The world is now functioning online in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few months ago. Work, school, shopping, entertainment, social encounters and shul are now part of our online existences. It’s been an incredible learning curve for me. When I first started shopping online, I allowed the ‘shopper’ to make replacements to food items that were out of stock. I ended up with several non-kosher products my family couldn’t eat, and so began the weekly bag of food that I gave to my neighbour, the Anglican minister. I shopped for clothes that weren’t exactly what I thought, patio furniture that never arrived, electronics that glitched and television channel subscriptions that I forgot would renew after the two week trial period. I started to build my Facebook page for online social interactions, but once my friends group grew, I became too intimidated to actually post anything. Online living has become the country I now live in, never having planned the trip.
I remember first learning of what ‘online’ meant through music sharing and something called Napster (for those of you who remember what that is, I don’t need to explain, for everyone too young to know about it, essentially we got to look at other people’s playlists and download anything they had that we wanted -it was a world where everyone was innocent and didn’t feel they were violated by you having access into my private computer files…we have since learned better). At first, it didn’t occur to the average person that we were all infringing on copyright laws. Then it didn’t occur to us that the artists who created all that wonderful music would never be paid for their genius. When all these issues came out, the argument I kept hearing was that ‘if it’s in the air, it’s free.’ Radio waves, actually, any waves, once put into the air shouldn’t belong to anyone, so technically I can grab what I want out of the air. I mean, how can you license the right to use air?
Napster was sued, people were charged, education took place and we understood that online still has protocols, legalities and decency of ownership and acknowledgments.
We used to think the same thing about water. When I was growing up, only science fiction described a world where people would pay money for water. It comes from the ground, or falls from the sky, why would we pay for that? If it’s in the air, it’s free. Does a country own the air above it? If so, how far up? At what point is it outer space and ownerless? Who decided how far a country’s border rights extend into the oceans? If we call it ‘international waters’ does that mean all nations own it or no nations own it?
It’s a tricky concept, the idea of understanding how ownership and economics can play into the natural world we all need and share. We’re still trying to figure it out, while the Torah introduces a perspective on all this that is unique in its understanding of nuance and human bond.
In this week’s portion, Parshat Ki Teitzei, the Torah discusses what a labourer is entitled to, in terms of ‘eating on the job’. When someone is working in the fields of a landowner, the worker is entitled to eat the raw produce from the land, but cannot take any of it home. In other words, until the produce of the land begins its economic journey (wheat being milled or olives being pressed, etc.), it is part of what the land gives the world and therefore the worker is entitled to share. Once it begins its transformation into processed goods for market, it now becomes a commodity, owned by the corporate owner.
The picture in the Torah is one of ownership and balance. Some of us own things, some of us produce what others own, some of us sell what others produce and on and on. At some point, we must all find a moment of equalization and participation in understanding that raw materials from the earth remind us that only God truly owns the world and we impact it with the permissions the Owner has granted. The harvesters can eat from the grapes being harvested while they are in their hands (and it’s lunchtime so they do not take time they are paid for and compound it by eating the inventory – Mishnah’s got that one covered). Workers should not be hungry while they collect food, but food that moves from the earth to the processing plant is now owned and must not be eaten by another.
The Torah tells us that working to feed others should not leave me poor and hungry, but those who hire me to work there should not be my family’s personal food bank. There is a balance to be struck between what nature gives us, what we put into it and how we enjoy the benefit of it.
I don’t know if the world will ever return to its pre-online realities. Will shopping ever look the same? I hope, one day, we can sit together in a beautiful concert hall and enjoy the full body experience of an orchestra. If we do, the music will fill us, the notes will float in the air for everyone sitting there to enjoy. If I worked in that concert hall and helped bring about that reality, the Torah would absolutely allow me to pause in my work and enjoy the beauty of the sound, as it would also always prohibit me from recording it to take home —even if the last note resonates and hangs in the air.