Returning Lost Objects
Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )
The wisdom of Jewish law.
"If you see another person's animal, you shall not hide from it; you must return it to the owner. If the owner is not known to you, then you should bring the object into your house, where it shall remain until the owner inquires after it, and you will return it to him. So shall you do for his donkey, his garment, or any lost article that you may find..." (Deut. 22:1-3)
"Returning lost objects" is one of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah. At the most basic level, this means that if we find a bundle of money lying in the street, we are required to seek out the owner and return it.
The Torah adds a deeper dimension: "You shall not hide yourself from it." This precludes the option of pretending not to see it and going along our merry way.
In practical terms, this means posting signs around the neighborhood, and asking around for who may have lost such a thing. As an example, we would publicize: "Briefcase found on July 1st on Brookville Drive. To claim it, call 555-1234."
The key is to divulge enough information about the object so that the owner will know it refers to him, but not too much that someone could unscrupulously come and falsely claim the object. Whoever calls to claim the briefcase would be required to provide a basic description (color, size) and perhaps identify some of the contents. In this way, we are certain that the object is properly returned.
"Finders keepers, losers weepers" is definitely not a Jewish concept!
The Damage is Done
Another application of this mitzvah is taking responsibility for the damage of someone else's property. The classic example is if I accidentally dent another's car in the parking lot, I must leave a note with my phone number.
The Talmud (Baba Metzia 31a) extends this to "preventing damage" as well. For instance, if your neighbor's house is about to be flooded ― and he's not home ― then you are required to set up sandbags. (You could later ask to be reimbursed.)
I recall an incident during my first visit to Aish in Jerusalem. I was looking at the student bulletin board, casually reading some of the notices that were posted. One in particular caught my eye:
"I accidentally broke a blue coffee mug. If it's yours, please see me so I can compensate you.
Signed, Joe Ploni."
Joe could have broken the mug, kept quiet, and nobody would have known. But he was determined to set things straight. Wouldn't it be beautiful if the whole world worked this way?!
But that's not the end of the story. A week later, I was again reading that same bulletin board and noticed something amazing. This young man had crossed out the word "accidentally" and wrote instead "negligently." He had thought about it and realized it was inaccurate to say that breaking the coffee mug was merely accidental!
Guarding the Goods
An extension of the Mitzvah to return lost objects is to guard the object carefully until it is returned. We don't have permission to use it; rather we are required to care for it.
The Talmud (Taanit 25a) tells the story of how chickens once strayed into the yard of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa. Rabbi Chanina thus became obligated to care for the chickens until their owner could be found. The chickens laid eggs which hatched into chicks ― and soon Rabbi Chanina's property was overrun with a whole flock of chickens! In order to consolidate, he traded all the chickens for a few goats.
Through careful observance of the mitzvah, Rabbi Chanina had multiplied the wealth of the original owner of the chickens. By the time the man came to stake his claim, he was the proud owner of an entire herd of goats.
With this idea in mind, let's consider the following illustration:
Sam the stockbroker calls up his friend Bill. "I've got a hot tip on a new stock," says Sam. "It's guaranteed to double overnight!"
"Oh, I've heard about these so-called 'hot tips' before," says Bill. "Thanks anyway, but I'll pass."
One week later Bill gets a phone call. "Hey, it's me, Sam. Remember that great new stock I told you about? Well I put down $10,000 and it doubled overnight! I think it's going to keep on climbing, so I'm reinvesting my entire $20,000. It's not too late for you to get in on the action. Are you interested?"
"No, thanks," says Bill. "What goes up, must come down. I'll pass."
One week later Bill gets a phone call. It's Sam the stockbroker. "Wow, this stock is amazing. It keeps doubling and now my investment is worth over $100,000. C'mon, Bill, why don't you invest in this stock. It's great!"
Week after week, month after month, the phone calls continue. Sam's stock keeps rising. And Bill is left out in the cold.
One day Bill's phone rings. (He's hoping it's not Sam with more investment news.) "Hey, it's me, Sam. I want to tell you something. Do you remember months ago when I invested that first $10,000? Well, at the same time I took another $10,000 and invested it in your name. Now that portfolio is worth over a million dollars. We're good friends and I care about you a lot, Bill. So just give me the original $10,000 and the million dollars is yours!"
Can you imagine such a deal?
Now apply this to Jewish history. From Moses to Maimonides, from the Holy Temple to the modern State of Israel, everyone and everything in between, our ancestors sweated and fought and sacrificed themselves to build a Jewish legacy. A legacy of wisdom, of idealism, of education, and of caring for each other and for the world.
This is not a Jewish guilt trip. This is about recognizing the outstanding legacy that we have. For 3,000 years, the Jewish people have been putting away an accumulated treasure. We can all now come and collect!
Bringing it Home
The Mitzvah to return lost items applies not only to material objects that have been lost, but also to more intangibles. For instance, if someone is not talking to a friend because of an argument, we should try to help restore the relationship.
Similarly, if someone has fallen away from Judaism and lost their connection to God and Torah, we must do what we can to help.
This year, as the High Holidays approach, think of someone you know who may be disconnected from the Jewish community, and invite him/her to share the holiday with you. Perhaps this is what the verse in our parsha intended: "Then bring [the lost object] into your house" (Deut. 22:1).
Try it. Take responsibility. Your efforts may be worth millions.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons