18. Introduction to Developing a Torah Personality

18.1. Torah Personality Part 1 A


Le-shomrah—To Honor, Protect and Preserve


As I said, the mandate to guard relates in part to the natural world; the concern for ecology has some basis in this. To some extent, this mandate extends to the society one is in. But to a great extent, it applies in relation to oneself. One must guard the human personality itself and everything appended to it, one’s dalet amot (four cubits) which he assumes to be his own private domain.

Now, this is of great importance and needs to be stressed, because we are dealing here with a fundamentally religious perception that runs counter to the notions prevalent within the widely secular society in which we find ourselves. The essence of modern secular culture is the notion of human sovereignty; individual man is master over himself, and collective man is master over his collective. This creates problems as to where the line is to be drawn between individual and collective man, and that issue is the crux of much of modern socio-political theory—when the state can and cannot interfere. But the common denominator of all these discussions is that they think fundamentally in terms of human sovereignty, the question being whether you speak of humanity or of a particular person.

From a religious point of view, of course, eilu va-eilu divrei avoda zara—both approaches are idolatrous. Here one establishes individual man as an idol, and there one idolizes, in humanistic terms, humanity as a whole. The basis of any religious perception of human existence is the sense that man is not a master: neither a master over the world around him, nor a master over himself.


Of course, this is not to say that the notion of private property does not exist. It certainly exists within religious thought generally, and within Judaism specifically; the notion of private property is a very central concept in Halakha, and large sections of the Talmud are devoted to it. Rather, what this means is that the notion of property is never absolute. It is always relative; ultimately, “La-Hashem ha-aretz u-melo’ah, The Earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds” (Tehillim 24:1). But within the world in which we exist, we can say that relative to Shimon, Reuven has been granted ownership, or that relative to the individual, the community has been granted authority.

In this manner, one can understand the gemara in Berakhot (35a-b) which points out a seeming contradiction between two verses in Tehillim: on the one hand, “The Heavens belong to the Lord, but the Earth He gave over to man” (115:16), and on the other hand, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds” (24:1). The gemara answers: “This is not really a difficulty. One verse is speaking of the reality before a person has recited a berakha (blessing), and the other verse is speaking of the reality after a person has said a berakha.”

A person who partakes of the world without reciting a berakha has, so to speak, stolen from God; he has committed an offense of me’ila (misusing that which has been consecrated to God). However, when he pronounces a berakha, this does not mean that the item is now absolutely his. It is not like purchasing a loaf of bread from a storeowner, who then disappears from the picture. Heaven forbid! “Mine is the silver and mine is the gold, says the Lord of Hosts” (Chaggai 2:8). Rather, the gemara teaches that, at an operational level, there are two different levels of one’s mastery over the object, in terms of the permissibility for one to use it. Initially, you cannot partake in any way. But once you say the berakha, you have in effect recognized God’s ownership. You recognize His hegemony, you accept the fact that you live subject to Him, you have acknowledged His sovereignty, and now you partake of the world with His permission. Through our reciting a berakha, God grants us permission the way a medieval king might have delegated a fief to a particular person.

Regarding some forms of kodashim (sacred items), the gemara says, “Mi-shulchan gavo’ah ka zakhu, They have acquired it from Heaven’s table” (see Beitza 21a, Bava Metzia 92a). What the gemara says in a narrow halakhic sense is true in a broader sense of our ability to partake of the world. We are guests at God’s table. This means that whatever we have in the world, we have as shomerim (guards)—it has been given to us to guard and we are never truly masters.

Now, of course, there are different kinds of shomerim. There are those who have only responsibilities and no rights, such as a shomer chinam (unpaid guard) and a shomer sakhar (paid guard). On the other hand, a sho’el (borrower) and a sokher (renter) have both chiyyuvim and kinyanim (liabilities and rights). In the sense that we too have both chiyyuvim and kinyanim, we are analogous to a sho’el or sokher. (However, the analogy is not exact, since, unlike a sho’el, we do not have rights against the Owner; we merely have rights to use the property, given the Owner’s continuing consent.) And if this is true regarding property, it is equally true of our own selves.