Parshat Ki Teizei- Lost Property and Social Responsibility

by Rav David Silverstein

            Parshat Ki Teitzei provides an elaborate description of the mitzvah of returning lost property (Hashavat Aveidah). While Shemot 23:4 cites the formal requirement to return animals that have gone astray, Devarim 22:1-4 expands significantly on the directive and delineates not only the contours of the law but its basic rationale as well. According to Devarim, a person should not “see the ox of [his] brother…and hide [himself] from [it].” Rather, [one] shall surely return [the ox] to [his] brother.” Moreover, the Torah states that “if your brother is not near you and you don’t know him, then gather [the lost object] inside your house, and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it.” Articulating the larger directive behind the law, the Torah concludes by stating that if any lost article is found, a person must immediately try to find its owner and cannot hide himself from responsibility (לא תוכל להתעלם).

            From a literary perspective, the word brother (אחיך) certainly stands out in the Deuternomic description of the mitzvah appearing five times in four verses. The significance of this phrase is even more pronounced when contrasted with the parallel Shemot passage which formulates the Hashavat Aveidah regulation in the context of returning property to one’s enemy (שנאך). While Sefer Shemot highlights the fact that justice is blind, and therefore the law applies even to someone’s enemy, Devarim focuses on placing the Halacha within a narrative context of shared responsibility.

 The significance of this contextualization can be understood when contrasting the Torah with other ancient Near Eastern texts. As some scholars note, ancient codes such as Hamurabi and Hitite texts focus lost property regulations on ensuring that one who find the lost goods can prove that he is not in fact, a thief. The Torah’s focus, by contrast, shifts the conversation away from questions of culpability for theft towards a broader goal of shared responsibility.

   In the Talmud we find an even broader application of the biblical ethic. For example, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 33a) expands the rule to include a requirement to actively prevent a friend’s property from becoming lost. In the Talmudic description, if one sees a flood about to ruin his neighbor’s field, he would be obligated to try to prevent the water from reaching the field thus actively preventing any property from being lost. More strikingly, the Talmud elsewhere (Sanhedrin 73a) considers the possibility that the obligation to save someone from possible death stems from the legal requirement to return lost property. Just like one must return physical objects, one must also help facilitate the “returning” of a life.

Rabbeinu Bachye (Devarim 22:1) explains that by contextualizing the commandment of Hashavat Aveidah within the larger rubric of shared responsibility (לא תוכל להתעלם), the Torah teaches us that this rule is actually a subcategory of the much larger requirement to “love your neighbor as yourself” (ואהבת לרעיך כמוך). Since the Jewish people constitute one larger family unit, it is incumbent upon each and every Jew to feel concern and care for his “brothers” welfare. Moreover, Rabbeinu Bachye quotes the Midrashic interpretation of the phrase, “one may not hide,”( לא תוכל להתעלם) claiming that while one may be able to hide his lack of care for his friend’s property from his fellow man, one is unable to hide his true intentions from God Himself.

The message emanating from this mitzvah and its broader application is that not only is care and concern for a fellow Jew a basic halachicrequirement on a practical level, it is also our obligation to ensure that even our thoughts are instinctively pure as we feel a sense of shared responsibility on an emotional level as well.

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