THE BLOG
10/11/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Whose Lot Is It, Anyway?

Wanting to be a good and moral person is an excellent ideal that, it probably would not be outlandish to say, is the end goal of most people. At the same time, most people do not wake up each day and make a commitment to be either moral or amoral. People generally go about life making choices and only sometimes taking the time to contemplate the morality of those decisions... especially when everyone else is doing the same thing.

If you were asked to write a story about someone stealing, the plot would probably revolve around someone stealing jewelry, money, someone's identity or maybe even just a loaf of bread. When people think about acts of theft, they don't usually think about plucking flowers from a garden, piggybacking bandwidth or rerouting cable.

There is a pithy saying that possession is nine-tenths of the law, but what about ownership of things that one cannot tangibly possess, such as bandwidth? What about questions of intellectual copyright? While Alexander Graham Bell is famed as the inventor of the telephone, a man named Elisha Gray filed a similar patent on the very same day, and there have always been questions as to whether Bell used Gray's research.

For Jews looking to the Torah for guidance, one of the primary references for dealing with "murky" issues of theft has been Genesis 13 (5-7). It is written that Abraham traveled with his nephew Lot and leased/bought land from the Canaanites and the Perizzites. Abraham and Lot had such a large camp and possessed such an enormous number of flocks and herds that "the land was not able to bear them." This led to strife between the herdsmen of Abraham and those of Lot.

The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 41:5) explains that Abraham's herdsmen questioned Lot's herdsmen's honesty for not muzzling their cattle (as Abraham's men did) when grazing on land not marked as their own. Lot's herdsmen, however, quoted God's promise to Abraham to give all of the land to him. As Abraham had no children, they determined that Lot was destined to be his only heir. Since they assumed that Lot would eventually inherit all of the land from Abraham, grazing on it even before inheriting it was not theft. God, however, had also promised Abraham that it would only be his actual descendants who would inherent the land, and only after the removal of the seven nations from it.

The pivotal point of this narrative is that there is an accusation of stealing. Was Lot guilty of theft? From Lot's perspective, not only was he the heir apparent to Abraham, who had been promised the land, but his animals were simply doing what is natural for animals to do. It was not as if he had entered people's homes and taken their possessions. The grass would grow back.

Because Lot and his herdsmen refused to see the questionable ethics of their assumptions, Abraham decided that he and Lot should best part ways.

Understood as part of the narrative of Lot's life (rather than of Abraham's), this confrontation is a major turning point. When asked to choose a place to settle away from Abraham, Lot chose the city of Sodom*. About the people of Sodom, the Mishna applies the following description: "The person who says, 'What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours' -- this is the average type, though some say that this is the attitude of Sodom" (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 5:13). This attitude fit in perfectly with Lot's view of the world. He would never think of stealing something outright, but if he was the expected future-owner of the land, then it was only an issue of "what's mine is mine."

Abraham, on the other hand, was striving to live by a standard of "what's mine is yours and what's yours is your own" (which the sages refer to as saintly). Abraham could have walked around telling people that God had promised him their land. Instead, he was careful to muzzle his animals so that they should only graze on land that was acknowledged to be ownerless.

Situations like Abraham's are described throughout the Talmud and rabbinic texts. Detractors of Jewish law portray it as a system of eye-for-an-eye reward and punishment, but, in actuality, it is a system of laws and ethics meant to help people learn to be more compassionate to one another. It is not hard to assume that this was Abraham's viewpoint of right and wrong and that he tried to explain to Lot that letting his flocks and herds travel without muzzles was tantamount to stealing.

Most people don't like to be informed that they are doing something wrong, whether it's a small thing like double parking or a serious crime such as drugs. Lot was no different. When confronted with the fact that he was, in fact, stealing -- and that this was wrong -- it is possible that Lot decided that the best place to relocate would be to a place where people lived by whichever ethic they saw fit, rather than by one binding ethical code.

Most people can only try to emulate Abraham's level of conscientiousness. Lot didn't think of his animal's grazing habits as stealing. The man down the block who piggybacks on his neighbor's bandwidth isn't contemplating how this affects the owner of the modem, and it probably hasn't even occurred to the woman who double parks that she may be stealing precious minutes from the person who is now unable to exit a parking spot. Making oneself aware in ways such as these, however, is considered to be an ideal for which every Jew should strive.

*To explore more about the city of Sodom, visit JewishTreats.org.