The Latest from BZBI

Lost & Found

Ki Teitzei 5779 / 14 September 2019

September 18, 2019

(Sing Modeh Ani. . .)
I am grateful before you, Living God
For returning my soul to me
Your faith in me is great.

As with most things in our tradition – our daily transition into consciousness is not to be taken lightly.  Our morning liturgy speaks to the wonderment of waking up – with “Modeh Ani” – we thank God for the compassionate act of restoring our souls to us. The words in the siddur tell of the trajectory of our souls – how they have been given by God, created, formed, breathed in to us, preserved – to be taken one day and then to be restored on a future day. Each morning when we get up –when we open our eyes from the glimpse of death, from the mystery, that is sleep – we praise God for the miracle of restoring our souls.

[Now- I have to admit – these days, with little ones who like to wake up multiple times a night, I am holding out hope for the day I can say a prayer of gratitude for restoring my uninterrupted sleep. 🙂 ]

The summer before I began rabbinical school, I taught Jewish environmentalism to fourteen year olds at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. During our yearly time out from commercial culture I wanted to talk about where all our “stuff” comes from, to wonder what makes an object holy. So our class went on a field-trip.  We took an underground tour of the hadar ochel, the dining hall. We saw the industrial sized cholent cauldron – the tower of babka boxes trucked in from Monsey, NY.  We met Jan, an engineering student from Poland, who spent his mornings washing our syrup-stained breakfast dishes.  We met Rosie, as we affectionately called the camp dumpster who collected our trash.  We then read the following piece of gemara from Masechet Brachot:

“Ben Zoma used to say: What labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He plowed and sowed, and cut and bound the sheaves, and threshed and winnowed and sifted grain, and ground and sifted flour, and kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; where as I rise in the morning and find all this ready before me.  And how many labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He sheared and washed wool, and hatcheled and dyed and spun and wove and sewed, and then at last he clothed himself; but I rise in the morning and find all this ready before me.  All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house; and I rise in the morning and find all these before me!” (Berakhot, 58a – Chapter 9)

Ben Zoma speaks of the blessings of his ready-made bread and tunic.  (I imagine he wore a tunic of some kind…)  From a place of privilege, he takes a moment to honor the labor that went into these objects that sustain and protect him.  His food and clothing are set, his physical needs met, and he can use his days to study Torah.

Ani Mashkim,” he says in this a-ha moment.  I rise – “u’motzeh kol eleh m’tukanim lifanai” and find all of these ready, set, prepared and repaired before me.

In this week’s parsha, Ki-Tetzei, we find a mitzvah about our relationship to earthly things.  This mitzvah is known as Hashavat Aveidah – the restoration of lost items.  If we stumble upon our neighbor’s cloak or see his or her sheep or donkey wandering aimlessly, we are obligated to bring it home and to care for it until we can return it to its rightful owner.  

(Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ׃

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.

וְאִם־לֹא קָרוֹב אָחִיךָ אֵלֶיךָ וְלֹא יְדַעְתּוֹ וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ אֶל־תּוֹךְ בֵּיתֶךָ וְהָיָה עִמְּךָ עַד דְּרֹשׁ אָחִיךָ אֹתוֹ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתוֹ לוֹ׃

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.

וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ וּמְצָאתָהּ לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם׃

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.

We are prohibited from remaining indifferent.  The section ends with the phrase, “Lo tochal l’hitalem,” do not make yourself invisible.  In the event of found livestock or clothing, we are not free to desist from the opportunity to return the property to its owner.  We are not free to walk away, lay low or tune out a calling to repair a gap in the world.

The Torah takes this mitzvah very seriously. In fact, the midrash teaches that even if your neighbor’s sheep goes astray a thousand times, you must still return it.

As with many important lessons, I first learned about hashavat aveidah in the camp dining hall. During announcements, a division head would hold up a lone rain boot, a soggy coil of terry-cloth formerly known as a towel, a stray kippah from the bar mitzvah of David Ben Gurion . . . Perhaps some parents might be thrilled to see some of their children’s filthy camp clothes disappear into the abyss, but at camp we are serious about this mitzvah.  If someone comes up to claim an item, the crowd goes wild.  As Ben Zoma teaches, the towel is not just a towel, the shoe not merely a shoe, but a signifier of the labor and time put into their production.  They are holy for the way they are plotted in the grids of people’s lives and as such – mapped onto the Divine drama. Restoration of lost items has cosmic reverberations.  

And it is moving that hashavat aveidah, the restitution of lost property, refers to more than material things. The sages understand this mitzvah as a “framework for restoring order and balance” in the world (Rabbi Rena Kieval). They cite it as a source for the obligation to save one whose life is in danger, as the impetus for bringing healing, for restoring the health of others.

It’s taught in the Talmud in Masechet Sanhedrin:

“From where is it derived that one must help his neighbor who may suffer the loss of his body or his health?
The verse states: “And you shall restore it [vahashevato] to him [lo]” (Deuteronomy 22:2),
which can also be read as:
“And you shall restore him to him, [vehashevato lo] i.e., saving his body.”
(Sanhedrin 73a, translation by Sefaria.)

Those of you in our community who are doctors, nurses, dentists, therapists, yoga instructors, chefs and others who promote the wellness of others, are engaged daily in the mitzvah of Hashavat Avedah.

Hashavah also shares a Hebrew root with our term for the restoration of the soul, teshuvah. The return of the soul to the realm of its creator, to its essence, to its most true self . . .

Ani Mashkimah u’motzah kol elu lifanai. I rise and find all these things before me – the fixed and the frayed, the bandaged and the busted. When I teach youth, I think a lot about how to balance “radical amazement” at the gifts of being alive with the knowledge of the earth’s tattered parts. How do we candidly consider the pieces of the world that break our hearts while still highlighting God’s hesed in breathing life into us?

That summer studying Jewish environmentalism at Ramah, my students and I picked lettuce leaves from camp’s organic garden.  We scrubbed out the soil between the ruffles. Running our hands through the earth we are built from, I hoped these high school freshmen might begin to hold themselves accountable for what will come of it and of us; Even though they are not responsible for the way they found it upon arrival.

I will never forget when my college playwriting professor, Aisha Rahman, of blessed memory, apologized to our class on behalf of her generation.  She was sorry, she said, for passing off the world to us in such a broken state.  In the rawness of her remorse, I also heard her faith in us, and God’s faith in us. Because we rise in the morning and find our souls restored – reassembled, restocked – someone must have faith in us that we can use our resources well.  We rise in the morning – raw potential – charged with the knowledge of that faith in us that we can do justice to the names and souls that are bound up in our own.  

Ani Mashkimah u’motzah kol elu lifanai. I rise and find all these things before me

This week, my hope is being restored by the millions of young people involved in the Youth Climate Strike. Led by Greta Thunberg, a sixteen year old from Sweden, each Friday, teens have been walking out of their classrooms and places of work to say what is happening to our earth is not business as usual and cannot be treated as such. They have called for a global climate strike this coming Friday. Many of our BZBI USYers will be participating. In a letter published this past spring, the Youth Strikes for Climate Movement wrote:

We demand the world’s decision makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. [But] the youth of this world has started to move and we will not rest again…We are the voiceless future of humanity … We will not accept a life in fear and devastation. We have the right to live our dreams and hopes.”

In the Talmud’s world of hashavat aveidah – when lost objects are discovered – the finder is only permitted to claim them permanently if the original owner has lost all hope of ever getting the property back. This state of “yeush” is declared when the owner has reached a final place of despair and stagnation. Our young people refuse to allow us to reach a place of yeush when it comes to repairing and restoring our world.

And when it comes to the restoration of our souls – there is no such yeush.  Even if we have gotten lost a thousand times, the Holy One is always here, waiting to take us back in Teshuvah.

Now is the time.  This is the month.  In Elul, the shofar calls to us – Wake Up!  Our age-old alarm clock, it reminds us, that the moment is here to open our eyes. To look.  To see.  What is the state of the world that we wake up to?  What is the state of our souls?  What are the resources that we have to offer?  What  would it take so that those who come after us may wake up to a world that has been repaired?

Baruch atah hashem – harotzeh biteshuvah.  Blessed are you, God, who yearns for our return.