"The Holy One, blessed be He, acquired five possessions in His world. They are: (a) the Torah, (b) heaven and earth, (c) Abraham, (d) Israel, and (e) the Temple. How do we know this regarding the Torah? It is written: 'G-d acquired me [the Torah] the first of His ways, preceding His works of old' (Proverbs 8:22). How do we know this regarding heaven and earth? It is written: 'Thus says the L-rd: The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool. What house can you build Me, and what place can be My resting place?' (Isaiah 66:1). It also says: 'How great are Your works, G-d; You made all of them with wisdom; the earth is full of Your possessions' (Psalms 104:24). How do we know this regarding Abraham? It is written: 'And he (Malki'tsedek) blessed him [Abraham] and said, 'Blessed is Abram to the most high G-d, the possessor of heaven and earth'' (Genesis 14:19). How do we know this regarding Israel? It is written: 'Until Your nation passes, G-d, until this nation You have acquired passes' (Exodus 15:16). It also says: 'They are the holy ones in the land, the mighty ones in whom is all I desire' (Psalms 16:3). How do we know this regarding the Temple? It is written: 'A place for Your dwelling You have made, G-d; the Temple, my L-rd, that Your hands established' (Exodus 15:17). It also says: 'And He brought them to His sacred boundary, [to] this mountain (Moriah) which His right hand acquired' (Psalms 78:54)."
For the past two weeks, we have been discussing the concept that certain aspects of creation are G-d's "possessions". We examined this concept as it relates to Abraham -- the only human being in our mishna's list. As we explained, Abraham acquired this title after he had successfully waged a battle against four mighty armies (see Genesis 14). These armies had come to the Land of Israel not to conquer territory -- as the casual observer (or Bible student) might have supposed -- but to destroy the people of the Land of Israel -- the nations who had come under Abraham's influence. They sought to rid the world of the messages of monotheism, morality, and a just and merciful G-d -- all that Abraham and Sarah had devoted their lives to teaching.
Abraham came to oppose them, to single-handedly take on the most powerful armies of his time in order to defend G-d's name and honor. What he did -- from a rational standpoint -- was reckless beyond imagination. But that was exactly it. Abraham cared so deeply about G-d that he went unhesitatingly to champion G-d's honor, no matter what the cost to himself. Had he been concerned with *anything* else in life other than G-d, he would have never ventured forth. He would have surely recognized a futile situation and resigned himself to inactivity. But Abraham did go forth -- not because he was irresponsible but because he existed for G-d alone. He was G-d's "possession". His very will was no more than an extension of G-d's. If G-d's honor was slighted, then Abraham had no desire or reason to continue. He lived for G-d alone. And G-d in turn sheltered and protected him -- just as a human being guards his most treasured possession.
Now let us begin to expand on this theme and relate it to the other objects of our mishna. Heaven and earth too are G-d's possessions. These signify the natural order of creation. The earth implies the natural world with all its flora, fauna and resources. The heavens signify the infinite spiritual layers with reside above the physical universe. These "layers" form the bridge between G-d and the physical world, allowing G-d's will to pass from heaven to earth. They are also "fixed" or damaged according to man's behavior on earth -- depending upon man's choice of good or evil.
There is an important insight here. We might well think of our universe as a separate and independent entity, possessing all the parts and components for independent function. The world exists, its infinite parts operate and interact, and its many components merge together into an awesome and self-sustaining whole. It is almost as if -- as some believe -- G-d created some sort of gigantic wind-up clock, full of rotating gears and interacting parts, and left it to operate of its own momentum (perhaps even complete with a self-perpetuating alternating cycle of big bangs and booms -- or whatever they're called). Of course, man lives here as well and must serve G-d while he exists, but the world, in all its permanence and steadfastness, exists regardless -- and as far as man is concerned is here to stay.
This is the notion our mishna comes to dispel. The world has no independent reality. It is not a "separate" creation, whose existence is assured regardless of man's behavior. It is G-d's possession, to be maintained or destroyed according to His master plan. The Prophet Jeremiah stated, "Thus says the L-rd: If My covenant is not [observed] day and night, the ordinances of heaven and earth I would not have placed" (33:25).
The world exists for one reason alone: as an arena, as a playing field in which man rises or falls in his struggle to achieve closeness to G-d and eternity. The Sages refer to the physical world as an "entrance chamber" before the World to Come (earlier, 4:21). Our world is merely preparatory. We are required to use the resources around us -- the elements of G-d's creation -- to
improve ourselves and make ourselves worthy of the Divine Presence in the World to Come. And G-d as well constantly challenges us -- using the infinite resources at His disposal to place us in situations which force us to choose between good and evil.
Thus, the world, in both its physical and spiritual aspects, is a possession of G-d. It has no separate and independent reality. It exists solely as part of G-d's master plan, as a stage upon which the story of mankind must unfold. For without this, it has no reason to exist.
We can likewise understand Israel's special status as G-d's possession. Many scholars -- ranging from Torah sages to demographers, sociologists and anthropologists -- have noted that Israel's existence in the natural world is an anomaly. We really shouldn't be here today. We have survived as a distinct nation for thousands of years, most of them in exile among hostile nations, who have at best tolerated us for financial considerations. (Even Christianity had to come up with its "witness-people" theory to explain the continued existence of such reprehensible deity-slayers -- that we were preserved in our misery only to bear witness to mankind the terrible fate of those who reject Jesus.)
Further, we came into being as a nation while in slavery in a foreign land. Any other nation in our situation -- if even that fortunate -- would have quickly and quietly blended in with the indigenous population and disappeared. But we never merited such a peaceful -- perhaps even pleasant -- fate.
Instead we have continued to exist -- and occasionally thrive -- against all odds, and to remain a separate people throughout. And this is the level on which Israel operates. We disprove the natural order. The worldview of Nazi Germany, as a telling example, was that humanity is no more than an extension of the animal kingdom. Just as the fittest in the animal world survive, the "superior" races will subdue or destroy the inferior and will ultimately persevere.
The existence of Israel defies that notion -- and disproves it. We show the world that existence stems from G-d's will alone, not from any person's or nation's ability to succeed. We exist because G-d has a plan for us. We are not -- as perhaps we'd like to believe -- "normal" people, who just happen to have a few extra commandments from G-d. Our whole existence rides entirely upon our relationship with G-d. We exist only because G-d has consciously preserved us thus far, and because He sees us worthy of carrying out His special mission to man. We are G-d's possessions. We have no true reality -- no right even to walk the face of the earth -- other than to be emissaries of G-d's will.
The final two possessions of our mishna are perhaps more straightforward. The Torah is clearly G-d's possession. It is a true and direct expression of His will and wisdom. It is a creature of a different sort, of the spirit-world in which G-d's reality is not obscured by so many layers of matter and drossiness.
The Temple is as well the possession of the Divine, the dwelling place of G-d upon earth. It is the one place in the physical realm which is wholly bound to the spiritual, in which evil and defilement do not exist, and which has no reality apart from G-d. And so, it is worthy of the Divine Presence.
I would like to conclude on a slightly more relevant note. The level of Abraham is perhaps far too "reckless" for us. Yet we must realize that we, the descendants of Abraham and the children of Israel, must too strive to become G-d's possessions. We cannot always be too "rational" about our service of G-d. We must not study Torah only if we can fit it into our busy lives, or give charity only after all our other expenses have been paid. We must sometimes give ourselves over to G-d -- and do for Him just a little bit beyond what we would ordinarily or rationally do for any other cause. We learned earlier: "Anyone who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of earning a livelihood will be removed from him" (3:6). If we do for G-d, if we make sacrifices for His name and His honor, then He will treat us as His own -- and will perhaps spare us the many other hardships of life. We will become His, and He in turn will guard us and treasure us -- as His own prized possession.
(A few point from above heard from R. Yizchak Berkovits of Jerusalem.)
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright (c) 2002 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Project Genesis, Inc.