Chassidim like to tell a story about a certain individual who was flippant with his financial obligations. It reached the point where his debtors felt they had no recourse but to inform their rebbe of the situation. The chassidic sage summoned the man and asked him: “Is it true what they tell me—that you borrow money and don’t repay, that you buy on credit and then evade payment?”

“But Rebbe!” exclaimed the chassid. “Haven’t you taught us that the world is nothing, material cares are nothing, money is nothing? Why are they making a fuss about a few rubles? It’s all nothing!”

“In that case,” said the rebbe, “how about if we take this ‘nothing’”—and here the rebbe pointed to the body of the spiritual fellow—“and we stretch it out upon this ‘nothing’ (the table), and with this ‘nothing’ (his belt) administer a dozen lashes to the first ‘nothing’?”

Behind this humorous story lies a serious question. If, as the Psalmist proclaims, “The world, and all it contains, is G‑d’s,” is there, in fact, such a thing as “theft”? Can something that does not in truth belong to you, be taken from you?

Of course, G‑d said, “You shall not steal.” Those are the rules of the game. But maybe that’s what it is—a game. G‑d is saying: “Let’s make believe that this house belongs to Tom. And let’s make believe that this car belongs to Harry. Now, Harry, you mustn’t burn down ‘Tom’s house.’ And Tom, you’re not allowed to use ‘Harry’s car’ without his permission.” Is that what it amounts to?

According to the Midrash, the Third Commandment, “You shall not take G‑d’s name in vain,” and the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” are one and the same. Indeed, the Torah (Leviticus 5:20) refers to financial fraud as “a betrayal of G‑d.” “Because,” explains the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, “in defrauding his fellow, he is defrauding the Third Party to their dealings.”

On the face of it, this can be understood along the lines of our “rules of the game” thesis. The problem with stealing is not that a certain person’s “ownership” has been violated (since everything belongs to G‑d anyway), but that the divine command “You shall not steal” has been transgressed.

But if that were the case, asks the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, why does Rabbi Akiva describe G‑d as “the Third Party to their dealings”? Isn’t He the only party? Aren’t we saying that it’s G‑d’s car that’s been stolen, and the fact that He chose to register it in Harry’s name is basically irrelevant?

But Rabbi Akiva is being consistent. Remember the verse, “The world, and all it contains, is G‑d’s”? Rabbi Akiva, quoting this verse in the Talmud, interprets it to be saying, “He acquired, and bequeathed, and rules His world.” What does this mean? Isn’t it G‑d’s world because He created it? And if He “bequeathed” it, than it’s not His anymore!

What Rabbi Akiva is saying, explains the Rebbe, is this: Obviously, it’s His because He created it. But then He desired to make it His in a deeper and more meaningful way—by bequeathing it to man.

To own a world because you made it is basically meaningless. In human terms, that’s like dreaming up a life and trying to derive satisfaction from your own fantasy. For something to be real for us, it has to have existence outside of ourselves. To derive pleasure from something, we have to share its existence with others.

G‑d desired to derive pleasure from His world. That’s why He gave it to us, and asked us to share it with Him.

That’s why He said: “Tom, this is your house. I mean it; it is really and truly yours. Now this is what I would like you to do with it. I want you to put mezuzot—little scrolls inscribed with the main points of your relationship with Me—on its doorposts. I want its kitchen to be kosher. I want it to be a place that shelters a moral family life, a place in which hospitality is extended to the needy, a place where My Torah is studied.

“Of course, I could just put you in this house and tell you to do all this, without really giving it to you. But then you’d be doing all these things mechanically, like a robot. Deep down, you would sense that it’s not really your home, that the things you’re doing are not really your achievement. And then it wouldn’t ever be truly My home, either. It would just be something I made up.

“That’s why I gave it to you. You sense it to be yours, because it really is. You experience what you make of it to be your own achievement, because it really is. And when you choose, with the free will that I have granted you, to invite Me into your home and make Me at home in it, it will become truly Mine, too, in the manner that I desire it to be Mine.

“And please, don’t steal Harry’s car. Because I have a stake in every financial transaction that occurs between the two of you. When you deprive Harry of the ownership that I have given him over his piece of My world, you are depriving Me as well. You are making My ownership of My world all but meaningless.”