Rabbi David Walk
Most people love a free lunch. It's very much a part of human nature to want something for nothing. I remember very well as a child finding a nickel or, wonder of wonders, a dollar on the sidewalk and feeling like I was the most fortunate person in the world. I think that this is the sentiment which drives people to buy lottery tickets, and this is the motivation for the popularity of magic. Judaism, on the other hand, believes in achieving success the old fashioned way, by earning it. This explains the Torah's great antipathy for witches, divination and magic in general. And I believe that this week's Torah reading contains another example of this Jewish work ethic. We must return lost articles, whenever possible.
Our parsha is basically a catalog of mitzvoth. There are more commandments in this week's reading (72) than any other in our yearly cycle. Therefore, it's always hard to pin down a topic for discussion, but this year I've chosen the mitzvah of hashavat aveida, or returning lost articles, because I hope you'll agree it contains an important appeal to our spiritual preparations for the upcoming High Holidays. Like always, it all begins with a text: If you see another person's animal, you shall not hide from it; you must return it to the owner. If the owner is not known to you, then you should bring the object into your house, where it shall remain until the owner inquires after it, and you will return it to him. So shall you do for his donkey, his garment, or any lost article that you may find..." (Deut. 22:1-3). There's a lot to discuss in this passage, so I will be selective. Let me begin, though, with an important technical point. The verse is describing an object which has an identifying mark. Happily for my youthful experiences of staring at pavements, money doesn't have such clear signs of ownership and individual pieces of cash may be kept. Yeah!
However, our persistence in finding the owner of objects whose possessor can be identified is almost herculean. The Talmud (Taanit 25a) tells the story of how chickens once strayed into the yard of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa. Rabbi Chanina thus became obligated to care for the chickens until their owner could be found. The chickens laid eggs which hatched into chicks, and soon Rabbi Chanina's property was overrun with a whole flock of chickens! In order to consolidate, he traded all the chickens for a few goats. He eventually returned to the rightful owner a valuable flock of goats. Rashi on our verse emphasizes this heavy responsibility. He writes: So that there is a real restoration. The animal should not eat in your house the worth of its own value. And you would then claim this from the owner. From here the Sages derived the principle: Anything that works and requires food (like an ox) should work and eat. Whatever does not work but requires food (like a sheep) should be sold and that money returned to the owner.
The Torah adds a deeper dimension: "You shall not hide yourself from it." This precludes the option of pretending not to see it and going along our merry way to avoid this profound obligation. This would be an easy solution to the problem of searching for the owner while maintaining the value of the lost object. Why does the Torah require this level of concern for the property of others? The simplest answer is the best. It's an expression of the feelings for others demanded by that famous dictum: Love your fellow as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Since we would want our valuables returned to us, so, too must we go out of our way to provide this service to others. The Alshich (R. Moshe Alshich, 1508-1593) adds this helps overcome our naturally selfish instincts. Persistently performing this act will raise the individual to the level of being one who psychologically and constitutionally can't hide from others' lost property and needs.
Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) in his great commentary on the Torah points out: You can't see this precept only in terms of lost articles. Rather this is the principle in all other details and objectives in human existence to restore them to a fellow or to remove all injury from the other. This is the obligation of us all. The verse demands that we not hide from the other. But in this verse there is a hint to God, from whom no one can hide. This reminds us that nothing is hidden from the Almighty. There is also a reminder of eternal life, when God will return souls to their proper place.
This, of course, brings us to our preparations for the upcoming Days of Awe. We must remind ourselves that if we are required to restore physical objects to our neighbors how much more so must we return to others items of much greater value. If we've had an argument or falling out, let's restore our relationship. Friendships are too precious and rare to allow them to become permanently lost. And what if a neighbor or colleague has lost their dignity? Shouldn't we help restore that, too?
This time of year is dedicated to the search for lost articles. The Torah obligates us to help others find that which has been lost, because of the principle of 'love your fellow as you love yourself'. As we've noted this includes intangibles like friendships and dignity. So, shouldn't we be restoring these lost items to ourselves, as well? What is the most cherished possession a human can have custody of? It's our relationship with our Maker. We are told to seek God when the Almighty is available (Isaiah 55:6). It's this season when God is especially available. Let us take advantage of the opportunity.