Living or Dying for Judaism?
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
Chapter 2, Mishna 17(a)
"Rabbi Yossi said: Let your fellow's property be as dear to you as your own, prepare yourself to study Torah because it is not an inheritance to you, and all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven."
We are continuing to study the teachings of the five primary students of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai (Mishna 10). This mishna presents the words of R. Yossi, R. Yochanan's third student.
R. Yossi first advises that we respect our fellow's property as our own. The Talmud (Sotah 47a) teaches us that a person feels a special attachment to his property -- specifically, that which he purchases through his own means. (The Talmud there writes that three things find special "favor" (Hebrew: "chain") in a person's eyes: a wife to her husband, a hometown to its inhabitants, and a purchased item to the purchaser. See also Talmud Bava Metziah 38a: "A man wants one measure of his own [produce] rather than nine measures of his fellow's.") With our own possessions we show extra care -- almost irrationally so -- that they not receive the slightest scratch or dent. Although we might not be reckless with others' belongings, we would not ordinarily exhibit that same tender loving care we show towards our own. Thus, R. Yossi advises that we care for others' property as our own. We must realize that just as our own possessions are precious in our eyes, so too are our fellow's in his.
It is worth noting what we learned just recently: "May the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own" (Mishna 15). Although we have already been cautioned to honor other *people*, honoring their *property* is a different matter altogether -- and warrants its own mention. Money simply does not bring out the best in people. We might be quite affable to others on a personal level, but viewing the visible symbols of their financial success -- that new Corvette, backyard swimming pool, luxury cruise, or his latest raise (say one's spouse received a larger raise than he or she did -- and I won't say which spouse that is harder on...) ;-) -- is an entirely different matter. (Of course, the other's flaunting the symbols of his success does not make R. Yossi's words any easier for the rest of us.)
Money-related stresses are simply not good for relationships -- even ones which have endured many other tribulations. (Ask any practicing rabbi who has dealt with children coming to divide the inheritance of wealthy deceased parents.) We must constantly remind ourselves that G-d gives each of us just what we need to fulfill our mission in life. If our fellow has earned more and has met with greater success, it is between him and G-d alone. G-d has determined just what he needs for his mission in life. We must simply trust that G-d has done the same for us.
The Talmud (Brachos 61b) discusses the Scriptural verse "You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your wealth" (Deuteronomy 6:5 -- from the Shema we recite daily). The Mishna there (Brachos 9:5) explains loving G-d with all your soul to mean even if your soul (i.e., life) will be taken from you on account of your beliefs. The Talmud asks, "If the verse says 'with all your soul' why does it need to say 'with all your wealth,' and if it says 'with all your wealth' why does it need say 'with all your soul?'" The Talmud answers, "For the person whose life is more valuable to him than his wealth, the Torah states 'with all your soul.' And for the one whose money is more valuable to him than his life, the Torah states 'with all your wealth.'"
For years I had difficulty with this passage of the Talmud. Could a person really value his money over his life? Literally? Yes, perhaps we invest far too much of our time, energy, and focus into amassing our first million (and I somehow doubt it stops there), but when it comes down to it would someone actually value his wealth more than his life? What purpose is there to his wealth if he's no longer around to enjoy it? Just to save it up for his heirs? And yet the Torah accepts that such people exist. And they must not simply be mentally imbalanced: G-d took pains to address them in the Shema.
Thus, I did not fully appreciate this statement of the Talmud -- nor the wisdom of the Torah -- until I had spent some years working in corporate America. It is true: only a madman when confronted with the choice -- "Your money or your life" would choose anything other than his life (Jack Benny remarks aside) ;-) When it is too obvious that our money will cost us our lives, we come to our senses. And in fact Jews throughout the ages -- as well as people from all corners of the globe -- have mustered the courage to martyr themselves for noble causes. We are able to admit that our beliefs and values are truly our most precious possession. If our lives are on the line and the significance of it all is clearly before us, we will admit that life has a far higher purpose than survival and the accumulation of wealth. For -- as Rabbi Noach Weinberg (www.aish.com/rn/) famously states it, if there were nothing worth dying for, there would be nothing worth living for.
So, yes, many of us would be willing to *end* our lives for what we believe in. But what about *living* our lives? And this is the true point of the Talmud. If by far the bulk of our life's efforts are spent on our careers, if our main focus is on our research, clients, or bottom line -- to the detriment of family, health, and religious life -- haven't we chosen our "wealth" over our G-d? Sacrificing our lives for a cause is hard to do, but is actually accessible to the average Jew when it is apparent to him just what is at stake. But how do we *live* our lives -- when the true issues of life are far from our consciousness? Do we live for our own wealth and personal goals? And are we willing to sacrifice those? Will we alter our goals -- and our lifestyles -- because of truth? Or would we really rather not think of such things until that gun is held to our heads? If our life's devotion is our own personal goals, then are we not truly living for our wealth? Hasn't that in a way become more important to us than our lives?
During my years in corporate America I came across many Jews even of minimal religious background who had a sincere interest in their heritage. But people in those circles are often married to their careers. That had become their entire lives. And so religion would become relegated to an occasional Saturday at best -- if they're not working away the weekends, that is.
Of course, we are obligated to support ourselves, and if we enjoy what we do, all the better. Further, many fields can involve some form of benefit to mankind -- and that too makes them worthy endeavors. Yet we must take care that our work goals are not only secular -- earning more, publishing more research papers, scaling the totem pole. Money, fame, prestige: All of these can become the "money" the Sages note may truly become more important to us than our lives. There have been many who have lost their jobs -- and then began realizing there is more to life than money and career. G-d has his ways. But we would be fortunate to grasp this message before G-d is forced to remind us.
(On a personal note, a number of years ago when coworkers heard I was leaving an established career in America to move to Israel, a question I was hit with was, "Oh, do you have a good offer waiting for you in Israel?" It was somewhat of a foreign concept to them that I was sacrificing a good position and moving for reasons other than -- and in hindsight quite detrimental to -- my financial situation.)
Heroism is in a way easy. When all is clear and our lives are on the line, we are capable of great acts of sacrifice and devotion. But *living* for our beliefs is far more difficult. Day to day there is little opportunity for heroics -- and that in fact is not how G-d wants us to live on a continual basis. Life is not heroics. It is small but ongoing acts of devotion and sacrifice. We must properly prioritize our lives and careers without requiring great challenges and confrontations to shake us from our daily distractions. For G-d does not truly want us to die for our beliefs, but He does want us to live for them.
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.