Blog - Torah Insights

On Ownership and Despair

You are walking down Fifth Avenue and you see a wallet fall out of someone's pocket. You hear that person despairing of ever finding the wallet, saying something like “what a shame I lost this wallet I will never find it again”. According to Jewish law, as surprising as this may seem, although it would be nice for you to return the wallet, the wallet is legally yours to keep.

The traditional explanation - that according to Jewish law ownership is strongly associated with knowledge of the mind, therefore if one despairs it is as if she disowned the wallet - has always been hard for people to accept.

This week I was enlightened by a participant in our Talmud class, who is a descendant of Maimonides, to a powerful message that lies within this law:

The Torah is telling you that if you want to achieve anything in this world, from basic survival to achieving greatness, you must believe it to be possible. If you don't see how you will survive, or thrive, or earn that degree, or right that book, or be that person you want to be, and you despair then spiritually you lose the energy necessary to succeed. That energy, even if destined for you, is no longer yours.

This law, which traditionally is the first that children study in the Talmud, may be the secret to Jewish survival. If we achieved all that we have, as a people and as individuals, despite the odds stacked against us, it's because we refused to despair. We would not give up ownership on the internal spiritual strength that we know is within our soul.  

The Burning Bush

At the end of his life, In the book of Deuteronomy, Moshe refers to G-d as a consuming fire, by contrast, at his first revelation Moshe was astonished to discover that the bush is burning with fire, “but the bush is not consumed”. This begs the question: is G-d a consuming fire or a fire that does not consume?

As the Bible tells it G-d is a consuming fire. Any revelation of G-d causes the soul to try to escape physical and become one with the fire that “consumes” the confining material reality. This is what the Jewish people experienced at the revelation at Sinai when the people cried to Moshe that man cannot see G-d and survive. This is what happened to the children of Aron, who died because of the ecstasy of their spiritual connection to G-d. And this is exactly what G-d does not want.

G-d's first message to Moshe was that the “bush is not consumed” - the fire should not lead you to escape the physical. The consuming fire of G-d must burn in your heart, yet, paradoxically, you cannot be consumed. You may be the greatest prophet of all times, you may be the lawgiver, you may speak to G-d “like a man speaks to his friend”, but you may not be consumed by the fire. You must not abandon the reality in which you live, you must not forget about the people around you, you must be like the flame surging upward yet grounded by it's wick.

Only at the end of his life, when his soul is about to depart from this world and unite the infinite light of G-d, does Moshe articulate the truth as he is about to experience it. Only when he knows that his mission on this earth is complete, only when he is preparing to return his soul to it's father in heaven does Moshe speak of G-d's true essence, saying that G-d is indeed a consuming fire.

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