“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide from them. You shall surely bring them back to your brother. And if your brother is not presently near you, or if you do not know who he is, then you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall be with you until your brother comes looking for it, and you shall restore it to him again. You should act with his ass and so with his garment in the same way. And you shall do likewise with your brother’s every lost thing, which he has lost and you have found. You may not pretend you do not see. You shall not see your brother’s ass or his ox fall down by the way, and pretend you did not see. You shall surely help him lift them up again.” (Devarim, 22: 1-4)
Here are two fundamental social instructions. The first requires the finder of a lost article to return it to its owner. If he does not know who the owner is, he must keep it until the owner comes looking for it. The second commands a person to stop and help anyone he sees in need of assistance.
Interestingly, these two commandments are almost identical to verses 4 and 5 in Chapter 23 of Sefer Shemot:
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the ass of someone that hates you lying under its burden, and refrain from unloading it, you shall surely unload it with him.”
Rav Hirsch says the verses in Shemot are clearly instructing us to help an enemy. Referring to the Gemara, he notes that whereas those verses also include the idea of kindness to animals, the verses in our parasha talk of burdening an animal.
The Gemara goes on to explain that no compensation may be taken for unloading, but payment may be taken for loading. It also qualifies the law regarding the return of lost property, i.e. if the finder is occupied with paid work, he is not bound to leave that work without being recompensed for the loss incurred through returning the lost object.
These laws seem deeply characteristic of Jewish social law. Rendering help at loading is a duty for which payment may be demanded. And the duty of gratuitous care for the restoration of lost property only applies to unemployed people. The Torah does not demand anybody to stop earning his own living without compensation.
Jewish Law is opposed to a superabundance of human kindness at the expense of neglecting oneself. Of course we must help and be kind to others, but this cannot be the governing principle of social life.
Care for one’s own existence and independence carries the highest importance, but simultaneously demands helpful participation in the upkeep of the property and the undertakings of our fellow human beings.
Rav Hirsch’s analysis reminds us of Hillel’s famous dictum: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I care only for myself, what am I?”
Two prominent 20th Century ideologies became associated with the Soviet Union and the United States of America. The former represented Communism, while the latter advocated Capitalism.
Communism demands that the individual see himself as part of a whole unit. His independent success is of no relevance whatsoever. He is a part of something much greater. He is to share all he has with everyone else, and they share with him. He must sacrifice himself for the good of society.
On the one hand, there is a wonderful idea here. If it is to succeed, Communism needs selflessness and a feeling of humility and mutual care (this is probably why it has almost always failed in the long-term.) On the other hand, the individual simply ceases to exist in such a system. There is no room for independent development. Each civilian becomes nothing more than a little screw in a big machine.
In contrast, Capitalism creates a selfish, dog-eat-dog reality; an economic norm where only the fittest will survive. There is unlimited room for self-expression and personal achievement, but consequently little room for sharing and caring.
Jewish law rejects the negatives in both systems whilst enthusiastically embracing the positives. As Rav Hirsch illustrates, we are expected to look out for others while simultaneously protecting our own interests. We are to tread the golden path between selflessness and selfishness.
The Chanuka lights also reflect this reality. They stand together in a straight line as one unit, but they must also be distinctly separate from one another. As Hillel said, one must first look out for oneself, and then be sure to help others.
We could add to this golden rule by saying that the order of importance is crucial. Our ability to effectively help others is dependent on our own inner stability. We must first ensure that we have the direction and the strength, and only then help others. It is a fool who cannot swim but jumps into a river to save a drowning man. Of course we are not in anyway suggesting that a person concentrate on himself alone until middle age, and only then start to think about others; what we are suggesting however is that initially our priority should be inner stability whilst simultaneously helping others. Once that stability has been attained our priorities can be altered accordingly. Indeed in our physical lives, most of our formative years are spent on our own development, as we enter adolescence and adulthood that balance changes too.
Torah SheBichtav is instructing us to look out for the needs of our fellow man. Torah SheBe’al Peh qualifies this instruction by ensuring that we simultaneously protect ourselves too.
The Sfat Emet adds a spiritual twist to Rav Hirsch’s message. Instead of translating the initial verse: “You shall not see your brother’s ox (shor) or his sheep go astray,” he interprets the word “shor” as a derivative of “shur” or “habata” (outlook on life.) Hence the verse now reads, ‘You shall not see your brother lose his way in life.’
Although we may be secure and happy in our own religious lives, many of our brothers and sisters have lost their way. We are commanded to take notice, and go out and do something about it. Even if we find the homiletic play on words to be far from the plain meaning of the text, we must accept the logic. If we are instructed to go out of our way to return someone’s lost property, how much more so should we be concerned with his or her spiritual wellbeing!
There can be no justification for us to lock ourselves away in our ‘protected’ communities with no regard for the rest of Klal Yisrael. Perhaps we should learn from Yosef HaTsaddik. He was always looking out for his brothers, whether at the beginning of the story, or at the end, when they are finally re-united. Yosef looks for his brothers whether they are looking for him or not. As spiritually active members of Am Yisrael, it is our role to help our fellow Jews find their way.
But how are we supposed to perform this daunting task? The Sfat Emet derives the answer from the seemingly extra word “surely” in our verse: “You shall surely bring them back to your brother.” “Shall surely” is a translation of the Hebrew phrase “hashev teshivem.” He suggests that “hashev” refers to the finder, while “teshivem” relates to the owner of the lost article.
If the finder really wishes to help others, he must first work on himself. We influence and inspire others by setting an example. Not by telling them what to do. When we act as true ambassadors of Torat Yisrael, all around us admire us for doing the right thing. And if our lives and behavior reflect a genuine desire to ‘return,’ they will return too.
But it’s obviously not that simple. Look at the excitement and meaning throughout the Jewish year. From the weekly Shabbat to the monthly Rosh Chodesh… from the preparation and excitement of Pesach to the elevating experience of living in the Sukkah… from illuminating the darkness on Chanuka to exuberant simcha on Purim… Despite ‘possessing’ these powerful, energizing, life-giving occasions, why we are still failing to attract the majority of Am Yisrael to return to the Torah way?
Perhaps we need to take the instructions of the Sfat Emet to heart. Either we simply aren’t trying or our presentation is not up to scratch. Like it or not, we are the ambassadors of Torat Hashem and we must personify that in every area of our lives. It’s a fact of life. People – Jews and gentiles alike – expect more from religious Jews.
Having said that, we must adopt Rav Hirsch’s thesis in the spiritual realm too. On the one hand, we cannot be capitalistic in our Judaism. We cannot deny the very existence of our brothers and simply worry about our own religious survival. On the other hand, we must not sacrifice our own souls in order to help others return. If we place the Chanuka lights outside to illuminate the darkness, but they are extinguished by the wind, then we still have darkness and no lights left for the future.
We must find the golden path. We are a part of the Klal, but must also safeguard our own spiritual and physical progression. Indeed, as the Sfat Emet said, the stronger we are, the greater the likelihood of affecting others.
We cannot conclude this sicha without referring to the wise words of the Kotzker Rebbe. We have spoken only of the finder’s responsibility to himself and to others. What about the person who lost the article or the owner of the animal that needs loading? What is expected of him?
The Kotzker notes a fundamental principle in our second verse: “You shall surely help him lift them up again.” Rashi, quoting the Mishna, explains that we are only required to help load the animal if the owner makes an effort too. However, if he stands idly by and instructs us to fulfil our responsibilities and load the animal, we are exempt from our original obligation.
We cannot expect to change the world. We can only change ourselves and hope that by doing so we will succeed in creating the right environment in which to facilitate spiritual progression. We can only inspire if people wish to be inspired; we can only reach their souls if they wish to hear. We are but a catalyst, yet we must do everything in our power to help our fellow Jews. Ultimately though, as the Kotzker points out, they need to be our partners in this venture. They must help themselves.
Each and every one of us is a leader. And each and every one of us is part of the flock. We have an individual responsibility and a collective one. If we can work together, with the aim being to maximize everyone’s physical and spiritual potential, we will surely return the Almighty’s “lost objects” to their rightful place in the world.