Why is it my problem if someone else loses his property?
Table for Five: Ki Teitzei
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother.
David Sacks, Host of the Podcast, “Spiritual Tools for an Outrageous World”
Why is it my problem if my “brother” (which is code in the Torah for my fellow Jew) loses his property? I feel bad for him, but that’s his issue not mine. Right? Wrong. The Torah is teaching us that his property is my concern because we’re way more connected than I may think. Genome studies show that genetically speaking all Jews are fourth or fifth cousins. Which means, we don’t just share the same religion… we really are one family. But let’s go deeper. Why is the Torah talking about returning sheep? Because the Jewish people are compared to sheep. It’s no coincidence that Yaakov Avinu, Moshe Rabbainu and King David were all shepherds.
Therefore, on a deeper level, the Torah is telling us to return the lost souls of our brothers and sisters back to Hashem. This is hinted at in the Torah when Yehuda is told that they’re taking Benjamin captive. Yehuda cries out, “How can I return to my father without my brother?” Meaning, at the end of my life, how can I stand before my father, Hashem, without my brother and sister, who aren’t there because no one taught them how precious it is to be a Jew?
But it goes even deeper than that. Because we’re not just one family, we’re also one soul. When I look at another Jew, I’m looking at myself.
Because our souls are rooted in the same place: Hashem, the One G-d, who loves all of us the most.
David Brandes, Writer and producer of “The Quarrel”
We are at the dramatic moment in the Torah when the Jews are about to enter the promised land. The final chapters of the epic narrative are playing out. It’s time for restating the important lessons that must be taken to heart. Moses charges the people with their mission and warns them not to falter from it. It’s fire and brimstone time. The blessing and the curse… And yet the great leader lowers the octane and returns to “returning your brothers’ lost animals” theme. Why?
There is a heartbreaking story about a Jewish farmer in Poland who was rounded up by the Nazis and on his way to being deported to Auschwitz. He passed a neighbor and while the Nazis weren’t watching begged the neighbor to feed his animals while he was gone.
In his moment of greatest fear this righteous man transcended his fears and acts to take care of his helpless animals. Every time I remember this story it brings tears to my eyes. I believe that this week’s passage is instructing us to be kind to our brother’s animals as well as kind to our “brother”. These are foundational laws of decency.
Most of us who live with animals know that animals have powerful emotions including feelings of love and attachment. As with us, their fear of abandonment can be traumatic and debilitating. I believe the Torah is teaching us that extending kindness to our animals is all part of being kind to one another.
Rabbi Dr Janet Madden, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue
Unlike the ancient Roman law of “finders keepers,” Judaism teaches that we may not claim whatever we find as our own. We are not permitted to “not see.” We must return lost objects to their owners. We must be responsive, not indifferent, to distress experienced by our fellow humans—and by other species that share our world.
We humans have long recognized the practical value of oxen and sheep, which provide for a range of our needs: plowing, transportation, hides, clothing and food. Positioned at opposite ends of the spectrum of our literal and symbolic relationships with domestic animals, the Talmud identifies the ox as the loftiest animals that we have put to our use while the analogy of Israel to defenseless sheep is woven through our sacred texts.
Perek Shira connects the ox and the sheep to our Jewish meta-story of moving from slavery to freedom as each animal recalls our crossing the Red Sea. The ox bellows that the Holy One is “loftier than the lofty” while the sheep bleat the rhetorical question “Who is like you?” This expression of our connection to the animals that live among us and their representation of our connection to the Divine reminds us that we are not only responsible to our fellow humans. We must also observe tsar baalei chayim, our ethical responsibility to the animals that we put to our uses.
We are all creations of the Divine. As the Rambam puts it “Man’s nefesh [soul] is like the animals’ nefesh…”
Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas, Instagram @rabbi_tova
During this moment, we are in the introspective phase that allows our souls to enter the high holiday season. The month of Elul is serious business. We awaken to the call by listening to that ancient piercing sound of the shofar blast, a reminder to turn inwards. The questions such as “Where did we hit and miss the mark this year?” are beginning to percolate. Whether we are doing any of these actions actively or not, there is an undeniable tension that the high holidays are inevitably approaching swiftly.
Ki Teitzei, which translates to “when you go out,” helps us accomplish this inner work by reminding us of the meaning of living in a society amongst fellow human beings, creatures, domestic animals, and the like. While the ancient world is distant from ours, this notion of looking out for one another’s animals, which inevitably means looking out for another, is one our Torah demands us to take in.
Our tradition knows we are perfectly imperfect or imperfectly perfect souls on a journey. It demonstrates that we need structures, boundaries and even laws to create collective societies that demand us to look out for one another and treat one another with dignity. Reading these ancient words during the month of Elul is an invitation that as we “go out” towards the inner work of this time of year, it is not only about ourselves but rather about living collectively as decently as possible.
Rabbi Mari Chernow, Temple Israel of Hollywood
Every few years, a story circulates in the news about a human chain. It’s a crowded day at the beach. A swimmer gets caught in a riptide. Complete strangers stop what they are doing, link hands from the shore, and pull the swimmer in. In 2017, one such chain in Florida was 80 people long!
Why do beachgoers get involved? Why not simply hope that a lifeguard will arrive in time? After all, the swimmer missed or ignored warning signs. Why take the personal risk, not to mention the time and energy it takes, to make it their problem?
Our passage, which begins with lost property, culminates with “You cannot ignore,” often translated as, “You shall not remain indifferent.” We cannot solve everything for everyone, but our tradition teaches that there is no such thing as, “not my problem.” We cannot remain indifferent.
Bryan Stevenson argues that, “Ultimately what we do to get proximate to those who are disfavored and excluded, what we do to change narratives, what we do to stay hopeful, what we do that is inconvenient and uncomfortable can sometimes be the most meaningful thing we do. It is how we honor what it means to have responsibility.”
In the ancient world, honoring responsibility meant returning the wandering ox. In our day, it means noting those who are struggling and scared, getting up from our comfortable positions (on the beach or wherever we may be), grabbing someone’s hand and taking our place in the human chain.
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