Mine and Yours

May 9, 2009

7 min read


Psychological and chassidic insights into the four basic character types.

There are four character types among people:
a) One who says, "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours." This is an average character type, but some say this is characteristic of Sodom.
b) "Mine is yours, and yours is mine." This is an ignorant person.
c) "Mine is yours, and yours is yours." This is a pious person.
d) "Mine is mine, and yours is mine." This is a wicked person.
(Mishnah - Avot 5:13)

The average person, i.e., the most common character type, has an essentially isolationist attitude -- "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours." He does not wish to take anything that belongs to others, but neither is he willing to share with others.

On the other hand, it is a mistake to think that just because this type of person is not criminal in that he does not steal from others, this is a viable option. To the contrary, failure to be considerate of others may actually be self-destructive and can result in the collapse of society, just as Sodom was destroyed. If your neighbor's house catches fire and your attitude is, "That is no concern of mine. Let my neighbor worry about it," you are putting your own home in jeopardy, because the fire can spread to your property.

No person is an island, nor is any nation an island. Diseases that threaten the whole world often began in some obscure location. Economy is a global issue, and when the economy of other countries fail, our own suffers as well. The sooner we realize our interdependence, the sooner we will discard our isolationist attitude, not out of altruism, but simply for self-survival.

The Mishnah states the regrettable fact that most people fail to recognize the reality of interdependence, and think they can be secure within their own boundaries. This is an illusion. The aphorism attributed to Benjamin Franklin is valid: "We either hang together or we will hang separately."

Vacant Rooms

The second category in the Mishnah, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine," i.e., doing away with the concept of private property, is indicative of ignorance. This is essentially the theme of communism, which appeared to many people as a lofty ideal, but proved to be a dismal failure.

I don't gain anything by renting out the rooms, so let them stay vacant!

Anecdotally, a friend told me that he took a group for a visit to Russia before the demise of communism, and when he sought to reserve rooms in a hotel, he was told there was no vacancy. He contacted someone who bribed the hotel manager, and they were given the rooms. Once there, he discovered that the hotel was virtually empty! He asked the hotel manager why he was told there was no vacancy, and the latter said, "Why should I take in customers? It makes no difference to me whether the hotel is full or empty. I don't gain anything by renting out the rooms, and all I have is more work. Let the rooms stay vacant. I don't care!"

A person may be motivated to do something because he wishes to obey the Divine will, or for personal gain. The atheistic and economic communist concepts deprived people of all motivation. All they were left with is the fear of not complying with the government. When fear is the only motivation, a person will try and do the bare minimum necessary to ward off punishment.

While we can expect a person to be charitable and to share with others, human nature is such that the elimination of private property must backfire. The amusing book, Animal Farm, describes the deception inherent in communism, which gives rise not only to an elitist group, but also to one which is despotic and cruel. As Orwell put it so succinctly, the initial ideal of "All animals are equal" underwent a gradual change to "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." The Soviet experiment clearly demonstrated this…

The Two Extremes

The third category, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours," is that of a pious person. This does not mean that a person must give away everything he owns. Jewish law puts a limit on tzedakah, charity, of 20 percent of one's earnings. Exceeding this limit is discouraged because one may impoverish himself and become dependent on others for survival.

There were tzaddikim, righteous people, who excelled in this trait. It is told of the Chofetz Chaim and of other great Torah personalities that if something of theirs was stolen, they declared it ownerless, i.e., they divested themselves of the ownership of the stolen item so that the thief should not be guilty of keeping another's property. This is the characteristic of the truly pious.

The final category is: What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine." The wicked person's greed and his actions to take everything for himself needs no comment. We are unfortunately fully aware of criminal behavior, whether it be that of an individual or of a country…

Chassidic Interpretation

The chassidic master, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, gave this Mishnah a novel interpretation.

The average person on the street dichotomizes life. Part of life is religious; i.e., observance of the mitzvot, like Shabbos, tefillin, matzah, shofar, etc., and part of life is secular; i.e., working, doing business, sleeping, washing the car, mowing the lawn, etc.

"Mitzvot belong to God, and mundane things belong to me. What is Yours is Yours, and what is mine is mine."

This is not the appropriate Torah view of life, which is to "Know Him (God) in all your ways" (Proverbs 3:6). One eats and sleeps to be healthy so that he can do the mitzvot and study Torah. One engages in activity to earn a living to provide for his family, to give tzedakah, to pay the tuition for the children to learn Torah, etc. Since cleanliness is important (Talmud - Avoda Zara 20b), washing the car can be in the Divine service. Lest anyone say that Jews live slovenly, keeping one's lawn attractive can be a sanctification of God's Name. With the proper attitude, everything one does can be considered in the category of mitzvot. Hence, the pious person says, "Not only what is obviously Yours (the mitzvot) is Yours, but also that which is mine (mundane activities) is also Yours."

The wicked person is defined as self-centered.

The ignorant person does not realize that everything in life is controlled by God, except the choice between right and wrong, good and evil, which is left to man. How much one will earn is predetermined, but whether one will study Torah and perform mitzvot is up to man. Not realizing this, the ignorant person spends most of his time trying to make more money and leaves little time for spiritual pursuits. This is futile because he cannot make more than what was decreed for him. He thus confuses his priorities, essentially saying, "What is really Yours, i.e., how much I will earn, is mine, i.e., that is where I will put my effort. But what is really mine, i.e., my spiritual pursuits, that I will leave to You."

The wicked person is a hypocrite. He has no desire to do the will of God. Everything in his life is self-centered. If it is to his advantage to give people the impression that he is observant of mitzvot, he may do them for show, and exploit mitzvot for ulterior motives. "Not only what is mine is mine, but even what should be Yours (mitzvot) are also mine," i.e., performed only when it is to my advantage to do so…

Excerpted from Rabbi Twerski's book "Visions of the Fathers" (Shaar/Mesorah)

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