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Monday, 1 February 2016

How do you treat others' property?

Daf Yomi Gittin 48

Some time ago, I got back two books I had lent out to different people.  The contrast was astounding.  In the morning, Freya returned the book I had lent her a couple of weeks earlier in a sealed Ziploc bag!  It was in pristine condition.  It almost seemed as if it was in better condition than I had lent it out in!  Later that day, Jim returned the book I had lent him. 
‘I’m sorry, I spilled a little coffee on it,’ he explained sheepishly. ‘If you want, I could replace it for you.’
‘It’s okay,’ I fibbed.  What was really going through my mind was, ‘Seriously?!  Either you just give it back and apologize or you buy a new one to replace your damage.  Honestly, who’s going to respond affirmatively when asked whether you want them to buy them a new copy?!’

A couple of days later, Freya asked to borrow the book I had lent Jim.
‘No problem,’ I replied, handing it to her, ‘but I apologize for the coffee stains.’   

A week later, Freya returned my book, once again in the Ziploc bag.  I opened it up and miraculously, the coffee stains had disappeared!  I don’t know her secret but all I could do was marvel at the fact that she always somehow managed to mysteriously return items in better shape than she borrowed them! 

I was recounting Freya's story to her son, who remarked, ‘I always tell people: What’s the best way to get a stain out of a piece of clothing?  Give it to my mom!’

Mishnah: Compensation for damages is assessed from superior property, for the sake of good society.
The Gemara asks: For the sake of good society?  But it is mandated by the Torah!  As the verse states, “The best of his field and the best of his vineyard he shall pay.”
Abaye answers: We are addressing the position of Rabbi Yishmael, who taught: Biblically, we would assess the property of the damaged party.  And so the Mishnah comes to teach us that rabbinically, we assess according the value of the damager’s property.
Rashi explains: Biblically, if the damager’s inferior property was like the damaged party’s superior property, we would take the damager’s inferior property as compensation for damages.  However, for the sake of good society, the Rabbis instituted that we assess compensation from the damager’s superior property, so that people are more careful not to cause damage to others.

How do we treat other people’s property?  Some people are very careful when it comes to their own property, but a little careless when dealing with items that don’t belong to them.  Rabbi Yishmael’s message is that you should always treat others’ property as if it were your own.

I once knew a fellow who was given a company car to use.  It wasn’t his and so he really drove it into the ground.  He treated it very poorly.  In fact, after a heavy snowstorm, he even allowed his kids to clean up the car using an iron snow shovel, instead of gentling brushing off the snow.  You can imagine how dented and bruised the car looked after that beating!  Anyway, one day he finds out that he had misunderstood the terms of his employment contract and that the car did not belong to the company after all.  Once he had completed a year with them, the car was his to keep.  All of a sudden, he was devastated at the way he had treated his car!

Maybe you’re renting your property.  You say to yourself, ‘I can treat this place however I like.  Who cares?  I paid a damage deposit!’  But honestly, ask yourself if that’s the attitude you would maintain if you owned the apartment yourself.  With that thought in mind, are you being fair to your landlord when you bang your furniture into the wall and chip the paint? 

Ever borrowed a book from the library and found yourself needing to unfold the corners of pages because some thoughtless patron before you treated the book carelessly?  Unfortunately, it’s a habit many of us are guilty of.   Next time you’re tempted to fold down the corner, ask yourself if that’s the way you would treat your own books.  Next time you’re about to eat breakfast over a library book, ask yourself how you would feel opening up a library book to find it full of crumbs!

What goes around comes around. Treat other people’s property as you would your own.   May you always return items to their owners in at least as good condition as you received them!

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