We lose stuff all the time. Think how moved we are when someone returns it. And our Torah obligation in such cases goes even deeper…
Table for Five: Ki Teitzei
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
If you see your brother’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your brother. If your brother does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your brother claims it; then you shall give it back to him. -Deut. 22:1-2
Miriam Gittle Mill, Esq., Tzaddik Foundation, mother of 4
I remember when my yeshiva-educated 11-year-old son, Mendy, dissected this verse regarding returning a lost ox or sheep in his Gemara class. The laws are much more complicated than the verse suggests but the main idea still remains. What stands out with the verse is the contrast between secular and Torah law. As Jews, we are responsible for each other in order to fulfill G-d’s will. We have to work against our natural selfish instincts. I would bet no other legal system in the world demands such care of another person’s property. Not only don’t we allow “finders keepers” but we have to make an effort to safeguard and return lost property, the standard being much higher than simply “do not steal.”
Having grown up in the public school system and graduating NYU School of Law, I am often in awe of my son’s yeshiva education. Imagine a world where all children from a young age are intensively taught moral and legal reasoning based on the guidebook created by the Creator of the World. This Book teaches us to care about another person’s possessions because a loving G-d is watching and will judge us accordingly. Instead of raising a generation that is mainly concerned with “making a living,” they are concurrently involved in “making a moral life”. A natural by-product of such an education is the ability to think and reason well. Imagine that.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
These verses constitute the second of two primary sources for the mitzvah of returning lost property. Whereas Ex. 23:4 commands that lost property be returned, the verses here emphasize that one is not allowed to ignore lost property. Moreover, they indicate that the one who finds lost property becomes its guardian until it can be properly returned. The iteration of this commandment is a reflection of the unique regard that Jewish tradition has for personal property.
The Mishna in Avot likens one who defrauds another to one who steals from God. This is because in Jewish tradition all personal property is a loan from God that we are each tasked to use for the divine purposes which are particular to us. It is worth noting that Maimonides describes one of the defining features of the Messianic Era as being a time when no one takes that which does not belong to him. In this light, it is perhaps striking that the second half of the Ten Commandments (the laws governing human relations) all have to do with the avoidance of unjustly depriving others of that which is theirs. More fundamentally, it is possible to see the primal sin of the Tree of Knowledge as a form of stealing. Judaism reminds us that we cannot overlook the material deprivation of others: we must go out of our way to look out for others. At the same time, we must look to use our material goods for worthy and holy ends.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, B’nai David-Judea Congregation
This text calls out a very human– not so pretty– impulse: that of ignoring the needs of our fellow. This instinct is our yetzer hara (evil inclination), which the Torah requires we battle and overcome.
Rashi explains specifically that our verses tell us not to “cover our eyes,” pretending not to see our fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray. This teaching goes far beyond lost property– it gets at our religious imperative to respect God’s creations and to not become callous, immune to pain. How many times have we walked down the street and averted our eyes from someone who is homeless? Or pretended not to notice a friend or stranger asking for a favor– not responding for our own convenience? Has Covid magnified this?
Our parsha teaches that this is not only unacceptable behavior, it’s also something God notices. Sometimes it seems easier to ignore and literally look away, but the Torah reminds us that easy does not mean right. We are now fully in Elul, the time in our calendar to open our hearts to humility and transformation. Let’s examine ourselves: How have I covered my eyes, ignoring my fellow this past year? What pain/burden/fear/sorrow am I avoiding by spiritually and emotionally covering my eyes to another’s need? How does it feel when I choose to open my eyes and respond? Our verses reveal that in unexpected moments we can find ourselves tasked as keepers and protectors of each other. Do I recognize those moments?
David Brandes, screenwriter and producer
Why shouldn’t we ignore or hide ourselves from a brother’s animal gone astray? And since when does someone who’s lost an animal become a brother?
Consider the story told by the great Tzadik of Jerusalem, Reb Aryeh Levin, to his grandson, Benji when asked how he, Reb Aryeh, befriended so many, many people:
A father and son went to a famous Rav to adjudicate their problem. It was winter and sadly they only had one coat between them. “This is my only coat,” said the father. “I am an old man and I need it to keep warm.” “I need it more,” replied the son. “I am outside all the time.” The Rav thought it over and promised a decision if they would each tell the story from the others point of view… The son spoke emotionally, “My father needs the coat more than me. The weather is freezing cold and he is older.” “No pleaded the father, “my son takes care of me, he needs it.” The Rav got up, walked to the hallway and brought back another overcoat. “I have an extra overcoat, take it…” “Was the coat in your closet all along? asked the confused son. “Yes,” answered the Rav. “Then why didn’t you give it to us immediately?” “Ah,” replied the Rav. “It was when you opened your hearts that I was able to open my heart and that reminded me of the overcoat.”
We become brothers when we become unhidden to each other.
Rabbi Jonathan Leener, Base BKLYN & Prospect Heights Shul
What is the difference between being lost and being astray? Inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939 Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira answered, “The outcast person has merely been exiled from his location to another place, but he can still be seen and recognized. A person who is lost, however, is neither visible nor recognizable.” In fact, sometimes a person can be so lost that they can’t even recognize themselves.
This month of Elul is the beginning of this painful and inspiring search for self. It is a time when we admit how far we have gone astray from our true being, and it’s because of this that we find ourselves so distant from God. Rabbi Shapira concludes, “The blessing is that God will give not only when the Jew is visible and recognizable but also when he is lost, when he is neither visible nor recognizable as a Jew.” Man is capable of returning a misplaced item like an ox, but only God has the capacity to return something that is totally lost because God always can see the depths of every being. The sages argue at great length whether a person ever gives up finding what he has lost. One thing is certain, God never gives up on finding us. “Ein Shum Yeush Baolam Clal” says Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “There is no despair in the world.”
With thanks to Miriam Gittle Mill, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, David Brandes, and Rabbi Jonathan Leener
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