ourselves; rather we are entrusted by God to manage ourselves for Him. God is the true owner and we merely have reasonable responsibilities. This allows for freedom from obsessing over matters we cannot control. We must put in the right amount of effort, but we are merely the custodians, while God is the investor.


Who Deserves Wealth?

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses a judgment that people seem to have when comparing the wealthy to the impoverished. In certain halachic/legal situations, there is an assumption that the borrower trusts the lender’s financial assessment but not the reverse; the lender does not trust the borrower. One reason given for this by the Gemara is that people assume God would not have rewarded this man with wealth unless he was trustworthy. Conversely the pauper’s financial status is a punishment for his dishonesty. As it states in Mishley (11:3):

תֻּמַּ֣ת יְשָׁרִ֣ים תַּנְחֵ֑ם וְסֶ֖לֶף בֹּגְדִ֣ים (ושדם) [יְשָׁדֵּֽם]׃

The integrity of the upright guides them; the deviousness of the treacherous leads them to ruin.

This simplistic formula of status in this world as an indicator of spiritual attainment is not the full story. Quite the opposite: The Gemara (Pesachim 50a) gives us one sage’s account of the World to Come, after a near-death experience:

Rav Yosef, son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who became ill and was about to expire. When he returned to good health, his father said to him: What did you see when you were about to die? He said to him: I saw an inverted world. Those above, i.e., those who are considered important in this world, were below, insignificant, while those below, i.e., those who are insignificant in this world, were above. He said to him: My son, you have seen a clear world. 

Aside from the Gemara’s eyewitness report, common experience has also taught us that while there are many generous and worthy philanthropists, there also are noble and honest poor persons, and for that matter, unworthy tycoons. So, what do we make of our Gemara?

A simple answer might be that our Gemara is discussing popular conceptions and beliefs, regardless if they are fair or true. But, there is more to this, because Gemara (Eiruvin 86a) tells us that it was the practice of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi and Rabbi Akiva to show deference and esteem for the wealthy.

Maharil (Likkutim 35) explains that since Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi himself was wealthy, and Rabbi Akiva became wealthy later in life, they both honored affluent people as a tactic to avoid receiving honor for their Torah knowledge. If they promoted the idea that wealthy persons deserved respect, the respect and adulation they personally received for their wisdom and piety would be less likely to make them arrogant. They could humbly fight against spiritual complacency by telling themselves that the respect was coming only due to their deep pockets, not any real virtue. 

While this is clever, I think there is a logical problem with the explanation. If there wasn’t something intrinsically proper about showing honor to the rich, how could Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi or Rabbi Akiva falsely encourage such flattery? Is it ok to misdirect all Jews to show deference for the wealthy, even for the justifiable cause of forestalling arrogance on their part? I believe this question comes from not understanding the Maharil properly. He was NOT explaining why the populace should show respect; that was a given, that wealthy persons are deserving of additional respect. He was explaining why Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and Rabbi Akiva felt compelled to honor a rich person, as they were wealthy too, and so relative to him, merely a peer. The Maharil is suggesting that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and Rabbi Akiva did it for themselves. They wanted to train their thinking that their honor was only for practical mastery of material matters, leaving them free to seek spiritual goals motivated only by piety and not a wish for fame and fortune.

Regardless, we are still left with a question why our Gemara and others seem to value giving the wealthy special consideration. Pesach Eynayim (Eiruvin ibid) suggests we see that all material benefits are considered a gift from God, as we even see how Yaakov went back to retrieve small forgotten flasks so as not to squander what God gave him. Therefore, a person endowed with wealth must be a worthy recipient and vessel for God’s blessing. While this proves the point, it does not answer it. How does such sentiment match up with the idea expressed in Pesachim above, that in the world those who seem deserving of honor often are not, and vice versa?

I believe the simple answer is that we erroneously overstated the position of our Gemara or the Gemara in Eiruvin, by saying that, as a class, wealthy people are more righteous. That is not necessarily so. However, since God clearly favored them in the realm of money, they probably are trustworthy. Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi or Rabbi Akiva showed honor for the wealthy because of the mitzvos that their wealth uniquely positions them to accomplish. This is not to say that they are presumed to be more righteous than the pauper across all character and moral traits.


On Loan from God

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the curious Halacha that there are times when one watchman can hand over the object to another watchman and be completely dismissed of any further obligation, even without the owner’s expressed consent.

The phrase used is Shomer Shemasar Leshomer. Midrash Shmuel on Avos (1:1) notes that the Hebrew word “massar” (M-S-R) “to give” has a different connotation than the Hebrew word “nassan” (N-TH-N), which also means to give, at least in English. In Hebrew (N-TH-N) connotes a complete transfer, while (M-S-R) is having something placed in your hands or domain. Thus, a gift is given (N-TH-N), but an object to be watched is (M-S-R) placed. You do not own the object, and may not assume it is yours to dispose of. You are responsible to safeguard it.

Midrash Shmuel says this is why Mishna Avos describes the Torah as being passed or placed from Moshe to Yehoshua, Yehoshua to the elders, and so on. The Torah is not something owned or automatically inherited. We must act as faithful custodians so that it can be properly preserved, and also placed in trustworthy hands for the next generation.

This teaching continues the philosophical and theological theme that has emerged from the prior two dafs (34 and 35), that we would do better to relate to many of our so-called possessions as temporary assignments from God to be safeguarded. Our wealth, our wisdom, and our very bodies are not fully ours, but a valued object entrusted to us by God. 

There is another kind of asset, whereby we also tend to overrate our sense of ownership. To be good parents, we should think of our children as precious treasures entrusted in our hands by God, not possessions or extension of ourselves. This attitude makes it more likely that decisions are based on the child’s needs and moral development instead of our own pride. Avos DeRabbi Nosson (14:6) records Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah attempt to comfort Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai on the loss of his child: He reminded his colleague that God, the true owner, took his child back when it was time. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai could take comfort in the fact that he carefully guarded this gem, and delivered him back to the owner, undamaged and spiritually whole.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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