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Le-shomrah—To Honor, Protect and Preserve


As I said, the mandate to guard relates in part to the natural world; the concern for ecology has some basis in this. To some extent, this mandate extends to the society one is in. But to a great extent, it applies in relation to oneself. One must guard the human personality itself and everything appended to it, one’s dalet amot (four cubits) which he assumes to be his own private domain.

Now, this is of great importance and needs to be stressed, because we are dealing here with a fundamentally religious perception that runs counter to the notions prevalent within the widely secular society in which we find ourselves. The essence of modern secular culture is the notion of human sovereignty; individual man is master over himself, and collective man is master over his collective. This creates problems as to where the line is to be drawn between individual and collective man, and that issue is the crux of much of modern socio-political theory—when the state can and cannot interfere. But the common denominator of all these discussions is that they think fundamentally in terms of human sovereignty, the question being whether you speak of humanity or of a particular person.

From a religious point of view, of course, eilu va-eilu divrei avoda zara—both approaches are idolatrous. Here one establishes individual man as an idol, and there one idolizes, in humanistic terms, humanity as a whole. The basis of any religious perception of human existence is the sense that man is not a master: neither a master over the world around him, nor a master over himself.


Of course, this is not to say that the notion of private property does not exist. It certainly exists within religious thought generally, and within Judaism specifically; the notion of private property is a very central concept in Halakha, and large sections of the Talmud are devoted to it. Rather, what this means is that the notion of property is never absolute. It is always relative; ultimately, “La-Hashem ha-aretz u-melo’ah, The Earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds” (Tehillim 24:1). But within the world in which we exist, we can say that relative to Shimon, Reuven has been granted ownership, or that relative to the individual, the community has been granted authority.

In this manner, one can understand the gemara in Berakhot (35a-b) which points out a seeming contradiction between two verses in Tehillim: on the one hand, “The Heavens belong to the Lord, but the Earth He gave over to man” (115:16), and on the other hand, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds” (24:1). The gemara answers: “This is not really a difficulty. One verse is speaking of the reality before a person has recited a berakha (blessing), and the other verse is speaking of the reality after a person has said a berakha.”


A person who partakes of the world without reciting a berakha has, so to speak, stolen from God; he has committed an offense of me’ila (misusing that which has been consecrated to God). However, when he pronounces a berakha, this does not mean that the item is now absolutely his. It is not like purchasing a loaf of bread from a storeowner, who then disappears from the picture. Heaven forbid! “Mine is the silver and mine is the gold, says the Lord of Hosts” (Chaggai 2:8). Rather, the gemara teaches that, at an operational level, there are two different levels of one’s mastery over the object, in terms of the permissibility for one to use it. Initially, you cannot partake in any way. But once you say the berakha, you have in effect recognized God’s ownership. You recognize His hegemony, you accept the fact that you live subject to Him, you have acknowledged His sovereignty, and now you partake of the world with His permission. Through our reciting a berakha, God grants us permission the way a medieval king might have delegated a fief to a particular person.

Regarding some forms of kodashim (sacred items), the gemara says, “Mi-shulchan gavo’ah ka zakhu, They have acquired it from Heaven’s table” (see Beitza 21a, Bava Metzia 92a). What the gemara says in a narrow halakhic sense is true in a broader sense of our ability to partake of the world. We are guests at God’s table. This means that whatever we have in the world, we have as shomerim (guards)—it has been given to us to guard and we are never truly masters.

Now, of course, there are different kinds of shomerim. There are those who have only responsibilities and no rights, such as a shomer chinam (unpaid guard) and a shomer sakhar (paid guard). On the other hand, a sho’el (borrower) and a sokher (renter) have both chiyyuvim and kinyanim (liabilities and rights). In the sense that we too have both chiyyuvim and kinyanim, we are analogous to a sho’el or sokher. (However, the analogy is not exact, since, unlike a sho’el, we do not have rights against the Owner; we merely have rights to use the property, given the Owner’s continuing consent.) And if this is true regarding property, it is equally true of our own selves.


I mentioned earlier the prevalent secular conception of one’s “ownership” of himself. One hears this argument in various contexts, especially with regard to the question of abortion: it’s a woman’s right, it’s her own body, she can do what she wants, etc. Years back, I was asked to testify before a subcommittee of the Knesset which dealt with abortions. Among other things, I mentioned that, leaving aside the significant question of whether it is the woman’s body only or whether the fetus has some rights as well, there is a more fundamental problem. Even if we were to accept that indeed it is the woman’s own body, we totally reject the conception that she then can do with it as she pleases. This is a completely anti-halakhic perception. It rests on a secular assumption that, as it were, “My Nile is my own; I made it for myself” (Yechezkel 29:3), as if we are the source of our own existence and therefore the masters of our own being. This is assuredly not the case. In absolute terms, a person does not own himself.

In fact, there are prohibitions that apply to how a person relates to himself. Just as one is forbidden to injure or curse others, so is he forbidden to injure himself or to curse himself.Similarly, the mitzva of “Ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshoteikhem, Take utmost care of yourselves” (Devarim 4:15) specifically prohibits a person from taking unnecessary risks, even though he will not affect anybody else. The very notion that a person should be free to do what he wants with relation to himself is at absolute odds with our conception. We believe that you are never an independent entity, nor do you “own” yourself; you are always a shomer appointed by God. That applies to your “property,” to your own self, and certainly to your relationship to what surrounds you.


Let us now further refine our understanding of the duty of “leshomrah.” It has not only a negative aspect, namely, that a person does not have the right to dispose of objects arbitrarily or even to deal with himself as he wishes. It has also a positive aspect: there is an obligation to be a shomer, and not merely in order to avoid damage. Although this is essentially a passive activity, there nevertheless is an active aspect to it as well. The Rambam says:

The guarding of the Temple is a positive commandment. This applies even though there is no fear of enemies or bandits, for its guarding is in order to honor it. A palace with guards is not comparable to a palace without guards. (Hilkhot Beit Habechira 8:1)

Even though there is no fear of invasion, nevertheless the Mikdash (Temple) must have shomerim. Why? They serve as an honor guard. Le-havdil, the Swiss Guards do not protect the Vatican from enemies, nor do guards stand outside Buckingham Palace out of fear that someone is going to enter. Rather, guards are stationed out of a sense of kavod (honor) for the palterin shel melekh (palace of the king); there is a sense of elevation, of nobility, of something unique that requires guarding.

Now, this sense of palterin shel melekh which requires guarding is presumably part of the mandate Adam initially received. When he was placed in the Garden “le-ovdah u-leshomrah,” against whom was it being guarded? The animals were part of the Garden, and there was nobody else around, no one to invade. Rather, you guard something which you value and appreciate; you hover over it constantly. While, of course, the Mikdash is palterin shel Melekh in a very special sense, the world as a whole is also palterin shel Melekh: “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool” (Yeshayahu 66:1). In this sense, we must all cultivate a concern for and a sensitivity to the natural order as a whole, to that Garden of Eden into which we have been placed. This is part of kevod Shamayim, yirat Shamayim and malkhut Shamayim (the honor, fear and sovereignty of Heaven). In fact, our responsibility with respect to the orders of creation—natural, human, social and personal— is now heightened, since, subsequent to Adam’s sin, there are indeed real dangers which threaten them.

There is a term which Chazal (the Sages) always apply in relation to shomerim: achrayut, responsibility. In our capacity as shomerim, we must live with a sense of responsibility, obligation and demands. What is demanded is not simply a kind of passive awareness, but rather the application of consciousness. What does a shomer have to do? He must be alert. His human self must be asserted, that part of him which can watch, which is intelligent, which guards. One guards with intelligence. When he combines his intelligence, sensitivity and awareness of the importance of what he is guarding with a sense of duty and readiness—that is what being a shomer is all about.



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