Ownership: Rights, Responsibilities, and Limits

September 1st: Ki Tetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Some sections of the Torah seem to be a random assortment of commandments, a kind of holy hodgepodge. Each mitzvah can certainly be understood on its own terms, but, sometimes, finding an overarching theme can help us to understand the mindset of our ancient ancestors and their moral code. In the case of Ki Tetze, one of the themes one can identify is that of property. Who owns what? What are the owner’s obligations and prerogatives? What is the relationship between the property of an individual and other people in the community.

Here are some of the mitzvot involved in this general theme:

21.10: In the course of war, women can be captured, but they cannot be abused. If a man desires a captive woman, he must marry her and give her the full rights of a wife.

21.15: If a man has two wives, he must treat both fairly, and he must give the eldest son his birthright—even if that son’s mother is less loved than her co-wife.

21.18: If parents have a “wayward and defiant son” who will not mend his evil ways, the parents shall bring him to the community to be stoned to death.

21.22: If someone is to be executed by impaling, his body must be buried the same day.

22.1: If you find lost property, you must return it to the owner or take care of it until the owner is found.

22.4: If you see someone else’s ox or donkey fallen on the road, you must help it up.

22.5: Woman may not wear men’s clothing, nor may men wear women’s clothing.

22.6: When you find a nest of eggs or hatchlings with the mother bird, do not take the mother along with the eggs or hatchlings. Send her away.

22.8: When you build a new house with a flat roof, put a parapet around the roof so no one will fall off.

22.9: Do not plant two species of plants together in a field.

22.10: Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together.

22.11: Do not wear cloth combining wool and linen.

Clearly, many of the mitzvot are far from our way of thinking. The mindset in which some of them are even thinkable—much less holy—is far from our sense of ethical behavior. They represent the difficult passages which tradition has had to interpret—and which I have discussed these past three weeks. Others, however, possess a rudimentary fairness and decency which makes us proud. Indeed, even in the midst of situations which we see as heinous (forcing captive women into marriage, stoning undisciplined children), there is an attempt, in an ancient and harsh society, to insert some decency and fairness.

In the case of the captive woman, forcing a woman into marriage is horrible, but one can see an attempt by the Bible to improve upon the custom of battlefield rape. A similar tendency can be seen in the passage about having one’s son stoned to death. Here it is in its entirety:
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21.18-21) Whereas, in other societies, parents owned children and could do with them what they wanted, the Bible establishes a set of very specific and frankly unlikely circumstances before such a stoning can take place—and it puts the ultimate judgment on the community and not on the parents. Killing in a fit of fury is not the way it works. Parents may own their children, but their autonomy is not without limits.

Indeed, this is the message in all of these passages and in the portion, in general. People own things—property, material possessions, livestock, and even people. (Remember the ancient notion that fathers owned their wives and their children. Why else would fathers give their daughters away at weddings?) But, God establishes limits on what we can do with what we own. There are standards of decency, respect for the property of others, respect for the comfort of animals, and respect for the natural order. As we learn over and over again in the Torah, the gifts we are granted by God are dependent upon how we treat them.

Let me close with two pieces which illustrate this sensibility. One is a Midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabba, and the other is from Kahlil Gibran, the modern Lebanese-American poet.

From Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13:
“When Adam and Eve were created, God took them on a tour of the Garden of Eden. The trees, flowers, animals, and birds were so beautiful that they sang out, ‘How glorious are Your works, O Lord! In Wisdom have You made them all.’ Then God said, ‘My children, all these creations are gifts from Me to you and your children forever. They are yours to enjoy and yours to protect.  If anyone ever ruins them, there will be no one else to come after and repair the damage. This world is yours. Please take care of it.’” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13)

“On Children,” from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, 1923:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,
not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”