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Ownership and Return

This week’s parashah, Ki Tetzey, contains the greatest number of mitzvot/commandments of any Torah portion. The 72 mitzvot found in the parashah focus on everything from the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals and the poor through laws of inheritance, weights and fair weights and measures. This amalgam of mitzvot may seem random at times, yet there is a guiding principle that reminds us not to be indifferent to other people and the world around us.

One of the mitzvot found in the parashah concerns the obligation that we have to return lost property, no matter what it may be or how long ago we may have discovered it. In reading the commentaries on Ki Tetzey I came across many stories from throughout Jewish history dealing with this specific mitzvah.

One story concerned a man who came to Rabbi Aaron of Chernobyl to tell him of a terrible recurring nightmare that he was having. The man had found a wallet containing a fortune. When he could not find the owner in the crowd, he kept the money, and with it became even wealthier than he could have imagined. In his nightmare the man to whom the money had originally belonged became destitute and had to beg in the streets. He died, leaving his wife and children in poverty so that his children could not even afford an education.

The rabbi instructed him to find the man who had originally owned the money and to give him half of the wealth he had accumulated. Once he did so, the man’s nightmares ceased.

The other story does not explicitly concern finding lost items, but it is often used as a parable to teach this mitzvah. In this Talmudic story (Ta’anit 25a) men carrying two measures of barley visited Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. They deposited the barley with him and seemed to forget about it. Seven years later the men returned to find that Rabbi Pinchas had sowed the barley and reaped great harvests. When he saw them, Rabbi Pinchas told them to take everything from “your storehouses filled with grain.”

In the first story the man who found the wallet realized that he had profited from the loss of another. Not able to abide this, he was instructed not to return his entire fortune, but instead to share the wealth with the man to whom the money had originally belonged.

In the second story the grain was not lost, but it was simply forgotten. Still, in good faith, Rabbi Pinchas not only shared the wealth, but he handed all of the remaining grain back to the original owners.

In both of these stories there is an underlying assumption that there is someone who is the “rightful” owner and someone else who is simply a “proxy” or “temporary” owner who must eventually relinquish not only the original property, but all or part of what had accumulated.

In principle this moral is one to which we can relate. We must care for others as well as for ourselves; we have no right to profit from the misfortune, negligence or forgetfulness of others. This is part of creating a caring society, just as much as laws protecting the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger (which we we also find in this week’s parashah). However, I believe that there is another underlying assumption that should be questioned — though I cannot propose a definitive answer.

The assumption of which I speak is that the property is owned by anyone at all. In Psalm 24 we are told “the world belongs to God in all its fullness, the earth and all who dwell on it…” In other words, everything on this earth belongs to God. Nothing is truly owned by any human being. A parallel teaching can also be found in Buddhism: nothing in life is permanent. Everything is temporary and ephemeral. We must rejoice in the moment, because that is all we have. We must rejoice in what we have at the moment because we do not know if it will be “ours” the next moment, if indeed it ever was “ours.”

We spend so much of our lives focusing on acquiring things, whether money, property, books, music, etc., etc. that we often forget to enjoy what and who is in front of us at any given moment.

In both of the stories above there was an assumption that an object belonged to someone and therefore needed to be returned. And yet there was also an assumption that nothing truly belonged to anyone, or else neither of the “finders” would have dared to profit at all or to keep — or return — any of what they had amassed.

These two stories bring to light an essential paradox in life with which we must struggle. Given the nature of society as it has developed, we must realistically focus on “ownership.” Yet if we look at the grand scheme, we really don’t own anything. Those who choose to become monastics or practice a life of true simplicity give up everything except what they need to keep themselves warm and fed. Most people are not willing to do that, nor is that what I am proposing. For we are also commanded to rejoice in God’s world and everything in it. But we should never lose track of the fact that everything is temporary and ownerless, from a human perspective, yet eternal and proprietary from a Divine perspective. To quote another great sage, “aye, there’s the rub!”: how to enjoy what we have, who is with us in this very moment, while knowing deep down that the next moment everything may change.

And so we must continue to engage ourselves with things and people, to fill our days, and theirs, with joy. We honestly do not know who and what will be here with us the next moment. This insight could cause us to despair, yet we are commanded to rejoice in what we have, and in who is part of our lives at this very moment. We must participate in life with all our heart, all our soul and all our might so that we can experience that joy. We’ll experience the next moment when it arrives.

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