What’s Mine is Mine

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בָּאָדָם. הָאוֹמֵר שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, זוֹ מִדָּה בֵינוֹנִית. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, זוֹ מִדַּת סְדוֹם. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, עַם הָאָרֶץ. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, חָסִיד. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, רָשָׁע:

There are four temperaments among men: the one who says “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — that’s an [average] temperament. And there are some who say that is the temperament of Sodom. [A second type is one who says] “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” — [that’s an] am ha’arets (uneducated person). [A third type is one who says] “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” — [that’s a] pious person. [A final type is one who says] “what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine” — [that’s a] wicked person.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:10

“What’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours.” In Pirkei Avot 5:10, we learn that this is the “average” temperament, which is compared to 3 others: uneducated, pious, and wicked. In a side note, the sages mention that some refer to this average live and let live attitude as that same one adopted by the residents of Sodom, a city destroyed for its immorality. So what gives? Is live and let live average or wicked? If it is wicked, what is so bad about it?

The Bartenura, a mid-sixteenth century commentary on the Mishnah, explains that the danger of such an attitude is that once someone becomes accustomed to this practice, they won’t act in ways that benefit others, even when it doesn’t cost them anything at all. What kind of society will that create? One without empathy or collaboration, and probably without much trust. What is missing from this so-called average approach is the notion that interactions are not always zero-sum games.

For example, let’s say you and I both brought the same tuna sandwich to work for lunch. When it comes time for lunch, I mention to you that I’m particularly hungry that day since I missed breakfast. You, on the other hand, had a massive omelette just an hour ago during a working breakfast and don’t even have much of an appetite. Even though we have the same tuna sandwich, mine is worth a lot more to me in that moment than yours. If you have some empathy you might even offer me half, since it costs you little and creates enormous benefit for me. This is a non-zero sum situation.

Humans are pretty good at calculating and keeping track of what is owed to them and who is good about reciprocity. In fact, with young children, the majority of their disagreements are about fairness, and their attitude is not one of live and let live very often — they are usually deeply engaged in discussing and negotiating what is fair, because they understand that their relationships with peers are at stake in these conversations. All of this is normal social-emotional learning, and it is also laying the foundations for similar interactions in adulthood.

What the Rabbis lay out here is a recipe and a warning. The recipe for pious behavior isn’t actually about giving away all your stuff – its about paying attention to the situations in which you are able to create benefit for others without impoverishing yourself in the process. It’s an attitude. In essence, the problem with an “average” attitude is that it will only ever lead to average outcomes at best, and that’s not why we are here. We are here to engage and build, and the only way to do that is to plug in to the world, pay attention, look for opportunities, and make a difference.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to speak with your children about the difference between moving through the world as an observer or moving through it as an active participant. What are some times you wish you’d stepped up and you didn’t? Ask them about times when they were able to help a friend and how it made them feel.

Shabbat Shalom,