Ki Tetze – To Be or to… Do
One of the many commandments in this weeks Torah portion is the Mitzvah to return an item lost by another. The verse articulates this rule as follows:
“You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then gather it inside your house, and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it, and you return it to him. So shall you do for his donkey, so shall you do for his garment, and so shall you do for any lost article of your brother that may become lost from him and you find it; you shall not hide yourself.”(Deuteronomy 22:1-3)
The last words of the above paragraph is not translated quite as accurately as it might be. The phrase literally says ‘you are not able to hide yourself.’ Many commentaries take no notice of this strange formulation. The translation of Artscroll accordingly edits the words in their English rendition to sound more grammatically correct. Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, however, draws a great message from this particular phraseology.
We are dealing here with a simple Mitzvah. We must create a lost-and-found. If I discover someone’s wallet lying on the street I must make every effort to return it to its owner. If I am not familiar with the owner, but the wallet (or its contents) has some distinctions which make it unique enough to claim ownership on that basis I must safeguard the wallet until it is claimed. These rules are fairly straightforward.Finders keepers applies when an item has no distinctive marks, whereas an obligation to return the item applies when the item has distinctive marks.
But the phrase ‘you are not able to hide yourself’ tells us something more than the simple rule, writes R’ Alsheich. It is telling me that I must become the kind of person who is actually not capable of turning away from returning a lost item. The Torah doesn’t want that my fulfillment of this Mitzvah is driven merely by my knowledge of the Mitzvah. It should be driven by the caring personality the Torah wants me to develop. When I see a lost object my instincts should kick in so that ‘I am not able’ to turn away.
This is illustrative of the general attitude of the Torah concerning chessed, lovingkindness toward the other. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz teaches that while every Mitzvah should ideally be performed with no other motive than for the sake of heaven, to fulfill the will of God as instructed through the Torah, there are certain commandments which are exceptions to this rule. All Mitzvot that fall under the umbrella of Chessed should ultimately be driven by a sense of caring for others rather than to fulfill the commandment of the Torah. It would be silly, for example, to visit one who is ill solely for the intent to fulfill a Mitzvah. Yes, it is a Mitzvah, but to visit the sick exclusively for that reason is to miss the whole point! Imagine having no motive other than the Mitzvah when visiting the sick. It is probably a greater Mitzvah to visit one who is more sick. In that case the visitor will be hoping that the patient is very sick, which is ludicrous.
When it comes to Mitzvot of kindness to the other it is the desire of the Torah that we refine ourselves and become people of chessed. The objective is not simply to perform the kindness but to be kind. This is what the Alsheich draws also from the wording here. One should have such a sense of care for the other and for the property of the other that one will not be capable of walking away from a lost item that someone may be missing.