FOUND & LOST
Rabbi David Walk
Did you ever look at someone's list of things to do or things to buy? When you look at the list, don't you notice that some things look right and appropriate, while other items leave you scratching your head? Well, to a certain extent, that's the description of this week's Torah reading. It's sort of God's To Do list for the Jewish people for when they enter the
The source for this precept is: You shall not see your brother's ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall certainly take them back to your brother (Deuteronomy 22:1). This verse has a parallel back in the legal system presented to the Jews after the Ten Commandments were proclaimed at Mount Sinai: If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him (Exodus 23:4). They are the same mitzvah with variations. The obvious differences include the fact that one discusses an enemy and the other a brother, here the animals are astray while in Exodus they are wandering, and the example animals are different. One very important difference is hard to see in translation. In the original Hebrew the word translated as ignore is va'hitalamta. This is a fascinating word.
The root of va'hitalamta is ayin lamed mem. You may recognize those letters as the root of the word olam or world, as in Adon Olam, Master of the World. However, the root really means to conceal or hide. This suggests that our physical world conceals a more profound reality lurking behind the visible facade, like the Matrix, but spiritual and good. Here, our issue is that if you see the animal of your sibling (fellow Jew) don't (in Rashi's words) turn a blind eye. Actually, the Jewish law is that occasionally a person can refrain from getting involved if there's a physical problem, like the person is infirm, or a legal problem, like the observer is a Cohen and the animal is in a cemetery.
The second linguistic anomaly in our verse is the use of the term nidachim, that the animals are nidachim. The root here is nun dalet chet, which means pushed or shoved. So, we must help out even if the animals are in distress or very distant. This means that for a co-religionist we must really put ourselves out on their behalf, even when it means great exertion or expense.
All of these laws are important and beautiful, but there is another, metaphoric approach to this verse, which I think is very compelling. Remember I said that the use of the word nidachim is an anomaly? That's because this word is usually used to describe a human condition, and the rabbis love deriving ideas from unusual word usage. In our case I believe that the explanation I'm going to give is based on the double use of this word in two famous verses later in Deuteronomy: When you have taken to heart all these words, God will return you from where you have been dispersed (Deuteronomy 30:1-2) and, the more famous example (quoted in the soon to be recited Selichot services): Even if you have been dispersed to the uttermost ends of the world, from there you will be gathered and God will fetch you (verse 4). In both of those statements the Hebrew for dispersed is our word nidach. Moshe is making two predictions in this prophetic message. One is that the Jews will return to the Promised Land, and that we will return to God and the Torah life style. We're talking repatriation and Teshuva.
The Ohr Hachayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743) in his commentary on the Torah points out that our verses about returning lost animals to their rightful owners is also describing a human return to God, our owner. The observer who shouldn't turn a blind eye to those who are lost, refers to the good and righteous people of any generation who can't be unaware of those who require spiritual aid. The oxen and sheep are the different types of people who require some guidance to get back to where they once belonged. Some are easier to guide (sheep), and some are more difficult (oxen). The wandering or distantly dispersed state of the victims refers to their detachment from God, who is the sibling in the verse, because we are family with God in this issue of lending a hand to those in need.
In the translation of this verse I wrote that one should certainly return them to the proper place. I inserted the word certainly because in the Hebrew it repeats the word for return (hashev t'shiveim). Rabbi Attar emphasizes that we must endeavor to bring them back to the proper path and then they themselves will return to their Parent in heaven. This great enterprise is continued in the next verse when it says that the lost soul should, if necessary, be brought into your home, which refers to the synagogue or study hall. Then it says it says that this effort must be sustained until the Owner will seek (Hebrew: drosh) them out. When is God available for this great purpose? Well, I think that the time is this season of the year, as we prepare for the High Holidays.
As we spiritually make ready for the Days of Awe, we should think of those around us who could use some help in this process, and gently urge them to join this annual migration back towards our God. Never turn a blind eye to those we believe that we can help. And I think the best assistance towards Teshuva is by example.
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