KI TETZE 5778
This week’s Torah portion is jam packed. It has the honor of being the portion that has the most mitzvot in it—72, more than 10% of the 613 commandments in the Torah! There are commandments dealing with farming, clothing, sanitation, marriage and divorce—you name it. And yet, there is one mitzvah to which I’m particularly drawn to: Hashavat HaAveyda (returning lost property), probably because I’m always losing things.
Let me read you the text (Deut. 22:1-3): You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat driven away and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then bring it home to your house and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it and you restore it to him. And so shall you do for his donkey, so shall you do for his garment, and so shall you do for every lost thing of your brother that he lost and you found; you may not hide yourself.
In Judaism, there’s no such thing as “Finders, keepers, losers, weepers.” In Judaism, if you find something that belongs to someone else, you’re obligated to return it. If you don’t know whose it is, you must hold on to it, and take care of it, and then advertise it. You must do whatever you can to find the owner and return his property to him.
Hold on. Do I really have to bother if my neighbor’s son hits a ball into my back yard or if I find a 2nd-hand scooter in my front yard—both of which are not worth very much? Do I really have to find room in my house for his dog, which requires maintenance, especially if I don’t like dogs? Do I really have to worry about driving to his house and dropping off an old book with his name in it that I found—when the effort of doing so will cost me more than the book is worth?
To which the Torah answers, “Yes, you do.” What happens if you don’t bother to return something just because you think it’s not worth the bother? We are all geniuses when it comes to rationalization. Today, you won’t bother to return a book; tomorrow you won’t bother to return a wallet.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Baltimore, tells the story of how he was once going through his e-mails and he came to one titled: “Rabbi, can you please help me?” and he almost deleted it. You see, rabbis get dozens of such emails every day—many of doubtful validity. But for some reason he decided to open it up. It was an e-mail addressed to a great many rabbis. Let me read it to:
I know how busy you are and yet I write to ask for your help. Late last night, my family and I were driving home from Cleveland to Baltimore. We stopped at a rest station along the way, and as we did, we noticed a frum woman, wearing a snood, enter the building. When she came back to her car, we noticed her husband, who wore a knitted kippah, go in to use the facilities. We assumed that they must have a child sleeping in the car and therefore they were taking turns instead of going in together.
Meanwhile, my wife and I also used the rest area. In the ladies room, my wife discovered a diamond ring, resting by the sinks. Our theory is that the woman probably removed her ring when she went in to wash for Hamotsi.
My wife picked up the ring and ran out to give it to them. But as she came out the door, she saw them driving away. We have no idea how to find them. But we figure that Jews who are obviously observant probably belong to a synagogue and probably go to shul on Shabbos. And so we are e-mailing to all the rabbis between Cleveland and Baltimore whose e-mail addresses we could find to ask you to please help us find them.
Thank you very much for your help. And tizku lamitsvot—may you be privileged to do many mitzvahs.
Sincerely yours, Micah and Penina Males.
When Rabbi Wohlberg shared the contents of this e-mail with me, I must tell you that I was deeply moved. I thought: Mi k’amcha Yisrael (Who is like Your People of Israel, Gd). Who else would go to the effort of tracking down all the e-mail addresses of all the rabbis between Cleveland and Baltimore in order to enlist their aid in fulfilling the mitzvah of Hashavat HaAveyda (returning lost property)? Most people would have either pocketed the ring and congratulated themselves on their good luck in finding it, or, at most, left a note with the proprietor of the gas station with their phone number in case anyone showed up looking for it.
Why did they go to all this effort? Because for Jews, returning lost property is not just a favor. It’s a mitzvah—a commandment of Gd! There’s a whole tractate of Talmud—Baba Metzia—devoted to a discussion of this commandment —who is responsible for the costs that may be involved in maintaining the object while you look for its owner, etc.
A week later the people who found the diamond ring sent out another email: I am the person who sent out the e-mail, asking for help in returning a ring that you may have received. Let me tell you what has happened since…We evidently touched a nerve because many of the rabbis who got this e-mail forwarded it to people whom they knew, and it soon became a kind of a Jewish chain letter. Things began to snowball, and within a week…I have received 20,000 e-mails so far…My request for help has been announced from the pulpit on Shabbos from hundreds of shuls…One reader suggested I contact the gas station owner and find out if they had a surveillance camera, and if so, whether we could see if it read a license plate.
So I called the gas station manager to see if the couple had perhaps come back to claim their ring. He said no. Then I asked if it were possible to see the surveillance films for that night. The manager thought that I was crazy. He said to me: “Mr. why don’t you just enjoy the ring and forget about it!”
I wish that I could tell you that this story has a happy ending. I was hoping that someone would stand up in shul and say: “Hey! That's my ring!” But the good news is that this incident seems to have touched a communal nerve and caused at least 20,000 Jews to try to help me do a mitzvah, and to feel for this woman who unfortunately lost her ring. And if you want to know just how important finding a lost engagement ring is, just ask Toni Brown.
Let me share just one more story told by Rabbi Jack Reimer. He writes: An observant Jew went into a phone booth (it’s an old story) to make a call and found an address book there. It had obviously been left behind by the last person who used the booth. He went outside and called out, “Did anyone lose this book?” but no one answered.
What do you do? He looked through the book, trying to find the name of its owner, but it wasn’t there. He did find one clue. Under “M” he found a listing for “Mama.” It was a 305 area code, which means that Mama probably lived somewhere in the Miami area, and this telephone booth was in New York City. But it’s still a mitzvah to return lost property and so he called the number.
He asked the woman who answered if she had a daughter living in New York and if so, could he please have her name and address. The woman who answered was suspicious and asked why he wanted to know. He explained that she had evidently lost an address book and that he wanted to return it to her.
The woman asked him why he would go to the bother of calling long distance, just to return an address book. He explained to her that this was a mitzvah in the Torah and that this was the reason he was doing it.
She said, “Really? Tell me more about this mitzvah thing.” So he patiently explained it to her including some of the commentaries from the Talmud and Midrash. He could sense that she was really listening very intently. When he finished, he could hear her sobbing. He asked her what the matter was and this is what she told him.
Some 3 or 4 years ago, her daughter, who lives in New York, had become observant—keeping Shabbos and Kashrut. As a result she couldn’t travel to visit her mother on Shabbos and she could no longer eat everything in her parents’ house. The parents were secular Jews who believed that religion was outdated nonsense, and so they took it as a personal affront. One word led to another, and she threw her daughter out of the house and told her never to come back.
For the first time in her life, the mother began to understand what religion is really all about. Torah is a character training device so powerful that it educates a man to make long distance calls in order to return something that doesn’t belong to him. She never knew that.
She sobbed uncontrollably for a few minutes, as she realized how much she really missed her daughter. And then she said, “I’ll give you her phone number, but please wait a few minutes so I can call her 1st. I have some apologizing to do, and I hope that she’ll forgive me.”
The man waited a few minutes and then he called. The line was busy for some time till he could get through. But when he did, he found a deliriously happy daughter, who thanked him and blessed him, not only for the address book, but for having made peace between her and her mother.
My friends, such is the power of a mitzvah! The Sages say that the reward of a mitzvah or good deed is that it leads to another mitzvah or good deed. If this man had not made that call, who knows when, or even whether, this mother and her daughter would have ever reconciled?
I share these stories with you for 2 reasons. One, so that you may appreciate this mitzvah, which is found in this week's Torah reading. And 2, just in case, maybe someone here knows who found my Fitbit that I lost recently and will be moved by this sermon to please give it back. Amen!