Lost and Found

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Parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1–24:18

Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD, Director, Interfaithfulness

Let’s start with a sore subject: losing things. Wallets. Car keys. Expensive smart phones. IPads. Computers even. And sometimes we lose something to which we feel especially attached. We look everywhere and come to the grim realization that the object is gone. What happens then? Anger. Sadness. Self-reproach. Our loss is more than financial.

But all is not dark. Sometimes the light breaks through and things that we have lost are returned to us. I’ve had that happen with an iPad and a cell phone. O happy day!

Torah deals extensively with the ethics and boundaries of our responsibility for the things that we find which belong to another person.

In today’s parashah we read: “If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey straying, you must return it to him” (Exod 23:4).

Notice the ethical concern here; even if that object belongs to our enemy, we must take it back to him.

But there’s more.

In Parashat Ki Teitze, the Torah further explores this issue as it relates to the lost property of our friend, our fellow Israelite:

You are not to watch your brother's ox or sheep straying and behave as if you hadn't seen it; you must bring them back to your brother. If your brother is not close by, or you don't know who the owner is, you are to bring it home to your house; and it will remain with you until your brother asks for it; then you are to give it back to him. You are to do the same with his donkey, his coat or anything else of your brother's that he loses. If you find something he lost, you must not ignore it. (Deut 22:1–3)

Notice especially what is said in verse three, “you must not ignore it” (the lost item of your brother/sister). The Hebrew verb translated here as “not ignore (it),” is hit’alem, which is the hitpa’el form of the verb alam. It is used only three times in the Torah, in this precise context. 

The verb means literally that we should not hide our eyes from this lost property. We should not make like we did not see it. We should not say within ourselves, “I don’t want to know about this—I don’t need this responsibility.” 

Can you relate?

Instead, the Torah makes clear that indeed we are responsible to see that our friend, fellow, countryman, and even our enemy is reunited to what he or she has lost.

This doesn’t apply to, say, finding a twenty dollar bill in the street, because it is not possible to identify to whom it actually belonged when dropped. Such anonymous items are deemed legally hefker, ownerless property. But when the property can be identified as belonging to someone in particular we must take care of it and facilitate its return. 

Therefore, our first point is this. We are responsible to care for and then facilitate the return of lost items to their owner if they are identifiably linked to the person claiming them.  

But there is a related second lesson for us, drawn from some related parables of Yeshua.

When Yeshua addresses the issue of lost objects in two parables in Luke 15 he takes us more deeply into the implications of this responsibility to return what has been lost. 

Yeshua tells about the shepherd who leaves behind his ninety-nine sheep to go and look for one lost sheep. When he finds it, “he joyfully hoists it onto his shoulders; and when he gets home, he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Come, celebrate with me, because I have found my lost sheep!’” Yeshua then compares this to how heaven rejoices when even one sinner is returned to his owner, God.

He doubles down on the lesson, speaking of a woman who has ten valuable coins of which she loses one, and then lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches until she finds it. As with the shepherd, she gathers her friends to celebrate with her. Yeshua makes the application: “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy among God's angels when one sinner repents.”

Our Messiah’s point should not be forgotten, and it our second one for this drash: that in the end we are not talking simply about sheep or coins—we are talking about people, sinners returned to their rightful owner, God himself. Even as sinners, they bear his image, identifiably his.

One more lesson remains, based on a consideration of the impact of the first two. That is this: Are we responsible to see that sinners are returned to God, reunited with him, their owner? There can only be one answer, and that answer is, “Yes, we are responsible.”

The Apostle Paul strengthens this interpretation:

In the Torah of Moshe it is written, "You are not to put a muzzle on an ox when it is treading out the grain." If God is concerned about cattle, all the more does he say this for our sakes. Yes, it was written for us, meaning that he who plows and he who threshes should work expecting to get a share of the crop. (1 Cor 9:9–10, CJB)

Paul is saying that the principle of not muzzling the ox, preventing him from eating while he does his work treading the grain, enshrines a principle for human welfare—that people should be paid for the work that they do.

And in terms of our lesson today we must make sure to make the same transfer: Is it with lost sheep and lost coins that God is concerned? Does he not speak here about our responsibility for people? Does he not certainly say this for our sakes? Yes he does.

A few verses later Paul speaks of his own attitude toward finding lost people: “For I can’t boast merely because I proclaim the Good News—this I do from inner compulsion: woe is me if I don’t proclaim the Good News!” (1 Cor 9:16).

So let’s bring this home. Do we, like Paul, have an inner compulsion about people who need to be returned to God their rightful owner? Do we feel “woe is me if I don’t do this”? Are we to permit ourselves to hide our eyes from truly seeing this lost property of our Lord and Master? Is it right for us to say to ourselves, “I don’t want to know about this—I don’t need this responsibility”?

Or are we called to do what we can to bring lost people back to God and particularly to do all that we can to take care of and return to him the lost sheep of the house of Israel?

The answer is clear, and the responsibility is ours.

Let’s us not be among the multitudes who prefer to hide their eyes. Let’s not be among the ranks of those who would rather not see and would rather not know.

If we care about the shepherd, the good shepherd, the weeping shepherd, let’s do all we can to take care of his wandering sheep wherever we find them, and to bring them back to him.

Or will we pretend we don’t see?  

Russ Resnik