לא תראה את שור אחיך או את שיו נדחים והתעלמת מהם השב תשיבם לאחיך
You may not observe your brother’s ox or his sheep lost and conceal yourself from them; you must surely
return them to your brother (Devorim 22:1).
The Torah introduces us to the obligation of Hashovas Aveidah (returning lost objects). If I stumble upon the lost object of another, I am obligated to collect it and try to identify the owner. This obligation may pose difficulties or create great inconvenience, yet the Torah encourages me not to turn a blind eye and pretend as if I didn’t see the object. Hasheyv Tishe’veym, you must surely return the object to your brother. This mitzvah is part of our code of chessed (kindness); a code which lays the foundation for our entire system of behavior and conduct.
The Ibn Ezra (Rav Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 1089-1164) makes a fascinating observation. This mitzvah follows on the heels of the laws of war (as stated earlier in the Parsha). What is the nature of this juxtaposition? What is the connection between Ki teitzei la’milchama al oyvecha, when you go out to war against your enemies and returning lost objects? The Ibn Ezra explains that the obligation of Hashovas Aveidah (returning lost property) applies even when one is going out to war.
Upon further reflection, this statement of the Ibn Ezra is exceptionally profound. One could only imagine the intensity of emotion experienced by the solider as he readied himself to leave his home and fight for his people. On one hand he was filled with confidence and assured of the holiness, meaning, and necessity of the battle he was about to wage; yet there must have been sadness, anxiety, and uncertainty as he bid farewell to his family, wondering if this would be the last time he would hold his wife and kiss his children. As he marched into battle, he had to be ready to take life and not allow his emotions to eclipse his sense of duty. In the midst of all this inner turmoil, if the solider were to come upon a lost lamb grazing by the side of the road, he would be expected to try to find its owner. How are we to understand this? Shouldn’t the Torah exempt an individual who is about to go out to war from the performance of this mitzvah? Isn’t readying oneself for battle considered a mitzvah which should exempt the soldier from the performance of other mitzvos (in this case returning the lost object)?
Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt’l (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, 1918-2008) explains that we have the ability (and obligation) to be sensitive to the needs of the other, even in the most trying of times. Our mind may be occupied with our own survival; nevertheless, we can and must be conscious of our neighbor’s needs at all times.
There are times when we encounter personal difficulties and challenges. There are times when we are overwhelmed by the enormity of our circumstances. There are times when our “plate is full” with various life stressors. It can happen that during these times of personal stress we lash out at others and justify these behaviors by pointing to the intensity of our circumstances. We learn from the mitzvah of Hashovas Aveidah that we must uphold the highest standards of interpersonal conduct even during personally trying times. We must always be conscious and attentive to the needs of others even when we are in the midst of personal challenges.
This lesson resonates with particular meaning during this month of Elul. It is during these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that we try to introspect, reflect, and make a plan for the future. We are focused on fixing our flaws and building on our accomplishments. Even during such an important time, we can never become so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the other. Even as we continue to grow as individuals, we must be cognizant of the other right beside us.
We learn from this Parsha that a Baal Chessed (kind individual) is not someone who engages in random acts of kindness, rather, he is someone who maintains a continuous sensitivity to the needs of others in all circumstances and at all times.