Shaarei Shamayim

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This week’s Torah reading is jam packed with the most mitzvot, the most commandments of any Torah portion—72 by Maimonides’ count, more than 10% of the 6l3 mitzvot of the entire Torah! There are commandments dealing with farming, with clothing, with sanitation, with marriage, with divorce—a host of different areas of life. And yet, there is one mitzvah to which I am drawn every year (Deut. 21:1-3): You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep cast off and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother. And if your brother be not near you, and you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house and it shall remain with you until your brother seeks it, and you return it to him. And so shall you do for his donkey, his garment, and to every lost article of your brother’s which he lost and you have found; you may not hide yourself.

I know of no other nation that requires such effort in respecting another’s personal property. The obvious conclusion is that if such respect is given to another’s property, how much more so should one respect the owner of that property—a fellow human being?

This mitzvah has a name in the Jewish tradition: Hashavat Aveyda. In Judaism, there’s no such thing as, “finders keepers, losers weepers.” If you find something that belongs to someone else, you’re legally obligated to return it. If you don’t know who it belongs to, you must hold on to it, and take care of it, and then advertise, or announce it. In other words, one must do whatever one can to return lost property.

I’m fascinated by this law because I’m always losing things and I wish, for my sake, that more people knew this law in the Torah and observed it. But sometimes things get lost through no fault of its owner.

I remember standing in line at Hartsfield airport waiting to have my baggage checked. The man standing in front of us didn’t offer the skycap a tip. Instead he sternly lectured him about taking special care of his 2 bags. He even cursed at him when one of his bags tipped over accidentally, then angrily stalked off toward his gate.

          As I stepped up to take my turn, the skycap had this broad grin on his face. I asked him how he was able to keep smiling given the sometimes difficult people he had to deal with.

          “What do you mean?” he asked.

          “Like that man who just cursed you,” I replied.

          The skycap just smiled and said, “Oh, that dude? People like him are easy. You see, he’s heading for L.A., but his bags are going to Detroit!” 

Let me read to you a remarkable story with a modern take about a person who fulfilled this mitzvah of hashavat aveyda, returning lost property—with the help of Facebook. The story originally appeared in the New York Daily News (7/3/14) and was sent to me by a colleague:

          A Florida rabbi who was on vacation with his family visited a store that sells unclaimed airline baggage in Scottsboro, Alabama this Tuesday, looking to buy some cheap cell phones.

Let me pause here for a moment. Did you know that there were stores like this, where you can buy property that has been lost by the airlines? I always thought that when you took a flight to Florida and your luggage took a trip to India, and they were unable to reunite you with your luggage that it ended up in a special compartment of Hell somewhere—but evidently that’s not what happens. The airlines keep it for a while, and then, if they can’t locate the owner, and if no one claims it, its contents are sold to a store. Now back to the story:

          Rabbi Uri Pilchowski made a religious discovery: 7 pairs of tefillin…I have never been to Scottsdale and so I cannot say for sure, but I would imagine that Scottsdale, Alabama, is not a community where Tefillin are in very great demand. Tefillin, as I am sure you know, are holy items that can cost upwards of a $1,000 and are typically stored in unique bags with the owner’s name or Hebrew initials on them.

          But the Unclaimed Baggage Center had no idea about their true worth and was selling each pair for $45. “We bought them all,” Pilichowski said.

Then they were faced with the question: “What do we do with them? And how do we find their owners? How do we perform the mitzvah of hashavat aveyda?” The Talmud says that if you find lost property and you cannot locate the owner, you are supposed to take it to the Temple in Jerusalem when you go there for one of the pilgrimage holidays, and announce what you found. But not everyone goes to Jerusalem on the pilgrimage holidays nowadays and we have no Temple, so that might not work.

One could put an ad in the newspaper, but which one—The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The New York Times? But that would be very expensive and besides me, who reads the newspapers anymore? So what did Rabbi Pilchowski do? 

          He then posted photos of each bag on Facebook explaining that he was looking for their owners. Within hours the post had been shared nearly 2,000 times. And he’s since returned 6 of the 7 pairs, mailing 4 to their owners in New York. The 7th one they donated to a synagogue.

          Each bag its own story. One had a tag inside with a last name that sounded familiar: Malka. Years ago, Pilichowski went to a Passover charity camp in Ukraine with someone with that same last name. So he reached out to his old buddy, a Chabad Hasid living in Los Angeles. “How many people have that last name?” he said. It was an instant match. His father, David, 58 who worked as a chef for the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, passed away due to pancreatic cancer in October. But before he died, he bequeathed his cherished tefillin to his oldest grandson, Abie, who was soon to have his bar mitzvah. A few months later, the pair got lost during a layover in Charlotte as the family was headed to visit family in Cancun, Mexico for Passover. The boy was heartsick… He got a “loaner” pair from a charity group and waited, praying the original would be found and returned.

Isn’t this a great story? It’s the story of how a simple mitzvah—a commandment of Gd—can restore relationships and bring healing. Rabbi Pilchowski was reunited with his friend from camp and his friend’s son found healing from the death of his grandfather. I think we can learn a few lessons from this. #1, never give up hope. If you put something in a suitcase, and it ends up in Scottsboro, Alabama or some such place, you never can tell who may find it and return it to you.

#2, if you’re traveling with something important, something very sacred and very precious, such as your Tefillin, always carry them it your hand luggage as I do and never entrust it to the airlines. Otherwise it just might end up in Scottsboro, Alabama, or who knows where?

The 3rd lesson is that some mitzvot are easier to observe today than they were in times of old. They didn’t have Facebook in those days, as we do now, and so when they found someone’s donkey, or someone’s sheep, or someone’s garment, they had to shlep it to the Temple in Jerusalem on a holiday in order to try to locate its owner. It was a tremendous effort. We can use our social media instead, which is easier and more efficient.

And the last lesson that I would have you learn is that we should strive, whenever we can, to observe this mitzvah of hashavat aveyda, as well as all the other mitzvot that Gd blessed us with in His Torah. This mitzvah and the 71 other commandments in this parsha beseeches us to Trust Gd and His Torah and to trust that living the life He recommends is always to our benefit. Amen!

                             Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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