Returning... lost objects, and ultimately ourselves

This week, let's keep our eyes open for opportunities to effect return -- whether this is in finding and returning a lost item to its owner, or in restoring core beliefs in our own hearts, or in participating in our own process of return... to our truest, purest selves, and to the spark of divinity that resides within each of us. As the Torah reminds us, we cannot remain indifferent; we must return.

This week, as we continue moving through Elul, I'd like to explore the seasonal theme of return.

Parashat Ki Teitzei features many ethical mitzvot, including the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, the return of lost objects. I first learned about this mitzvah when, as a college student, I worked at a Jewish summer camp and part of my job at mealtimes was to try to reunite lost sweatshirts and water bottles with the campers who had dropped them during the course of the day. But, the mitzvah featured in the parasha is much deeper and more profound than that.

Deuteronomy chapter 22 begins like this: "If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow." In this case, it's as if the sweatshirt has grown legs and wandered off on its own! It might be tempting to ignore the animal -- after all, catching it and returning it to its home will take the "finder" some significant amount of time and energy -- and yet the Torah commands that ignoring it isn't an option.

The finder's obligation doesn't stop there; 22:2-3 continues: "If your fellow does not live near you or you do now know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his donkey; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent."

Wow... try to wrap your head around the incredible lengths that the Torah instructs that each of us must go to return lost property to a neighbor! If you find an animal, not only must you pay attention to it, but you must also assume full responsibility to feed and care for the animal (with no reassurance of being paid back for any expenses you might incur). The Torah underscores two points by using two key verbs repeatedly in the passage: one, an action that you are not to do: lo l'hitalem - you shall not remain indifferent, ignore, or disappear from the task, and the other, an action that you must do: l'hashiv - to return the animal or object.

If you are already inside the Elul mindset (as I am), perhaps you also noticed that the verb l'hashiv is built from the same Hebrew root as the word teshuva. L'hashiv is in a verb form known as the "hiphil," which indicates that it has a causative meaning (literally, in returning a lost object you are "causing it to return" to its owner), whereas the verb lashuv (to return) and the word teshuva (the act of returning, repentance) is in a form that indicates a simple action.

The hiphil command regarding the lost animal in Parashat Ki Teitzei -- "v'hasheivoto lo" ("you shall return it to him") -- also calls to mind other instances of the same verb from the High Holiday liturgy. Within Aleinu (a prayer which originally was composed for Rosh Hashanah Musaf), we find another line from Deuteronomy embedded: "v'yadata hayom v'hasheivota el l'vavecha...," "And you shall know this day and cause-to-return into your heart that Adonai is God of the heavens above and of earth below; there is no other." This instance of return is about reminding ourselves of an idea that we already know in our heart to be true. In another liturgical example, we will recite -- many times over the High Holidays -- the line with which we ended our reading of Eicha/Lamentations several weeks ago on Tisha B'Av: "Hashiveinu adonai eilecha v'nashuva, chadesh yameinu k'kedem," "Cause-us-to-return, Adonai, to You and we shall return; renew our days as of old." Here, it is God who causes us to return. In this example of hashavat aveidah - returning of the lost object - we are no longer the finder, but rather the ox or sheep that has strayed (or, perhaps, the sweatshirt or water bottle).

This week, let's keep our eyes open for opportunities to effect return -- whether this is in finding and returning a lost item to its owner, or in restoring core beliefs in our own hearts, or in participating in our own process of return... to our truest, purest selves, and to the spark of divinity that resides within each of us. As the Torah reminds us, we cannot remain indifferent; we must return.

With gratitude to be together with each of you in this journey of return,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum