Elie Wiesel tells a story that takes place in the small town where he grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. A father used to tell his son that he must get up early every day. The son, however, was lazy, and he couldn’t get up. One winter day though, the son couldn’t resist his father’s urging, and he joined his father to go to the Bet Midrash for early morning services and study. It’s early in the morning with snow everywhere. As they were walking, the father noticed a silver coin in the snow. The son picked it up. The father said, you see, my son, if you go to the Bet Midrash early enough then God rewards you. But the son said, the man who lost it got up even earlier.
One lesson of this story is that we never know when we are going to find a treasure, and we never know when we are going to lose it. One moment we may have what we need, the next moment we may lose it.
Today’s Torah portion, so rich in laws that help create a civil society, contains a law pertaining to lost objects. If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; but hashev t’shivem, you must surely return it to your fellow (Deut. 22:1). The double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse teaches us the obligation to repeatedly and diligently return lost property. The Talmud elaborates upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah, in the second chapter of tractate Baba Metzia. It is interesting to note that for generations, this chapter has often served as a young student’s introduction to Talmud study, including in many yeshivot and day schools today. Children, after all, are constantly losing things and finding things, and it makes sense that their teachers would want them to inculcate Jewish values in respecting the property of others.
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.
The Mishnah further underscores the value of restoration: 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 rabbis, whose own experience was not always so different from ours, compared their experience to what to them was the idealized time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud teaches that during the Temple Period, the Temple served as a national lost and found. 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 an אבן טוען, a “stone of claims” 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). Thus, according to the rabbis, in an ideal and just society, people would return lost objects to their rightful owner.
The rabbis did not live in an ideal world, and neither do we. Some of the difficult aspects of our existence are beyond our control, while others are more in our control. This weekend our community is bracing for a strong tropical storm, perhaps a hurricane. This is the season of this natural wonder. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is a glaring example of the fragility of life–how overnight one may suffer the loss of their home and the entire world that they know. As a result of the Hurricane, millions of people lost their homes and businesses. The hurricane was beyond anyone’s control. However, with the lack of a speedy, coordinated government response at the federal, state and local levels, New Orleans degenerated into anarchy with rampant looting and lawlessness. People were walking into abandoned stores, loading up shopping carts and walking out in full view of police who were powerless to stop them. Clearly, this breakdown of society is precisely what Deuteronomy sought to prevent through laws protecting people’s personal property.
In contrast to the lawlessness of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, it is of some consolation that the aftermath of the hurricane also brought out the best in people. Millions of people across our country mobilized to fulfill the mitzvah, as it were, of hashavat aveidah, returning a lost object. Americans opened up their hearts, their wallets and their homes to give people shelter, food and hope for rebuilding their future.
The city of Houston hosted thousands of New Orleans residents who fled there for refuge while their homes were underwater. In a disaster, we might not be able to restore lost homes, at least not instantly, but we can help restore lost hope. I would like to conclude by noting that we are now in the month of Elul and have begun the spiritual preparations for the High Holidays. In this light, there is a clear connection between the laws of lost property and teshuvah, the process of repentance that defines this season. Our Torah portion teaches, hashev t’shiveim, “you shall surely return [lost property].” This month we focus on another word with the same Hebrew root, teshuvah, meaning “turning back” or “returning” to God. The awe of the hurricane as a wonder of nature also bids us to reflect on both senses of return. This season is an opportunity for our country to do genuine teshuvah and examine how we can do better to care for the most vulnerable people in our society who do not have adequate shelter or the means to care for themselves. The memory of Katrina serves as an opportunity to heal racial and class divisions in our society. It is an opportunity to remind all branches of government to coordinate with one another to protect the citizens they serve. Ten years ago hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stood at the even toen, the claimant’s stone, and America responded. God forbid there should ever be another disaster like Katrina. In coming days I pray for the safety of our community, and I pray that God will grant us the strength to tap into our better angels of courage, generosity, patience, compassion and kindness.