Remember George Carlin's shtick about "stuff"? That your house is really just a place to keep your stuff while you're out buying...more stuff?
Stuff. We all have stuff. Some of us have quite a lot of stuff. Carlin lampooned the mindless accumulation of stuff. And this week's parashah deals a lot with stuff (it also deals with a lot of stuff, but that's a different matter altogether.)
What struck me in re-reading Mishpatim this year is the careful language the Torah utilizes to describe a person's stuff.
Here's the case: Reuven is going on vacation and asks Shimon, as a favor, to keep any eye on his stuff. When Reuven returns, Shimon tell him, 'Bad news, bro. Your stuff was stolen.' Witnesses? None. Thief? Slipped away.
So the two obvious questions are (1) Did Shimon steal the stuff himself? and (2) even if Shimon is innocent of the theft, does he bear any responsibility for making good on the stolen stuff?
The second question is dealt with at length in the gemara, Tractates Bava Kama and Bava Metzia. As to the first question, listen to the language of the Torah: If the thief is not found, then the householder will approach unto Gcd [and take an oath in Gcd's name] that he did not extend his hand against the work [במלאכת] of his friend." Exodus 22:7
Why does the Torah use the curious term "melachah" to describe Reuven's 60 inch HDTV? Further, "melachah" means productive, creative work, as opposed to "avodah", routine chores or mundane labors. What are we to learn from this?
By way of context: Judaism teaches that we none of us truly own anything, even if we did pay for it. The A-lmighty is the "koneh hakol", the owner of everything, by virtue of having created the elements, molecules, and compounds which compose the flat screen TV, and the laws of physics which govern how it works. Gcd apportions His assets to whom He sees fit, when He sees fit; we are, at most, stewards of Gcd's stuff.
Stuff, in and of itself, is meaningless. If you've ever had the regrettable task of sorting through the stuff of someone who has passed away, you're struck by how trivial are the things that once meant so much; a favorite handkerchief or a pair of slippers or a chipped coffee mug. The detritus of a life stripped of its context.
But "melachah" - creative, productive, goal-oriented work - is meaningful. Melachah is associated with the creation of the universe; so it is that we abstain from melachah on the Sabbath. When we harness our creative energies to build and improve the world, we partner with the A-lmighty in the unfolding process of Creation.
And to be a builder, you need tools. You need your stuff. Painters need easels, canvases, brushes. Writers need quill and ink. Stuff only has purpose and meaning in the context of its contribution to the greater creative enterprise.
Every one of us is a builder and creator. The purpose of Jewish Civil Law, with which this parashah deals, is to create a level playing field where everyone is free to dream, to conceive and to build - their lives, their homes, their fortunes, their families. (The Hebrew words for sons and daughters - Banim & Banot - derives from the Hebrew root Boneh to build.)
Therein lies the answer. While the immediate matter at hand is Reuven's missing stuff, Shimon must swear that he has not extended his hand to jeopardize Reuven's melachah, his life's work. For only in the context of our life's work does the stuff have value, relevance and importance.
What are you building these days?