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Parashat Ki Teitzei 5778

August 23, 2018

Restoring What Has Been Lost
A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Teitzei
by Rabbi Rena Kieval (’06)

When life gets busy, with many distractions, I have a tendency to misplace objects: my keys, my cell phone, or a piece of mail with important information. Most of us have had the experience of losing an item whose absence disrupts the tasks of daily life. When that happens, a possession can take on an importance out of proportion to its true value. Even when we lose an object that is not especially essential, something feels awry, out of kilter. Lost objects can have a strange power, an ability to make everything feel disrupted.  Conversely, when a lost object is located or returned, the relief can be huge: order seems to be restored.

The mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, the obligation to return lost objects to their owner, is stressed in the Torah and later rabbinic tradition.  Parashat Ki Teitzei includes this mitzvah among its treasure trove of mitzvot. The parashah addresses numerous core values, including supporting the poor and the stranger, family and marital relations, safe housing, sanitation, ethical business practice, and proper conduct during wartime.  At first glance, hashavat aveidah seems somewhat trivial compared to the parashah’s other, more global subjects. Yet we see that the Torah takes this mitzvah very seriously. “When you find items belonging to your neighbor,” (in this case animals) “hasheiv teshivem – you will certainly return them,” states the Torah (Deuteronomy 22: 1-3.) The language is doubled for emphasis. Rather than its usual terse style, the Torah spends three full verses on this mitzvah, taking the time and the words to describe the different circumstances that may apply to the finding of a lost object. If the owner lives far away, or if the owner is not known, the “finder” still retains certain obligations.  The Torah even spells out the positive and negative versions of the mitzvah: not only are we obligated to return lost objects, but we are forbidden to just ignore a lost object, we may not pretend that we don’t see it: lo tukhal l’hit’alem. We must not “disappear” from the situation.

The mitzvah is not about the object, but about the behavior.  Rashi and others note that the examples of lost objects listed here move from the specific to the general, and from the most valuable to less: from various animals, to a garment, and finally – to anything at all. It is not the nature or worth of the object that matters, rather it is the idea of restoring things to where they belong.

The Talmud and later Jewish law codes established numerous detailed guidelines about the parameters of hashavat aveidah.  More recently, many a Hasidic story tells of a righteous person who cares diligently for someone’s lost object and is rewarded for doing so. Clearly, there is something compelling about this mitzvah.

Hashavat aveidah , like so many mitzvot, is in part about character development. If we make it a practice to respect the property and well-being of others, if we are honest and proactive about making things right even in minor matters like returning a lost item,  how much more so will we do that in matters of great importance.  The habit of good behavior becomes part of us.

But the sages of the Talmud also viewed this mitzvah more broadly, as a framework for restoring order and balance to people and to the world. In a striking example, they used it as a source for the mandate to heal, or to save someone whose life is in danger: “From where is it derived that one must help his neighbor who may suffer the loss of his body or his health? The verse states: “And you shall restore it [vahashevato] to him [lo]” (Deuteronomy 22:2), which can also be read as: “And you shall restore him to him, [vehashevato lo] i.e., saving his body. “ (Sanhedrin 73a, translation and explanatory text by Sefaria.)

Maimonides followed the same reasoning when discussing the obligation to restore a person to health. This obligation, he wrote, can be derived from the mandate to return lost objects to their owners. (Commentary to the Mishnah, Nedarim 4) Healing is an act of hashavat aveidah; a person who is ill has lost his health and his wholeness, and it is a mitzvah to return those to him.

Extending that broad reading of hashavat aveidah, we might see many mitzvot through the lens of restoring something to its owner. For example, we may restore someone’s lost livelihood by giving them job training.  When we offer a homeless person shelter, we may return her lost dignity and self-respect, as well as her ability to be safe. We could say that all acts of repairing the world are part of this mitzvah, of restoring balance and returning things to where they should be.

The season of teshuvah that we have entered is also about return. One spiritual task of this period is to reclaim parts of ourselves that we may have misplaced during the course of the last year.  During this time of introspection, we look deep inside ourselves for what is missing. We hope to return it, to ourselves, to our relationships with the people in our lives, and to our relationship with God.  We look too at what is missing in the world around us right now, and commit ourselves to helping restore those lost pieces to their rightful places, bringing wholeness and healing to our broken world.
Rabbi Kieval (AJR ’06) serves as Rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York.