Daily Israel Report

Judaism: Ethics of the Fathers: Live and Let Live

A chapter of Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, is read each Sabbath starting with Passover. This week's reading analyzes the idea to "live and let live".
Published: Saturday, May 17, 2014 10:44 PM


A visitor to Sodom seeking to purchase food would be told by the merchants, “keep your money (what's yours is yours) and I will keep my food (and what is mine is mine)”…

In a complex and difficult world, most people simply want to “tend to their own gardens” – to be left to take care of what is theirs while leaving others to take care of what is theirs.  And what could be wrong with that?  What is wrong with a laissez- faire attitude, one that establishes fair boundaries between me and my fellow?  One which says simply, “you stay on your side of the fence and I’ll stay on mine”?

The logic strikes us as sound.  What could be wrong with such an attitude?

In Pirke Avot, we learn that there are four types of people:  

Those who say, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.”  This is the common or average person. 

There are those who say, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine.”  Such people are ignorant. 

Then there are those who say, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is your own.”  Such people are saintly.   


The Talmud teaches that the “live and let live” attitude in which each man looks out only for his own interests is both unethical and immoral.
Finally, there are those who say, “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine.”  Such people are wicked.

Reviewing these four types of people, most readers would associate the last, the wicked posture, with the people of Sodom.  After all, was there ever a place more synonymous with evil and wickedness than Sodom and Gomorrah?  Yet, it is not the fourth type of person the rabbis associate with Sodom, but rather the first, the one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.”

The common man.

Rashi describes this common man as saying, “I don’t want others to derive any pleasure from me, nor do I want to derive any pleasure from them.”  His commonness is that he shares nothing with the evil man, who wants only to take and nothing with the pious man, whose goal is always to benefit others. 

The common man is neither fleishig nor milchig.  He is pareve.  He is white bread.  Plain.  Uninspired and uninspiring. Not one to praise, but not one to condemn either.

The question is, Is he really pareve?  Can we really say that, while he has no particular value, he is not bad? 

The truth is he is selfish, just like the Sodomites.  All they cared about was their own needs.  They refused to be concerned with the needs of anyone else.  Bear in mind, there would have been minimal sacrifice for the Sodomites to help others.  They were not lacking in anything.

The Talmud teaches that the “live and let live” attitude in which each man looks out only for his own interests is both unethical and immoral.   It undermines the fundamental social contract.  It directly contradicts what Rabbi Akiva identified as the greatest of all Torah principles, Love your neighbor as yourself. 

What is missing from the common man’s view of live and let live is “we” and “our.”  Some sense that we have a responsibility one for another.  Judaism abounds with stories of individuals who shared whatever meager things they had to share.  But these are the pious ones.  There are those, like the Sodomites, who can afford to be kind and generous and are not. 

The Sodomites did not want to share what was “theirs” with anyone else.  They would not lend a hand to the tired, the homeless, immigrants, and the “poor souls” who could not support themselves.  

Common?  Or cruel? 

Our sages believed the selfishness and cruelty is founded on the attitude that, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.” 

When Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditschev assumed his rabbinical post he asked to only be invited to communal meetings when a discussion of new policies or regulations were to be discussed.  Not long after, a meeting was called to deliberate a new policy that did not allow for beggars to collect door to door in the town but only to stand outside the shul, where each individual would be able to decide if he wanted to contribute.

Reb Levi grew upset after being invited to this meeting. “Why did you invite me to this meeting?” he asked of the elders.

“Because we are to discuss a new regulation, and the Rav’s input is needed,” they responded. 

Reb Levi Yitzchak scoffed at them and sharply responded, “This is not a new idea. The idea of limiting opportunities for the poor and not wanting to help others originated in Sodom.”

It is not pareve.  It is selfishness that leads us to build a fence around ourselves and our neighbors.