By now everyone's heard the one about the guy who tells his buddy about the arrangement he and his wife arrived at after years of quarrelling. "I decide the big issues," explains the triumphant husband, "and she decides the little things. World peace, the economy, national politics—that's my department. She's in charge of the family budget, the kids' education, and the other everyday stuff..."

We often tend to think about our relationship with G‑d along similar lines. When it comes to the minutiae of daily life, we basically decide things for ourselves. The big issues, on the other hand, that's G‑d's department. The purpose of creation, the meaning of life—these are things that G‑d has decided, and which we cannot hope to understand, much less influence in any way.

Chassidic teaching claims that the very opposite is the case.

When it comes to the do's and don'ts of daily living, the Torah presents us with a very detailed list of instructions. Of course, we have free choice. But, on this level, "free choice" is not the authority to determine how things should be, to decide what's right and what's wrong. It means simply that we can choose to obey the divine will, thereby bringing our lives in harmony with the way that the Creator of life designed it to be lived, or we can choose to disobey it. Since the latter choice is so obviously foolhardy and self-destructive, one is inclined to argue that it can hardly be considered a "free" choice at all! (On the other hand, it can be argued that this is the ultimate freedom—the freedom to act even against one's basic self-interest and intrinsic desire.)

In any case, the "little things" are G‑d's call. But when it comes to the most basic questions of life, questions like, What are we? Why are we here?--here G‑d says: "That's up to you. And whichever way you choose to define the raison d'être of your existence and your relationship with Me, that will become your truth. That is how I shall regard you and relate to you."

The Four Guardians

In one of his talks, the Lubavitcher Rebbe employs the model of the "four guardians" whose laws are laid down in this week's Parshah of Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24) to describe four types of human self-definition and the equivalent Divine response.

To understand the Rebbe's analysis (which is based on the writings of Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz, the great 16th century Torah scholar and Kabbalist known as "The Shaloh") we first need to summarize the laws of the "four guardians" as set down in our Parshah and explained in the Talmud and the Talmudic commentaries.

A "guardian" (shomer) is any person who, for whatever reason, is responsible for an object belonging to another person. Altogether, the Torah classifies four types of guardian and the level of responsibility to which each is held:

1) The unpaid guardian. The unpaid guardian is someone who is taking care of another's property purely as a favor and is receiving no compensation for his trouble. Although he is duty bound to care for the object, his responsibility in case of mishap is minimal. If the object is damaged or lost as a result of his negligence, he must pay; but as long as he has provided the reasonable care to which he had obligated himself, and takes an oath to that effect, he is absolved from responsibility.

2) The paid guardian. Since he is being paid (or otherwise compensated) for his services the level of care he is expected to provide and his responsibility in the case of mishap is greater. Here the Torah differentiates between "avoidable damages," such as loss or theft, and "unavoidable damages" such as armed robbery and natural death. The paid guardian is responsible for the former and absolved by oath of the latter.

3). The borrower. His is the highest level of liability. Unlike the first two guardians, whose care of the object is for the sake of its owner, the object has been given to the borrower solely for his own benefit. As a result, he is responsible to return what has been given to him intact or else make good on its value—regardless of the degree of his fault in the case of damage. Even if the borrowed object is destroyed by a lightening bolt, the borrower must pay. (There are only two exceptions to the absolute responsibility of the Borrower: a) if the damage resulted from his normal use of the object; b) if the object's owner was with him at the time of the loss.)

4) The renter. The Torah also mentions a fourth case in which a person is responsible for the property of his fellow, the case of the renter who pays for its use, but is unclear on the level of his responsibility. The Talmud cites two opinions on the status of the renter: Rabbi Judah rules that he is as the unpaid guardian who is responsible only for outright negligence; Rabbi Meir is of the opinion that his obligations are identical to those of the paid guardian and he is liable also for "avoidable damages" such as loss and theft.

Why is the Renter a Fourth Category?

Obviously, these are not the only four cases in which a person has another person's object under his care. The scenarios leading to such a situation are virtually endless. But they all fall under one of the four categories. Indeed, the Talmud considers many other situations—e.g., a person who finds a lost object and is caring for it until the owner can be located, a person who is holding on to a fellow's object as collateral for a loan, etc. In each case the Talmud determines which of the four categories the said "guardian" belongs to.

This raises the question: Why, then, do we say that there are four categories of guardians? Why is the "renter" regarded as a category unto itself, if the laws that govern a renter's culpability are identical either with those of an unpaid guardian (according to Rabbi Judah) or with those of a paid guardian (according to Rabbi Meir)?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the basis of the debate between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Meir regarding the status of the renter.

A person who rents an object receives the object in order to derive use from it, and pays the owner for this privilege. According to Rabbi Judah, the payment offered by the renter is in return for, and of equivalent value to, the right of use he enjoys. Therefore, the fact that he benefits from the possession of his fellow's property, and the fact that the owner is paid, should have no bearing on the level of his responsibility—they cancel each other out. This means, says Rabbi Judah, that the renter receives nothing in return for the care he is providing for the object. Hence his status as an unpaid guardian.

Rabbi Meir does not disagree with the above tally of privileges and liabilities. But he has a completely different perspective on the renter. According to Rabbi Meir, the primary issue should be not how much a guardian receives in return for his trouble, but why it is in his possession in the first place. The question of payment or non-payment is secondary. In the case of both the paid guardian and the unpaid guardian, the object has entered their domain for the sake of the owner. So the responsibility is minimal. In the case of the unpaid guardian it is limited to outright negligence; in the case of the paid guardian, the fact that there is also some benefit for the guardian means that the level of responsibility is to be raised a notch.

But in the case of the borrower and the lender, says Rabbi Meir, the opposite is true: the object has left its owner's control for the sake of the guardian. So the responsibility is total. The addition of the other, secondary factor, that of payment, has a similar effect as in the case of the paid guardian: because the renter pays for the favor, his level of responsibility is lowered a notch. As Rabbi Meir sees it, the paid guardian is basically an unpaid guardian who has been paid to be slightly more responsible, while the renter is basically a borrower who has paid to reduce his responsibility. The fact that the technical result is that the renter and the paid guardian are culpable for the same set of circumstances is entirely incidental. In essence, the paid guardian has more in common with the unpaid guardian, and the renter has more in common with the borrower, than the two have in common with each other.

In the words of the Talmud, according to Rabbi Meir, "There are four guardians, though their laws are three." Indeed, the classification of "four guardians" is attributed solely to Rabbi Meir. According to Rabbi Judah, there are, indeed, only three "guardians," the renter being a form of unpaid guardian.

On the Spiritual Plane

All of the above also applies to the inner life of the soul and its relationship with its Creator.

Man's role in creation is that of a guardian. "And G‑d took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to keep it" (Genesis 2:15). The Creator entrusted His world to our care, charging us with the responsibility of safeguarding and developing the resources which He has granted and made available to each individual.

The Torah's laws of guardianship address some of life's most central questions. Whose life is it, anyway? Do we possess an inherent right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or must we earn these rights? What are our responsibilities towards our Creator and the rewards we might anticipate in reciprocation, and what is the correlation between these responsibilities and rewards? Is it enough to "do our best" and expect life's blessings to flow to us, or is reward measured by achievement?

The "four guardians" (using Rabbi Meir's model) represent four approaches to life. The first is the altruistic Unpaid Guardian, the individual who exemplifies the ideal "I was only created to serve my Creator" (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b). The Unpaid Guardian sees his life, his talents and his possessions as Divine property which has been placed in his trust "to work and to keep." Nor does he feel that G‑d owes him anything in compensation for his efforts.

On the other extreme is the Borrower, who is given what he is given for his own benefit. To the Borrower, the purpose of life is self-fulfillment and self-realization. He may acknowledge who the ultimate Owner is and accept his obligations toward Him as a guardian (to the extent that he fulfills, to the letter, every dictate of Torah law); but he does not feel that he owes anyone anything for the use of life's blessings.

The Paid Guardian and the Renter occupy the middle ground between these two extremes. On the issue of "Why are we here?" they differ as much as do the Unpaid Guardian and the Borrower; but they each temper their perspective on life with the idea of "payment." The spiritual Renter is a Borrower in that he sees the purpose of it all as the fulfillment and enhancement of self, but nevertheless feels that he ought to earn this privilege by "also" serving his Creator. The Paid Guardian is like the Unpaid Guardian in that he sees the fulfillment of G‑d's will as the ultimate purpose of life; he differs only in that he reserves for himself a small corner of self interest. He feels that he also deserves something of "a life of his own" in return for his work as a Guardian in the employ of the Almighty.

Which is it Really? All of Them

Our sages tell us that G‑d deals with us "measure for measure," responding to us in the manner in which we behave and define our relationship with Him. Thus Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov interprets the verse "G‑d is your shadow" (Psalms 121:5)--the Almighty allows us to establish the basis and tone of our relationship with Him and responds in kind, just as a person's shadow moves in concert with the person's movements.

Man has been given free reign to choose whichever mode of "guardianship" he wants to define his life. Man may choose the "free lunch" approach of the Borrower. But then, says the Almighty, you must take full responsibility, as well. If things go awry in your life, if you err and blunder, or even if circumstances beyond your control overwhelm you—that's your problem. After all, it was you who decided that it's "your" life.

Or a person may assume a Renter's self-definition, in which case he is relieved of some of the "responsibility." Because he senses his indebtedness to the Creator, he need not bear the burdens of life on his own. The same is true of the Paid Guardian. True, he has not given himself over entirely to his guardianship, reserving his "right" for reward, but his basic approach to life is that it is not his but his Creator's. Responding "measure for measure," the Almighty relates to him in a similar fashion: the "laws" which govern his life protect him, to a certain extent, from an utter abandonment to "fate" but leave him somewhat exposed to the uncertainties and mishaps which threaten our pitfall-prone existence.

But the Unpaid Guardian is absolved from vulnerability to everything save outright negligence. As long as he remains faithful to his mission in life, he need not be worried by the trappings of the material world. Because he has relinquished all vestiges of self, because he sees his life solely in terms of his service of his Creator, G‑d takes full responsibility for his life.