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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Parshat Ki Tetzei: Share the Wealth (it's not ours to begin with)

This week's parashah/portion, Ki Tetzei (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19), contains the greatest number of mitzvot/commandments of any Torah portion. The 72 mitzvot found in the parashah focus on such diverse issues as the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals, suspected adulterers and the poor. This amalgam of mitzvot may seem random at times, and yet there is a guiding principle which reminds us not to be indifferent to other people and the world around us.
One of the mitzvot found in the parashah is that we must return lost property, no matter what it may be or how long ago we may have discovered it. There is a Hassidic tale which relates to this mitzvah. In the story there was a man who came to the great Rabbi Aaron of Chernobyl to tell him of a terrible recurring nightmare that he was having. In the nightmare the man found a wallet containing a fortune. When he could not find the owner in the crowd he kept the money; with it became even wealthier than he could have imagined. In his nightmare, the man to whom the money had originally belonged became destitute and had to beg in the streets. He died leaving his wife and children in poverty so that his children could not even afford an education.

The rabbi instructed the man to find the one who had originally owned the money and give him half of the wealth he had accumulated. Once he did so, the man's nightmares ceased.

There exists another parable which teaches about this
mitzvah in a more indirect manner. In this Talmudic story (Ta'anit 25a) men carrying two measures of barley visited Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. They deposited the barley with him and seemed to forget about it. Seven years later, the men returned to find that Rabbi Pinchas had sowed the barley and reaped great harvests. When he saw them, Rabbi Pinchas told them, without hesitation "take everything from your storehouses filled with grain."  For Rabbi Pinchas, since the original grain had belonged to them, so too did all that was subsequently produced from that grain

In the first story,  the man was unable to abide the fact that he had profited from the loss of another. He was then instructed not to return his entire fortune, but instead to share the wealth with the man to whom the money had originally belonged. In the second story, Rabbi Pinchas knew immediately what he was to do.  Pinchas didn't simply share the wealth, but he handed all of the remaining grain (ie, the profits) back to the original owners.

Both stories operate based an underlying assumption that there is someone who is the "rightful" owner and someone else who is simply a "proxy" or "temporary" owner who must eventually relinquish not the original property, as well as all or part of what had accumulated. Both stories remind us that we must care for others as well as for ourselves.  We have no right to profit from the misfortune, negligence or forgetfulness of others.  Nor can we profit completely from that which is not completely ours.  They also remind us that following these teachings is part of creating a caring society, just as much as the laws that protect the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger that we also find in this week's
However, there is another assumption underlying these parables, as both seem to be based on the belief that the property is owned by anyone at all. Yet, in Psalm 24, we read "the world belongs to God in all its fullness, the earth and all who dwell on it..." In other words, everything on this earth belongs to God. Nothing is truly owned by any human being. An extension of this can also be found in the central teachings of mindfulness practice that nothing truly belongs to anyone and that nothing in life is permanent. Everything is temporary and ephemeral. We must rejoice in the moment, because that is all we have. We must rejoice in what we have now because we do not know if it will be "ours" the next moment, if indeed it ever was "ours."

We spend so much of our lives focusing on acquiring things, whether money, property, books, music, etc., etc. that we often forget to enjoy what and who is in front of us at any given moment. In both of the stories above, there was an assumption that something belonged to someone and therefore needed to be returned. Yet, there was also an assumption that nothing truly belonged to anyone, or else neither of the "finders" would have dared to profit at all or to keep or return - any of what they had amass.
In writing this, I couldn't help but think of the survivors of personal or communal tragedies.For their losses, truly puts into perspective the need to appreciate what we have in the moment, for it may not be here the next.

These two stories bring to light an essential paradox in life with which we must struggle that I believe is also highlighted by the loss experienced by the victims and survivors of great tragedies. Given the nature of society as it has developed we must realistically focus on "ownership" and yet if we look at the grand scheme of things we really don't own anything. Those who choose to become monastic or practice a life of true simplicity give up everything except what they need to keep themselves warm and fed. Most people are not willing to do that, nor is that what I am proposing. For we are also commanded to rejoice in God's world and everything in it.
However, we should never lose sight of the fact that everything is temporary, from a human perspective,  while everything is eternal from a Divine perspective.  How to enjoy what we have and who is in our lives in this very moment while knowing deep down that the next moment everything may change is one of the significant and unavoidable challenges of life. 
Acknowledging the truth that everything is temporary can cause us to despair, if we let it, Yet, we are commanded to rejoice in all we have and everyone who is part of our lives at this very moment. Therefore, we must participate in life and in bettering God's world with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might so that we can experience that joy. 
May we experience this Shabbat and every day as the series of moments in time, which they are.  May we be mindful of and experience all the joy that each moment has to offer.  May we remember to be grateful for everything and everyone with whom we share each particular moment.  And may we do so acknowledging that nothing and no one can ever truly belong to us, nor can anything or anyone be permanent and eternal. 
Still, knowing this, and knowing that each moment will end, and a new one begin, we must praise, give thanks and rejoice for what we have.  In that way we can honor God, humanity and the universe, And we can also the memory of everyone we have lost and all that we once thought belonged to us, even though we realize now that it never did.

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