Yom Sheini, 22 Tishri 5780
Shemini Azeret Monday, 21 October 2019
Parashat Ki Teitze 2013

Parashat Ki Teitze
Cantor Gershon Silins

16 August 2013

“You shall surely return it”

Our sidra this week, Ki Tetze, contains 72 positive and negative precepts, according to Maimonides. Among them are commandments that are difficult to understand, commandment that to the modern understanding are impossible to understand, commandments that can no longer be followed, and commandments that make complete sense to us as modern people. We may not be able to understand the commandment not to plow with an ox and an ass together, or the commandment not to wear a fabric of mixed linen and wool, but the commandment that tells us to return lost property seems quite persuasive, and indeed, quite psychologically and ethically sophisticated. It begins, “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide yourself from them, you shall in any case bring them again to your brother. And if your brother is not close by, or if you don’t know him, then you shall bring it into your house and it will stay with you until your brother seeks it out, and you shall restore it to him again. So with his ass,·his clothing; any lost thing of your brother’s … you shall do likewise. You may not hide yourself.”

There is a lot of repetition here; the text seems to be written to insure that none of the possible excuses we might (and so often do) come up with are pre-empted. You can’t tell yourself you didn’t see it, you can’t say the owner lives far away, you can’t say you have no idea who this thing belongs to. Even the form of the verb in Hebrew is repetitive: where the translation here says, “you shall in any case bring it to your brother,” the Hebrew uses a grammatical intensification, “hashev teshivem,” which means, “return, you will return it,” a form that the text uses to mean “you really must do this
thing.”

Because the Torah text is usually quite concise, any repetition is, in traditional commentary, a clue to something beyond the bare meaning of the text. Talmudic interpretation of this verb form is that if an animal belonging to someone else runs away even five times, nonetheless you have to return it.·The text is repetitive in another way, as well. Where the text says, “And if your brother is not close by, or if you don’t know him, then you shall bring it into your house and it will stay with you until your brother seeks it out, and you shall restore it to him again,” the·last phrase seems to be superfluous. It couldn’t, after all, be the case that the lost animal would stay with you until your brother seeks it out, and then you would keep it anyway. Why add, “and you shall restore it to him again.” Clearly we would.

So what else is being said here? Our tradition says that taking lost property home until it is claimed does not mean passively taking charge of it. In the case of an animal, you must feed and care for it, and you must safeguard whatever is lost and in your care so that his possessions remain intact and continue to be worth restoring.

A story is told that someone left some·hens at the home of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. Over the course of time, the hens laid eggs. Chanina would not allow the eggs to be eaten. As they accumulated, Chanina sold them and bought goats with the proceeds. In the course of time, the man who had left the hens returned and said to a companion, I left some hens here. Chanina heard him, and said, if you are that same man that left the hens, come now and take your goats.·

What is clear from our Torah portion and from its interpretation is that we are held to very high standards in our ethical behaviour. In order to behave ethically, to meet the standard of this biblical injunction, it is not enough to be passive and assume that we are good enough. For our ancestors, a sheep in the field that didn’t belong to them was not something that they could simply notice and move on. This commandment required them to be present in the world, to see what was before them as an ethical fact that required their engagement and judgment, and quite possibly a requirement to do something difficult and expensive. That challenge is before us as well. May we make it wisely.