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Frederick L. Klein

Ki Teitzei : Learning to Return Lost Things

This week’s parashah, Ki Tetzei, has no fewer than 72 distinct mitzvot, the vast majority regulating interpersonal, economic, and family relationships.  Commandments that one might seem minor, are in fact not minor at all.  Today we will look at one of those deceptively simple mitzvot, returning a lost object, and uncover a fundamental idea of what it means to be a meshiv, a restorer.  This is a crucial theme as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As a student at Hebrew University, I was once on a bus in Israel, on a road trip to Eilat. I accidentally left a considerable sum of money on the bus. I assumed I was never going to see this money ever again, and truth be told, I needed the money.  Yet, upon my return on a whim I went into the bus station clerk and asked them if they had found any money on a bus. After asking how much it was, they pulled out of a drawer the money. I was shocked! Not only had someone found it on the bus and not kept it for themselves, but all the clerks at the bus station had also held onto the money, not assuming another clerk would take it, and waiting for the rightful owner to return for the money. Thus, over the course of a few days, a considerable amount of money was simply hanging around among employees who I was sure could use the money more than I. I am absolutely certain that whether they were ‘religious’ or ‘secular,’ they all had learned the verses below:

You shall not see (lo tireh) your brother’s (achica) ox or his sheep go astray and ignore them (v’hitalamta mehem); but you shall surely bring them again to your brother (hashev tashiv lo) .  If your brother is not near to you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks after it, and you shall restore it to him (vhasheivota lo). So you shall do with his donkey; and so you shall do with his garment, and so you shall do with every lost thing of your brother’s which he has lost and you have found; you may not ignore it (lo tuchal l’hitalem) (Deut. 22:1-3).

If last week’s parasha considered the ideal state from the perspective of government and leadership, this week’s parasha in large considers the critical importance of social relationships among its citizens.  In this context, we are introduced to the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, returning a lost object to its proper owner. However, as we will see, this deceptively prosaic mitzvah reveals fundamental value about how we are to treat our fellow human being.   Entire sections of the Talmud and Jewish law are dedicated to these few verses.  There are a number of dimensions I believe critically important for us,

The Scope of this Mitzvah: It’s not a Good Deed

Many children are taught that a mitzvah is ‘doing a good deed.’ However, if one reads the verses carefully, returning the object is not simply a ‘positive commandment,’ doing a ‘good thing.’  The commandment points out that I have a sacred obligation to protect the property of my fellow human being and to restore it to them if possible.  The commandment points to the fact that I must be concerned about my neighbor.

However, with this positive obligation there is also a negative prohibition. The verse tells me that I cannot see the objects of my friends and simply pretend I never saw them.  In other words, my failure to act violates the negative commandment of lo titalem, ‘you shall not ignore.’[1]    Of course, if one sees a lost animal they cannot ignore it, as ignoring it means you never saw it in the first place!  Rashi, noticing the logical contradiction within the verse, states ‘you shall not act as if you never saw it.’

The implications of this are far reaching; as soon as something comes into your field of vision, you are obligated to respond.  That is a remarkably high bar.  Mind you, in this case to respond is not a simple thing.  For example, if one finds a lost dog or cat, the verses imply you must take care of the dog or cat and search for its owner.  For how long must one search for its owner?  The rabbis discuss how long one must keep the lost object, and how far one must make an announcement (see for example Mishna Bava Metziah 2:6).  The verse itself implies that one must give the owner the time to retrieve the object, even if he is not local! While these technicalities may seem pedantic, the upshot is that while one might have good intentions, following through on one’s intentions are much harder. There are certainly times when one can legally take a lost object, assuming that one will never come for it (ye’ush), but these are exceptions to the rule that one must return lost objects!  One must be very proactive.

It is interesting that in Maimonides’ Code of Law, he includes the laws of returning lost objects in a book called, Hilkhot Gezelah V’Aveidah, the laws of theft and lost objects.  What is the connection between these distinct areas of law?  More than one might think.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, the moment I take possession of the property of another, there is a temptation to keep it, especially if I like what I find. Indeed, it is not every day in which I find a designer watch or purse!  While there is certainly a limit to the extent to which I must make the effort to return the object, what point is that?  Might I be tempted to justify a half-hearted effort to return an object as a ploy to keep the property of another for myself?  Maimonides actually rules that one who takes the object and then neglects to make the effort to return it has effectively stolen the object (Hilkhot Gezeilah Va’Aveidah 11:2). Thus, not only are good intentions hard to fulfill, but the second I pick up an object I might have conflicting intentions.  There is a slippery slope between ‘finding a lost object’ and outright theft.  Maimonides pairing of these sets of laws bears that out.

In sum, these laws are not simply ‘nice things to do.’  They underscore the ultimate sensitivity of the Torah for our fellow human being, which includes respecting their possessions.

The Mechanics of the Mitzvah- Context is Irrelevant

The Torah tells us that one must be proactive in returning the object, and uses the emphatic Hebrew phrase hashev tashev lo, ‘you shall surely return it to him.”  The midrash comments ‘even four or five times.’  There is no limit to the number of times you need to restore one’s property.  If the dog gets lost five times, you need to return the dog five times.    I might quite easily decide that the owner is clearly negligent if this is a pattern, and that I have no further obligation to concern myself with the things my neighbor so clearly neglects.  Even if that assumption is completely true (and rarely do we always know all the details of another’s life), it is irrelevant, for the command is to restore those things which are lost.  Similarly, in a parallel text in Exodus, the Torah obligates one to return the ox or donkey, ‘of your enemy’ (Ex. 23:4).  The singling out of ‘your enemy’ is to address one’s natural proclivity not to return the object out of spite.  One may even have good reason not to return this object.  Yet, the Torah requires me to be a ‘restorer.’ [2]  Of course, acting in this way towards one’s enemy has the potential to transform and even restore the relationship.

When considering our obligations towards others, we often think of the context. However, here the Torah is challenging us to do the right thing, regardless of the context.  “Love your neighbor as yourself’ means you would want your neighbor to return your objects even if your neighbor does not like you.[3] We should think more about our role as ‘one who restores as opposed to whom I am restoring the object. It is easy to be kind to friends.  It is much harder to be kind to our enemies, perceived or real. It is harder to restore property to those who seem not to respect their own property.  In commanding us to act kindly independent of the exact context, the Torah is instructing is in the ways of virtuous actions.

There are certainly situations in which one need not to return an object and simply leave it where it is; for example, if the obligation of guarding this object is going to incur a personal financial loss which is greater than the value of the object being returned and therefore create significant financial strain, one is exempt.[4]  Yet, at the same time. the rabbis bring stories that while not binding legally for others, testify to the extent to which certain rabbis were concerned with restoring property.

In one story, some men came to a town seeking livelihood, and deposited two measures of barley with Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. They forgot about this barley and left town.  Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, suspecting they would ultimately return, sowed the barley, and harvested it year after year.  Seven years later, the men came back to reclaim the simple bags of grain.  Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair showed them the full granaries and told them to claim it. While clearly this goes lifnim meshurat hadin, before the letter of the law, the rabbi’s actions demonstrate a remarkable level of moral imagination. He does not see two measures of barley, but the future of their livelihood; they lost the initial investment for their future (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:5).  The story demonstrates the level of sensitivity for another. In this case the rabbi had the foresight to know that the mean did not lose two measures of barley, but seven potential years of investment.  That was what he returned.

Returning our Health: The Obligation to Heal

In rabbinic thought, the obligation to return one’s lost object is not limited to material goods.  If there is an obligation to restore one’s property, there is certainly an obligation to restore one’s life. Indeed, the rabbis read into our verses the obligation to heal another, even to practice medicine. The words vehasheivota lo (lit. ‘you shall return to him’) are creatively read as you shall return that which is essential to him back to him.’  While the source of practicing medicine in the Torah is a subject for a different occasion, Maimonides rules that practicing medicine is absolutely a mitzah.  If one has the capacity to save another person, he must not stand by and must act, and he quotes the aforementioned verse as his proof. “If he sees him in danger and is able to save him, he should save him with his body or his money or his wisdom” (Maimonides Commentary on Mishna Nedarim 4:4).  In other words, if we know someone needs a medical treatment, we need to administer the treatment if we have the skills.  If we do not, we must help provide him the money.  We must restore him to health, just as a lost object must be restored to its proper owner.

Our Spiritual Restoration

Building upon this logic, we may have our physical goods and our physical health, but we might feel spiritually adrift.  We may feel like we are at an impasse, like it is we who are like an animal that has lost its way.   In our lives, there are times when we might need to be spiritually restored, to have our inspired souls returned to us.  The month of Elul is a time when we are told that God has left the heavenly palace and is ‘walking below’ among us all.   God must observe God’s own commandments.  Just as we must respond to the lost animals, God must respond to God’s lost sheep– each of us at certain times in our lives.  Like us, God does not ignore us and our lives, and provides us opportunities like these days to return, to find ourselves. In blowing the sound of the shofar, God as it were announces that something is lost, and that thing is our higher soul and sense of self which is adrift.  In the piercing sound of the shofar, we awaken to that part of us which we could not find.  If we feel lost, God has given these forty days to reclaim ourselves.  Our souls can find their rightful owners.   This is the meaning of the verse “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6).

Similarly, we may feel well ourselves, but know others who are suffering, who are not themselves.  If we can help, we cannot turn the other way, but must lift up another in any way we can.  Just as God provides us with the means to restore our lost selves, we can be the source for others in their search.

Many people want to know ‘on one foot’ what it means to be a Jew.  Whether it is material, physical, or spiritual- to be a Jew is to be someone who restores.   A Jew looks at the world and sees a world of lost goods and strives to return those goods to their natural owners.   We live in a world full of losses, so it is only too easy to pretend we do not see.  Our parashah is a clarion call, sensitizing ourselves that when we see losses, we must do our best to restore.   The acts of restoration are the ultimate expressions of chesed, of kindness.  As God affords us kindness, so we afford that kindness to others.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Rambam Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandment 204

[2] This parallel is made explicitly by the Chafetz Chaim in Ahavat Chesed, Chelek Aleph, Dinei Halva’ah 4:1

[3] Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman characterizes this and the other laws following it as expressions of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” See his commentary on the Torah.

[4] Bava Metziah 30a-3ob

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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