By Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
Contradicting the popular adage, the Torah declares (Devarim 22:1), “You shall not see the ox of your brother or his lamb cast off and hide yourself from them (v’hisalamta me’hem); you must return them to your brother (ha’shev t’shivem le’achichah).”
Rather than “finders keepers,” the mitzvah of hashavas avedah requires the “finder” to do his or her utmost to return the lost object to its rightful owner.
Interestingly, while the pasuk makes no reference to any particular time or place, the Ibn Ezra suggests that it should be read in context of the opening of this week’s sidra, which describes the Jewish army going out to war. Thus understood, Ibn Ezra maintains that this subtle association informs us that the obligation to return lost objects applies even during wartime.
HaRav Henoch Leibowitz (Chiddushei Lev) elaborates on this insight and explains that, given the unique pressures of battle, one might have mistakenly concluded that something as banal as returning a lost watch, for example, could be ignored. After all, a military camp during war is a tumultuous, tense and unstable setting. It is an environment in which people are naturally inclined to focusing on self-preservation and, as a result, may rationalize ignoring the needs of others. But we are called on to transcend any instinctive selfishness and to employ the highest standards of sensitivity, even during this most stressful and pressurized of situations.
By introducing the mitzvah specifically in a context where it is most vulnerable to neglect the Torah underscores its importance and universal application.
R. Leibowitz draws our attention to another example, later in our sidrah, where a similar educational technique is used.
The Torah warns the court to be careful when administering corporal punishment and not to exceed the prescribed number of lashes administered to a violator (25:3). Broadening the applicability of this rule, Rashi cites the teaching of Chazal who derive the general prohibition against hitting another person from this pasuk.
Just as in the previous example, here too a prohibition with broad application is davka introduced in a context where it is could easily have been ignored. After all, the Torah is discussing a sinner who deserves corporal punishment, and one can readily envision the court representative deciding – on his own – to exceed the prescribed number of malkos; after all this person “deserves” to be hit. And yet it is specifically in this context that Torah communicates the prohibition against smiting another person.
Once again, by placing the mitzvah in a situation where one may have otherwise thought to ignore it, the Torah is highlighting its significance and scope.
Beyond the specifics of the two examples mentioned, I believe there is a larger and important message that is being conveyed.
Human nature is such that we are inclined to place our own needs before the needs of other people. Similarly, we are also tempted to rationalize liberties that we may take at the expense of others. The critical lesson taught by the Torah is that we must resist these temptations no matter how challenging and no matter how complex the situation. “Bein Adam Le’Chavero” is an obligation that is not limited by either time or place.
In a similar vein, I am reminded of the illustration HaRav Yehuda Amital, founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion, offered when describing the unique goals of the yeshiva.
R. Amital cited the Chasidic story of the Ba’al Ha-Tanya, who was once learning Torah in the inner room of the house while, in the next room, his son was also studying. In the third, outer-most, room his infant grandson, who been previously sleeping, suddenly awoke and started to cry. The Ba’al Ha-Tanya immediately jumped up and tended to the baby’s needs while his son, whose room was closer to the baby, remained engrossed in his learning and oblivious to the sounds coming from the outer room.
On the way back to his room the rebbe chastised his son, “If someone is studying Torah, and fails to hear sounds of a crying baby, there is something wrong with his learning.”
R. Amital concluded that the goal of his yeshiva was for the students to not only grow in learning and yiras shamayim, but to do so while, simultaneously, being able to “hear the crying baby” and be sensitive to the needs – and “cry” – of the Jewish people.
Whether it’s physical – in the case of the Ibn Ezra – or spiritual – in the story of the Ba’al Ha-Tanya – there are always ways we can rationalize putting our needs above those of others. And yet in either case we would be mistaken and guilty, in the broadest sense, of violating the prohibition of “v’hisalamta me’hem.”
No matter how challenging the situation we can never close our eyes to the needs of our fellow Jews.
With only a few weeks left until Rosh Hashanah, this is certainly an opportune time to recommit ourselves towards showing the proper care and compassion for others. And as we do for our brothers and sisters, may HaKadosh Baruch Hu do for all of his children, blessing us with all that we need in the coming year.
Originally appears on YUTorah.org