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Parashat Nasso

During the past 150 years, " Mine is yours and yours is mine" has been a trumpet call for the revolution or evolution of a utopian society. This has been a siren call that has affected both the industrialized countries of the West as well as the developing countries; one that has promised an end to poverty, exploitation, war and strife through the abolition of private property. It was a call that was heeded also by the mass of Eastern European Jewry, who saw therein a solution to the poverty, anti- Semitism and suffering, not provided by their religious leadership. Rationally, the negation of private property, partially or totally, made a lot of sense since the unequal distribution of wealth and the unlimited desire of human beings for economic goods causes poverty and suffering and leads through uncertainty, envy and greed to tension in inter-personal relations, class war both nationally and internationally, and to the destruction of natural resources. The idea was that if there was communal ownership of property and therefore a rational and planned use of resources this would eradicate the economic uncertainty and greed that led to injustice, oppression and social strife.

A chasid once came to his Rebbe who took him to task for his lack of charity. When he had been of modest means he had been very generous to others, but now that it he had become a rich man this had stopped. The rabbi took him to the window and asked what he saw to which the man replied that he saw people and the outside street. The rabbi then held up a mirror and asked him what he saw now. Naturally the man saw his own reflection. "Before you have money you saw the needs of others," said the rabbi, "now that you have money your vision is backed by silver so you see only yourself, just like the glass when backed by silver was transformed from a window into a mirror”.

However, the experience of the last 50 or so years has taught does us that merely by changing the economic system one does not change the basic motives, desires and lusts of mankind; these remain despite the social, technological and economical changes. So the change in an economic system, beneficial as it may be in the material sense does of itself not eradicate the evil, suffering and immorality that ownership of wealth and the pursuit thereof can bring. All those societies which adopted planned economies and denied the concept of private property, did indeed limit and even eradicated much of the suffering of the poor, sick, old, weak and inefficient members of society. Yet since the denial of private ownership and wealth runs counter to human nature these societies created new and different moral and ethical abuses, as serious as the ones they solved. Private property rights not only make for economic efficiency but also have been shown to be necessary for a viable economic morality. Morality presupposes rights but also obligations. So private property rights mean that the individual is responsible not only for earning his own livelihood but also for making sure that he does not harm others in the making of it and also for preventing it from damaging others or their property rights. In this way the owner cannot escape responsibility for the social and communal effects of wealth creation or possession nor can he transfer this responsibility to some amorphous communal ownership For example, the modern corporation represents a form of economic organization that separates ownership from the day today management by separating between the identity of the shareholders and that of the corporation. Thereby, a separation of moral responsibility is achieved. The shareholders feel that they have no responsibility for supervising or controlling illegal or immoral acts of the directors; many countries have introduced legislation to heal this moral irresponsibility to varying degrees. So too, in the commune the average member, being in practice a non-owner, frees himself from bearing responsibility for immoral and unethical act of the commune. Private property also creates a direct link between and spending, the lack of which has been shown to create serious moral problems. It makes the satisfaction of wants and needs a function of the acts or decisions of others rather their own. Sometimes, this satisfaction is left to the pleasure of government officials or to the decisions of own peers. Such factors often lead to a misallocation of economic resources and waste. More importantly, the political freedom for the individual is limited, while there is scope for bribery and thereby injustice.

The attempts to solve economic immorality by destroying the yetzer or impulse for economic private property and wealth is similar to attempts to rid the world of evil by denying the needs and urges of mankind for sex, food, clothing or power. While having the potential for evil all of these are necessary for the progress, development and even the existence and continuation of the human species. Since the denial or complete negation of all of these is against human nature, it has always resulted in perversion and corruption. Furthermore, such denial is also against the G- d who implanted them in Man. Judaism has always aimed at educating and sanctifying all of Man’s yetzerim, so that the useful and good that they can lead to are translated into daily living while the possibility for evil and immorality contained in them are eradicated. G-d created us with the ability to choose between good and evil, and then gave us through Torah the knowledge and the ability to educate, purify and sanctify all our desires. Therefore the rabbi of the Mishna classified “Mine is yours and yours is mine” as the mark of an ignorant person; not evil but ignorant and so incapable of achieving holiness and sanctity.

Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari and

Rabbi Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.



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