Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Ki Tetzei 5761
September 1, 2001 13 Elul 5761
Rabbi Lauren Berkun is a rabbinic fellow at JTS.
It is easy to get lost amid the lengthy list of laws in this week's Torah portion. In this way, parashat Ki Tetse represents many of our experiences with Jewish learning. Where do I begin? There is so much here to learn! In fact, serious Jewish learning has traditionally begun with a focus on one of the laws found in this week's parashah.
Historically, many students have embarked upon the complexities of Talmud study through an exploration of the following law: If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must surely return it to your fellow (Deut. 22:1). The Talmud elaborates upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah, in the second chapter of tractate Baba Metzia. This week, as I reflected upon the intricate laws of lost property, I began to understand why the Jewish educators of our past chose to instill these laws as the foundation of mature religious study.
As we are immersed in the month of Elul and the spiritual preparations for the High Holidays, I am struck by the connection between the laws of lost property and the process of repentance. The Torah teaches, hashev t'shiveim, literally "return, you shall return [lost property]." This month we focus on another word with the same Hebrew root, teshuvah, meaning "turning back" or "returning" to God. How do the laws of returning lost property also teach us about the spiritual discipline of repentance? The Talmud teaches us that we are only responsible for returning a lost article which has some form of identifying mark. Therefore, the rabbis taught: One who finds coins...in any place in which large numbers of people are commonly found, these belong to the finder, because the owner despairs of recovering them (Baba Metzia 21b). In other words, if one finds a dollar bill on a busy street, it is not necessary to search for the original owner. The owner has no hope of finding the dollar. However, the Talmud also explains that if one finds something that has a siman, a "sign" which demonstrates the owner's identity, then the finder is obligated to return it. Since the object has an identification mark, the original owner has not despaired of ever finding it again. We must, therefore, do everything in our power to return the object to its hopeful owner. Sometimes these signs are easily apparent – a person's name engraved on the watch you find – and sometimes the signs are more subtle, such as the location where the object was found or the manner in which the object was placed down.
Similarly, during this month leading up to the Yamim Noraim, we are called upon to look for the simanim, the "signs" that we have hurt someone in the past. We must search our souls for both the obvious and the subtle indications that obligate us to engage in teshuvah with those around us. If we wait too long to return, our loved ones may despair of ever finding a renewed relationship with us. As we make amends with all of those whom we have wronged in the past year, we return something which was lost to them. Perhaps we must return a family member's sense of dignity. Perhaps we must give back our neighbor's sense of self worth. Perhaps we must bring back our child's sense of independence, our parent's sense of honor, or our friend's sense of trust.
In addition to genuinely searching for signs that compel us to return that which was lost or to repent for a past misdeed, the Torah also teaches us to be exceedingly persistent in our efforts toward restoration. The Mishnah states: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t'shiveim, "return, you shall return them..." The double emphasis of the verb "to return" in the Torah verse teaches us the obligation to repeatedly and diligently return lost property. Similarly, Maimonides teaches us in Hilkhot Teshuvah, "Laws of Repentance," that if a person asks a friend for forgiveness and is rejected, the person must return a second and even a third time in an attempt to gain forgiveness. Teshuvah, like finding the original owner of a lost article, is certainly a challenging and painstaking process.
The rabbis emphasize the difficulty of these processes in our lives by comparing them to the idealized time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud teaches that during the Temple Period, all outstanding lost property was returned in Jerusalem during the Festival seasons, when the entire community of Israel gathered to celebrate at the Temple. The rabbis taught: There was a "claimant's stone" in Jerusalem. Anyone who lost something would turn there, and anyone who found a lost object would turn there. The finder would stand [by the stone] and announce [his find] and the owner would stand [by the stone] and give the [evidence of] identifying marks and take the object (Baba Metzia 28b).
Imagine how much easier it would be, nowadays, to return lost property at one universally recognized place and time. In the case of teshuvah as well, the Temple offered a specific method for gaining atonement. The sacrificial system and the priestly rites enabled a person to achieve repentance each year. However, as Maimonides explains: At present, when the Temple does not exist and there is no altar of atonement, there remains nothing else aside from teshuvah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:3). In the post–Temple era, Maimonides is telling us, we have no means of returning to God and to those whom we love other than the hard work of personal introspection, prayer, and earnest attempts to ask for forgiveness.
We learn a valuable lesson from the rabbis' idealized portrayal of returning lost property and the process of teshuvah during the Temple Period. The Temple represented God's presence amidst the community of Israel. Like the owner of a lost article, who could meet us at the "claimant's stone" in Jerusalem, God would meet us in the Holy Temple as we returned each year to offer sacrifices. Today, we strive to recreate that sense of God's immediate presence in our lives through our rituals, prayers, and studies.
We are quickly approaching the Season of Awe that serves as our "claimant's stone" at which we engage in the act of returning to God and to our neighbors. The laws of lost property in this week's parashah speak to the fundamental experience of what it means to be a Jew. Jewish educators have trained their students first in the ethic of returning lost property in order to shape the moral and spiritual instincts of these Jewish souls. May our reflections upon these laws of hashavat aveidah serve as an intellectual and spiritual first step towards the transformative process of teshuvah.
Rabbi Lauren Berkun