Returning Lost Articles.
Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )
Among the many laws we find in this week's parsha are the laws of returning lost articles to their owner. It should be noted here that the civil laws of other countries rarely if ever include laws that require the citizen to help his fellow man. Their laws revolve around not harming others. Our laws add the positive dimension of helping our fellow man. Let us see how righteous and wise laws are derived from an implied message.
Regarding recovering and returning a lost article we have the following verse:
"And if your brother is not near to you and you don't know who he is, then you must take it into your house and it should remain with you until your brother seeks it, then you shall return it to him."
And you shall return it to him - RASHI: So that there is a [real] returning (restoration). The [animal] should not eat in your house the worth of its own value. And you would then claim this [from the owner]. From here [the Sages] derived the principle: Anything that works and requires food (like an ox) should work and eat. Whatever does not work but requires food (like a sheep) should be sold (and that money returned to the owner).
RASHI SHOWS US THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW
Rashi is telling us to understand the spirit, and not just the words, of the law. When a person loses something and someone finds it and returns it to him, he has done him a great service. The man's loss was retrieved. However, if a man finds a sheep and keeps it until its owner seeks it out, this could take weeks, maybe months, before its owner claims it. During all that time the finder must feed the sheep and keep it healthy, otherwise what kind of chesed is it to return an emaciated, sickly sheep to its owner? But feeding the animal costs money. Should the finder pay for this out of his own pocket? No, Torah law does not require this of a person. To demand such expenditures from a person would probably discourage most people from "getting involved," and they would pass by the lost article, which they saw on the way. So the Sages gave the following advice. If the animal can do work, like an ox, put it to work, until the owner comes; that would more than cover its eating expenses. But if the animal is one that cannot do work, like a sheep, then in order to "return it" to its owner, you had best sell the sheep (the money received from the sale doesn't cost anything to hold), and give that money to the owner when he comes.
This is brilliant advice. This gets at the spirit of the law, which is to help a person retrieve his loss, without causing him other losses in the process.
An example of how serious the Sages took the mitzvah of returning the value of the lost article, and not just the article itself, is the following incident (recorded in the Talmud, Taanis 25a):
"It happened that someone passed the home of Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa, and left there roosters. His wife found them and Rabbi Chanina said to her 'Don't eat those eggs.' The eggs increased and they sold them and with the money they bought goats. Later the man who had forgotten his roosters passed by Rabbi Chanina's home and said to his friend, 'It is here that I forgot my roosters.' Rabbi Chanina overheard this and said to him 'Do you have identification that the rosters are yours?' He gave him a sign and Rabbi Chanina 'returned' to him 'his' goats!"
We see that the Sages' dedication to living by the spirit of the Torah is no less than their wisdom in interpreting it.