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Ki Tetzei, in the middle of Devarim, the last book of the Torah, contains a whopping more than 70 mitzvot or commandments. (The count differs according to several sources.) They seem like a random collection of important rules for how to behave. You could pick almost any one or two and discuss for hours.
But the ones that called out to me this week is the paragraph I just chanted: Deut. 22:1-4, about what to do when you come upon a lost object. Let’s read it together.
Lo hit’alamta: ‘You cannot remain indifferent.’ Or “you may not hide yourself.” Or “utterly neglect to aid.” Some commentators see this as the overriding connection and theme for the entire portion. How easy is it to walk away and not get involved? To “mind our own business” and let bad things happen to others.
What does indifference or hiding yourself mean in terms of relationships – both personal and communal/societal?
You could say it is the death of any relationship and the birth of far reaching consequences.
Edmund Burke, the 18th Century English statesman, once wrote, ‘All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing’. How close is this to the torah edict to Not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors? What happens when we do?
According to R. Cheryl Peretz of Zeigler, “it is impossible for the individual or the society to succeed without each one of us living within relationship – to others around us and to the society itself… So, the Torah asks us to expand our circle of family and friends to include those around us and those other members of the community who become our ‘brethren’.”
When we transcend our complacency to involve ourselves in the life of others – to care for their property, to show concern for animals, then we serve not only our community, but the world given to us by God.
Elie Weisel spoke to this in one of my favorite quotes: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
As we use these days of Elul, that are quickly dwindling down, the time to immerse ourselves in our cheshbon hanefesh, spiritual accounting, we can also use this paragraph as a way to examine the laws of lost and found. The rabbis of the Talmud defined the notion of ‘ye’ush’ (despair – in the bible, desperation). As long as the owner has not despaired of finding a lost object, the finder has an obligation to hold on to it in safekeeping for the owner. There are long discussions in the Talmud about how we know when the obligation expires; whether and how the obligation changes depending on the kinds of objects or the location where it was found; and other questions that could arise.
For us now, the important thing is the principle that as long as the original owner has not despaired of finding their lost object—is not in a state of ye’ush, the object has a legal owner that can demand it to be returned to them. If they were to despair from finding it, it would be rendered hefker (ownerless) and belong to the finder.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, the great Hasidic master, took this paragraph about returning lost objects to a spiritual level: what about when we lose love, lose faith, lose ideals, lose our ability to believe in the words of the siddur? Who might be the finder?
To Rebbe Nachman, Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Time and Space, holds our spiritual losses.
Reb Mimi Feigelson, now a teacher at AJRCA, as well as Zeigler, encourages us to be each other’s spiritual finder of lost objects. While we are doing our spiritual accounting, can we account for these lost pieces of ourselves or of our loved ones? Can we help each other remember why we are here, what our spiritual tasks are? Can we struggle to redeem or restore those losses? May these next two weeks and the Yamim Nora’im—Days of Awe—be a time full of locating our own lost pieces and those of our loved ones…