“If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it. You must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you, or you do not know who he is,you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find. You must not remain indifferent. “ (Deut 22:1-3)
There was a wonderful commentary on this text by my friend Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, a founder of Orot, an outstanding source of adult Jewish learning in the Chicago area. (Check out their programs) In it, he talks about how easy it is to stop ourselves from seeing the suffering around us, and as we approach the High Holidays, to look inward and see to what extent we ignore our own suffering, pretending not to see.
I see another aspect of this text. To me, another perspective involves community. This parasha spends a lot of time describing the things that make for a smooth-running society.If you see something valuable that belongs to someone in your town, if they lose something important, you have to make sure it gets returned. What if you don’t know who the owner is? Take the valuable home, and start finding the owner.
In order for this to work, everybody pretty much has to know everybody in town. You need to know where to look for the owner, and know who owns what. And this isn’t just evoking some nostalgic small-town time, when a farmer knew his neighbor’s horse or cow. Think about it –do you know your neighbor’s car or dog? You have to know each other, to know what each other owns.
“You must not remain indifferent.” Rashi (11th c France) says it means that you can’t pretend you didn’t see it. It’s the same verb as in the first verse, “do not ignore it.” You can’t just walk by and not act. Even if you’re not on your way home, even if it’s inconvenient, the commentators say, you have to take it upon yourself to rectify the situation, returning property to the owner.
The text first talks about one’s animals, an extremely valuable item, but you must do the same with his garment. Later in this chapter, we read that if you make a loan to someone, you can’t keep his pledge over night, “that he may sleep in his cloth” i.e., his garment as used as an IOU for the loan. This is about the needy person’s dignity. He may owe you money, but you still have to treat him with respect.
Dignity, respect, awareness of one’s valuables, and knowing each other well enough to take the time and effort to return what’s lost. These are the things that make for a strong community, a strong society. You have to look, you have to want to see the people around you, you need to be on the lookout for people in your community who do need help. You can’t pretend not to see. This time of the year, we are encouraged to look inward, and that’s important for true teshuva (repentance). As we gaze inward, let’s remember to take a look at how often we see outside ourselves, too.