This week's parsha contains the mitzvah of returning lost objects to neighbors or fellow human beings. According to the simplest sense of the text, we must proactively pursue the owners of what we find; we are not allowed to ignore the lost objects in our sight. See a wallet - your job to find the owner! See a lost sheep - find the flock (be careful where you vacation!). How the Torah recognizes our attachments to the material objects and goods, animals and movable property we own.
The Torah approach to life encourages us to help make each others' lives better.
Think about this mitzvah of returning lost objects - when did you take on this responsibility?
I can remember three times in the last eight years that I had to pursue getting a lost object back to an owner. The first was when I found a driver's license in a taxi cab. Thankfully the person lived on East 88th street, and it was only a three block walk to her building. I dropped the license off with her doorman, and he let her know I had found it. The second story - I could have ignored the phone atop the subway metrocard reader. Someone left it there obviously when they took out their card to swipe. I saw the moment in my mind's eye when the phone was left behind. My heart went out, and I picked up the phone despite another scary thought - could it be a device that a terrorist left behind. Every since being in Jerusalem in the mid 1990s during the bus bombings I notice "suspicious objects," and post 9-11 in New York City like it or not we still have to be vigilant. But I pressed a button, and lucky for the person there was no lock screen. I texted the last person the owner had been messaging with, and that person (who was in Malaysia!) got in touch with a friend of the person whose phone it was. She came to the Fairway on 86th to meet me in the produce department, and I passed along the found phone to her. Full of gratitude does not describe the thankfulness this woman expressed. Final story - one that comes up often - how many teeny little socks have I run to return to the feet of newborn babies on the Upper East Side! I wouldn't and couldn't ignore the baby socks that fall from strollers, as new parents push their little ones along sidewalks and park paths. What a pleasure to reconnect infants with their booties!
And then there are times when I have been asked to hold onto lost items that people find in the synagogue. What responsibility do I have as their shaliah, agent, who has a mitzvah to do? What happens if we find a book? An earring? A tallit? A wallet on Shabbat? All these provide opportunities and potentially require an inordinate amount of time, to find the owners. Our law codes know of the debates that arise when we are faced with taking on the responsibility of returning lost objects.
Finally, by way of introduction, let's think about this mitzvah metaphorically - what do our family members, friends and neighbors "lose" that we could help restore? Are we required to help them get back a sense of calm when they "lose their temper?" Reading the Torah verses in this light may seem far beyond the p'shat, simple sense of the words, but there is a spiritual lesson here.
First, we'll explore this mitzvah through sources that deal with actual objects, what they are and who finds them. Read through the passages and notice what opportunities are created - beyond just returning the objects. And finally consider a source about how we can do a mitzvah by helping return our family, friends and fellows to peaceful, calm states of being when anger or other emotions make them "lose it."
Here are the verses from Deuteronomy 22:
What are the objects that the Torah mentions? Talk about them as objects that define categories.
What does it mean "to not remain indifferent" in these cases?
Why might the Torah think that we would be indifferent or ignore the opportunities to return these objects?
Consider this Mishnah now:
Often, the Rambam, Maimonides, will both spell out detailed laws and define general principles in the Mishneh Torah. What are the specifics of finding and returning lost objects in these halakhot?
What is the general principle? Why does Rambam set finding lost objects against respecting one's parents?
Let's look at a modern interpretation of lost property, to further inform our understanding of this mitzvah. How does this information impact your read of the above sources?
Lost Property (from Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute)
The common law distinguished between lost property and mislaid property.
- Lost property is personal property that was unintentionally left by its true owner.
- Mislaid property is personal property that was intentionally set down by its owner and then forgotten. For example, a wallet that falls out of someone's pocket is lost. A wallet accidentally left on a table in a restaurant is mislaid.
At common law, a person who found lost personal property could keep it until and unless the original owner comes forward. This rule applied to people who discovered lost property in public areas, as well as to people who discovered lost property on their property.
Mislaid property, on the other hand, generally goes to the owner of the property where it was found. Thus, for example, a person who finds a wallet lost in the street may keep it. If, however, a person finds a wallet inside a barbershop, the shop owner might have a better claim to the wallet. The basic theory behind this distinction is that owners of mislaid property are more likely to remember where the property is. Allowing property owners to keep it makes it easier for the true owner to recover the property.
Real property may not be lost or mislaid.
Many jurisdictions have statutes that modify the common law's treatment of lost or abandoned property. Typically, these statutes require lost personal property to be turned over to a government official, and that if the property is not claimed within a set period of time, it goes to the finder and the original owner's rights to the property are terminated.
So, on our subject, here's an added dimension from the Book of Exodus. What new information do we need to include in our calculus of this mitzvah that's explained in Deuteronomy 22?
Consider now the "narrative" that the Mishnah describes, or the details, that one must consider with lost objects.
What further obligations are defined here?
And now back to Mishnah 2:8. What opportunities does the Mishnah describe? Why is Elijah included here?
And for the more metaphorical-spiritual read of the text:
What might the ox represent, by way of a person losing?
What might the sheep symbolize, by way of a person's outlook or emotional state?
Could an ox be a person's strength? How might we help restore it?
Could a sheep be a person's willingness to remain with the flock? How do we help a person feel right about staying with the group? Choosing to follow a shepherd whose ways are good and peaceful?
How do we "hold" someone's anger with them and help return a sense of calm? A sense of inner peace?
Read the verses in a more metaphorical-symbolic way to discover their messages:
From "Versed in Torah: A Hearing Heart, A Connected Soul
by Rabbi Scott N. Bolton
"Anything that your fellow loses" (Deuteronomy 22:3) - This phrase within the verses teaches us an essential lesson about our power to help return our friends, family and fellow human beings to a sense of calm, even temper, feelings of positivity and building their capacities to face and even embrace situations when great loss has occurred. While we have mitzvot like comforting mourners, we help our mourners regain a sense of the presence of their loved ones through sharing stories about them or asking them to share memories. If a person "loses his temper" there are those whose presence and abilities allow them to become agents of calm and tranquility on the stormy seas of another's life. When a person just "loses it" and feels unanchored or disconnected a fellow soul may be just the one to reconnect a person to life - even to help prevent the person from commiting suicide. The Hebrew verb for suicide is L'hitabed, להתאבד, to "lose" oneself, to cause one's life to be lost. This is the ultimate warning, when it comes to expanding on "returning lost 'objects' to their owners in a metaphorical sense. The Torah is addressing more than just physical objects; the verse speaks about the objectives in our lives, our reasons for living, the tranquility upon stormy seas, the anchored-ness that one feels when friends and community help us to connect. We must be attentive and look for these opportunities. We must read the verse: "You must not remain indifferent..." as "do not ignore noticing what losses people are suffering" and help return their spirits (Deuteronomy 22:3). Just as we are commanded to return physical lost objects and not ignore them we must commit to the helping return our fellows and those we love, when they are suffering a loss of any type. Our duty is to help return others to a sense of wholeness when we are the obvious ones to help return what has been lost or a sense of loss. Our task is to engage in spiritual restoration as it is to restore physical lost property.