If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must surely return it to your fellow. If your fellow 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 fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you may not hide yourself. (Devarim 22: 1-3)
All that we’ve misplaced
from last year until this:
the faith that Your design is good;
our hopeful resolutions to do better;
our connections with each other
and with You
are safeguarded, in “lost and found.”
You don’t need signs to know they’re ours.
You hold our vision, undespairing,
until we come to claim it.
In a commentary on Ki Teitzei from 2001, Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun notes that amid the plethora of laws concentrated in this parasha [more than in any other parasha] we find the following law with which, traditionally, countless students have entered the complex world of Talmud study: If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must surely return it to your fellow (Devarim 22:1). The Talmud (in Bava Metzia) expounds upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah. Rabbi Eichler Berkun ponders why this subject was chosen by early Jewish teachers as an opening into serious religious learning.
She observes that we read this parasha in the month of Elul, when our thoughts are turning towards preparing for the Yamim Nora’im – the High Holidays. She suggests that there is a connection between the laws of lost property and the process of repentance. She notes the use of the same words for these two concepts. With regard to lost property the Torah teaches, hashev te’shiveim – literally “return, you shall return [lost property].” During the month of Elul, the over-riding theme is of repentance, teshuvah which means returning – to God. So Rabbi Eichler Berkun wonders how the laws of returning lost property inform us about the “spiritual discipline of repentance”? She notes that we learn in the Talmud that we are only responsible for returning a lost article that bears an identifying mark. So if we find coins or money bills on a street, we may keep them, as we have no chance of finding the owner, who in any event will not have any expectations of being located (he is considered to have reached a stage of ye’ush – despair – of receiving his money back). However, the Talmud also mandates that if we find something with a siman – a “sign” which identifies the owner, then we are obliged to make every effort to find him and return his property. He too, will not have despaired since the object is identifiably his. Moreover, we are enjoined to expand our efforts beyond obvious markings, but to consider where the object was found in an attempt to find the owner.
Rabbi Eichler Berkun says “Similarly, during this month leading up to the Yamim Noraim, we are called upon to look for the simanim, the “signs” that we have hurt someone in the past. We must search our souls for both the obvious and the subtle indications that obligate us to engage in teshuvah with those around us. If we wait too long to return, our loved ones may despair of ever finding a renewed relationship with us. As we make amends with all of those whom we have wronged in the past year, we return something which was lost to them. Perhaps we must return a family member’s sense of dignity. Perhaps we must give back our neighbor’s sense of self worth. Perhaps we must bring back our child’s sense of independence, our parent’s sense of honor, or our friend’s sense of trust.” She adds that in addition to truly seeking out ways to return something that was lost, or to repent for a misdeed, the Torah emphasises the need to keep on trying to do so. She cites the Mishnah: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t’shiveim, “return, you shall return them…” [Bava Metzia 27a]. She notes that double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse is a reminder to “repeatedly and diligently” return lost property. She compares this to the teaching of the Rambam (1135-1204) in his work Hilchot Teshuvah – Laws of Repentance, that if one asks another for forgiveness and is rejected, one is obligated to return a second and even a third time in an attempt to attain forgiveness. She says, “Teshuvah, like finding the original owner of a lost article, is certainly a challenging and painstaking process.”
Rabbi Eichler Berkun mentions the Stone of Claims from Temple times, as depicted in Bava Metzia 28b: “Our Rabbis taught: There was a Stone of Claims in Jerusalem: whoever lost an article repaired thither, and whoever found an article did likewise. The latter stood and proclaimed, and the former submitted his identification marks and received it back.” She says that this transaction of restoring lost property would occur during the festival seasons when the people gathered to celebrate at the Temple in Jerusalem. She says “Imagine how much easier it would be, nowadays, to return lost property at one universally recognized place and time. In the case of teshuvah as well, the Temple offered a specific method for gaining atonement. The sacrificial system and the priestly rites enabled a person to achieve repentance each year. However, as Maimonides explains: At present, when the Temple does not exist and there is no altar of atonement, there remains nothing else aside from teshuvah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:3). In the post–Temple era, Maimonides is telling us, we have no means of returning to God and to those whom we love other than the hard work of personal introspection, prayer, and earnest attempts to ask for forgiveness.”
Rabbi Eichler Berkun suggests that the Temple represents God’s presence among the people. She says, “Like the owner of a lost article, who could meet us at the “claimant’s stone” in Jerusalem, God would meet us in the Holy Temple as we returned each year to offer sacrifices. Today, we strive to recreate that sense of God’s immediate presence in our lives through our rituals, prayers, and studies.” She adds that the Yamim Nora’im represent our “claimant’s stone” where we return to God and each other. She concludes, “The laws of lost property in this week’s parashah speak to the fundamental experience of what it means to be a Jew. Jewish educators have trained their students first in the ethic of returning lost property in order to shape the moral and spiritual instincts of these Jewish souls. May our reflections upon these laws of hashavat aveidah serve as an intellectual and spiritual first step towards the transformative process of teshuvah.
In a further commentary on the parasha from 2010, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-jewish-lost-and-found, Rabbi Daniel Nevins reviews the very detailed system the rabbis developed to determine the level of responsibility a finder has to restore lost property. He notes, however, that rabbinic sensitivity also encompassed the psychological and social context. Thus, if returning lost property would engender too high a social or financial cost, the finder would not be expected to do so. He also mentions that, mindful of human frailty, the Torah enjoins us to restore lost property to our enemies as well as our friends. Thus, he suggests “I like to think that they were concerned not only with taming the petty instincts of a person who finds lost property, but also with restoring good relations between people who had been enemies. In this sense, the “lost possession” is friendship, and the commandment is to turn an enemy back into a brother.”
Rabbi Nevins also perceives the concept of “lost property” as an allegory. He asks “What is the most valuable property of the Jewish people? Is it not the Torah itself, which is called “the inheritance of Jacob’s congregation” (Deut. 33:5)?” He continues, “The Torah, which belongs to all of us, is nevertheless a lost inheritance for most Jews. An ancient story about Rabbi Yannai makes this point — if you meet a Jew who knows nothing of the tradition, do not mock him, but become his teacher (Vayikra Rabba 9:3). The Hasidic author Sefat Emet said that every day a heavenly voice announces that a valuable lost object — the Torah — has been found and is waiting to be claimed (Ki Tetzei for 5661). He finds a nice hint of this in the verse “until your brother comes to seek it (drosh).” On Shabbat, the Jewish soul remembers that it is missing something, and it goes to seek (drosh) the Torah and study it (drash).”
So Rabbi Nevins believes that this is the ultimate mission of every teacher and student of Torah – to restore this “lost property” the Torah, to its rightful owners. He concludes “The Jewish People is well familiar with popular culture, but the vast majority of our people are clueless about their lost treasure. Our duty is to announce the clues — the simanim — that mark this possession as valuable. Our job is to show our fellow Jews that the Torah does not belong to some scholarly elite, but that it is theirs to enjoy, to learn from, and to reclaim.”
And finally, in a commentary on Ki Tetzei from 2007, https://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5663, Reb Mimi Feigelson says that if in the time leading up to Pesach, we are engaged in physical housecleaning, in Elul, we are engaged in spiritual housecleaning. She too notes that the Chasidic masters view the laws of restoring lost property in a more mystical manner. Thus, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) deduces that the meaning of “every lost thing of your brother’s which he has lost” refers directly to the spiritual realm. He addresses the “spiritual objects” whose losses we sustain throughout our lives. Reb Mimi expands, “When we lose our love for a person that we once indeed loved deeply; when remembering how there was a time where our belief in God, humanity, or a sustaining philosophy that held us are now lost from us; when words of the siddur (prayer book) that once felt like ‘home’ have lost their meaning and significance – in these moments, who is the finder of such losses in our life?”
She answers that for Rebbe Nachman the answer is clear – the Ribbono Shel Olam (the Master of the World) – He is the finder of such losses. She continues “And He will hold on to it for us until we are ready to reclaim it and bring it back into our direct possession. We may need time to work through a relationship or a theological challenge. That is not a problem in Rebbe Nachman’s interpretation. God’s time is infinite, and as long as we hold on to the desire to return to the plain that we stood on, then it is only lost to us, but not to its own existence. And our Creator will hold on to it, in faith, trust and love till we come to claim it.”
Reb Mimi submits a further step, based on Rebbe Nachman’s teaching “Can we be this ‘spiritual finder’ for each other? Can we hold on to each other’s greatness and promise, in those moments when one of us has lost their vision? Can we help each other reclaim that which was dear to our heart and soul? While journeying through this month of Elul and cleaning out the rooms of our heart and soul, can we designate one corner as a ‘lost and found’ for our dear ones to come and claim that which they have lost, and we in love and faith have been holding on to for them?”