‘Muscle Memory’ Parashat Ki Tetze 5783

It is probably the second most well-known contradiction in the entire Torah. The two verses in question are separated by only two verses, making the contradiction nearly impossible to miss. The topic at hand is returning lost goods to their original owner. The Torah states [Devarim 22:1-3] “You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near you or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [them].” Here is the problem: First the Torah tells us to “ignore [the lost goods] (vehit’alamta)” and then it tells us “You shall not ignore [them] (Lo tuchal lehit’alem)”. Well, what are we to do? To ignore or not to ignore, that is the question.

At first glance, our problem seems to stem from a grammatical misunderstanding. The Torah is not commanding us to ignore the lost objects, rather, it is warning us not to ignore them. The Ibn Ezra[1] explains that the word “ignore” is linked to the words at the beginning of the verse – “You shall not see” – as if to say “You shall not see nor ignore your brother’s ox…” There is no contradiction at all. Nevertheless, the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [30a] picks up on this “contradiction”, stating that there are times in which the requirement to return a found object is waived and the finder is allowed to ignore the object and to continue on his merry way. This is permitted in cases where it is beneath the finder’s dignity to return the lost object[2]. Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein[3] asks why the Talmud does not simply interpret the verse the way that the Ibn Ezra does. He answers that the Torah’s insight into human psychology – a person is walking down the street minding his own business when he comes across somebody’s wallet and he asks himself why bother picking it up after all it’s such a bother – is completely irrelevant. It is forbidden to ignore lost property, full stop. The fact that the Torah even mentions the word “ignore them (vehit’alamta)” indicates that there exists some situation in which a person could legally “ignore them”, such as when the finder is an esteemed rabbi and the object at hand is lying in a dirty gutter.

I suggest that if we do take into account the psychology of the finder, there is much to be learned. Imagine a person walking down the street who comes across an object that is clearly lost, say, a dog with a collar. It is a small matter to take the dog home and call the number on the collar. While I have never taken a poll, I am fairly certain that a large majority of people would ignore the dog and look the other way, not because they are naturally cruel to animals, but for another reason altogether. On the night of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was returning home from work when she was attacked and stabbed a stranger in the parking lot of her apartment building. She repeatedly screamed for help but while there were no less than thirty-eight witnesses to the murder, none of them did anything to help or call the police. Genovese died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. While subsequent investigations have called into question the number of witnesses and their inaction, the Kitty Genovese murder is still is taught in Introductory Psychology textbooks around the world. Why did so many bystanders remain silent in the face of an horrific crime? The answer lies in a concept called “diffusion of responsibility”, the decreased responsibility of action each member of a group feels because they believe that somebody else in the group will do the right thing. Diffusion of responsibility occurs when people who need to make a decision wait for someone else to act first. For example, in emergency situations, such as in the Kitty Genovese murder, bystanders are less likely to intervene as the size of the group increases and they feel less personal responsibility. Similarly, if I am walking down the street and I see a lost dog, I am fairly certain that if I don’t take the dog home, then somebody else will. Chances are that I will indeed “ignore them”. The diffusion of responsibility is hard-wired into our DNA. The question is how we go about defeating our natural tendencies.

To answer this question, we return to our “conflicting” verses. In the first verse, the Torah tells us what to do if we come across another person’s stray ox or sheep. Two verses later, we are told to act in the same manner if we find his donkey, garment, “or any lost article”. Why does the Torah bring four specific cases (ox, sheep, donkey, garment) before bringing the general case? Why doesn’t the Torah compress everything into one verse: “You shall not ignore any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found”? The Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [27a] answers this question by implementing the hermeneutical rule of “perat u’klal” – a specific case followed by a general category is all-inclusive and not limited to the specific example – and concludes that the commandment to actively return a lost object is pertinent to all objects similar to garments, that is to say, objects that are identifiable and have claimants. But the question remains: Why does the Torah bring a long list of examples when all it really needed to do was to bring one of them? The Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama [54b] asks a similar question: If the commandment to return a lost animal is relevant for any animal – an ox, a dog, or an iguana – why does the Torah mention specifically a lost ox? The Talmud answers “diber haTorah b’hoveh” – the verse speaks of a common scenario – an ox often wanders off and must be returned.

The Torah’s concern with “natural tendencies” and “common scenarios” can be addressed by muscle memory, a type of memory that involves the learning and retention of motor skills through repetition and practice. Muscle memory is not stored in the muscles themselves. It is a term used to describe the phenomenon where the brain and nervous system learn to perform a specific task more efficiently with repeated practice. With sufficient repetition, a complex task, whether draining three-point shots or driving in the rain, becomes a common scenario. The muscular response becomes innate and no longer requires active conscious thought. How does a person overcome his natural tendency to ignore the lost objects of another person? He does this via ethical muscle memory, by repeatedly returning whatever he finds: His friend’s ox, his sheep, his ox a second time, his donkey, his ox a third time, his garment – any and every lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. We do this again and again and again and again until we modify our own natural tendencies. The Torah even alludes ethical muscle memory. It commands “You shall not ignore them” with the words “Lo tuchal lehit’alem”. This can also be translated as “You shall not be able to ignore them”. If we teach ourselves to modify our natural tendencies by repeated motion, then we will have no other choice but to do the right thing.

This explanation can help us understand two seemingly identical comments made by Rashi[4]. First, Rashi explains that meaning of the word “ignore” in Devarim [22:1] is “by covering one’s eyes, pretending not to see it.”. Two verses later, Rashi again explains the word “ignore”, this time in the context of the explicit command not to ignore: “You must not cover your eyes, pretending not to see it.” Why does Rashi translate the same word twice using nearly identical language? The answer lies in a minute difference in the two instances. In the first instance, Rashi uses the third person, referring to some anonymous finder who “covers his eyes” while in the second instance, Rashi uses the second person: “You must not cover your eyes”. When a person remains a detached outsider, he will ignore what he must return. If that same person becomes an active participant, if “he” becomes “you”, then not only must you not cover your eyes, the Torah guarantees that you will not be able to.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra lived in Cordoba, Spain, at the turn of the twelfth century.

[2] Even so, normative halacha [Hoshen Misphat 263:3] enjoins him to dirty his hands and to return the object.

[3] Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, often called after his commentary on the Torah, “Torah Temima”, lived in Belarus about 150 years ago.

[4] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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