If you were ever 10 years old, you are familiar with the aphorism, "Finders, keepers; losers, weepers." A schoolmate lost his special baseball, and I vividly recall how sad he looked when I told him I had it. It would be easy to say this week's Torah portion caused me to give it back when the reality is I thought he was going to take a punch at me. Did I get any credit for giving it back (under duress)?
In Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 22:2 we are told to "return it". Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asks, "How could I even think of keeping something that does not belong to me?" He inquires further, "Why does the Torah even have to mention something so fundamental?" To answer his own question, he responds, "Human greed and laziness are such that many people will seize the opportunity to claim a lost article or to avoid trying to find the owner." For a few moments, I really did want that baseball.
Our early rabbinic interpreters, in the midst of a totally agrarian society, insist that if the person finding the property makes a profit with it before returning it to the owner, even that profit belongs to the owner and must be paid when the lost property is restored. If the property cannot be quickly returned and its care costs money, correspondingly the owner must pay the "finder" when the property is restored.
The Ramban, Nachmanides, makes it clear that the mitzvah of returning lost property supersedes any inconvenience to the finder. The finder is obligated to announce the discovery so that others will know he possesses it, and the loser's anxiety will be relieved. One's ethical responsibility, whether one likes or dislikes the real owner, is to preserve the property. Nachmanides puts it this way, "Assist others. Remember the bond of humanity between you, and forget the hatred."
Modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz suggests that the command to turn aside and help an enemy whose property is in danger is an example of how the Torah deals with the real world. It does not present a world where all people get along with one another or rush to care for one another's property. Instead, it takes into account the reality that people do not always follow the Golden Rule.
After the Torah clarifies the duty to return lost property or to keep it safe, it concludes with the words lo tuchal le-hitalem, "You must not remain indifferent." Some translate it as "You may not conceal yourself" or "You shall not hide yourself." They are all fine, but Rashi makes it crystal clear with, "By averting your eyes as if you don't notice it."
This powerful dictum puts forth the ethical demand of Torah. Upon encountering a lost object, a fallen animal in pain under its burden, or the property of friends or enemies in danger, one's duty is to act. We are not permitted to look the other way, to pass by without paying attention, or to continue with our business as usual. Hiding the truth from ourselves and not acting is immoral. Indifference is intolerable. Responsible caring is at the heart of Jewish ethics.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham