The Torah is loaded with commandments: 613 according to a traditional reckoning. The Torah portion for this Sabbath, Ki Teitzei, contains 72 commandments, the largest number in any Torah portion. However, I will focus on only one — the mitzvah to return lost property.
Before getting to the mitzvah itself, I want to lead up to a rabbinic principle of interpreting Torah. Psychologist Erich Fromm wrote, “If a woman told us that she loved flowers and we saw that she forgot to water them, we would not believe in her ‘love’ for flowers. Love is the active concern for the life and growth of [those whom] we love.”
In other words, love must be demonstrated. Likewise, if we say we cherish a value but don’t do anything to demonstrate that value, the value is a dead letter.
This was the approach of the sages in interpreting “Love your neighbor as your- self ” (Lev. 19:18). They said that something concrete, something specific, must be done in order to make the love real. One way to fulfill the mitzvah is to consider the property of another as precious to you as if it were your own (Abraham Chill, “The Mitzvot: the Commandments and Their Rationale”). Returning lost property to its rightful owner is thus a fulfillment of the mitzvah to love your neighbor as yourself.
There is nothing more powerful to stimulate the performance of a Jewish value than to see it carried out. Thus the sages held up their peers as moral exemplars and tell stories about how they fulfilled mitzvot. In the Reform prayer book “Gates of Prayer,” the idea of modeling mitzvot is expressed in the statement “O God, help us … to fashion [our children’s] souls by precept and example so that they might ever love the good and turn from evil, revere Your teaching and bring honor to [our] people.”
The mitzvah of returning lost property (hashavat aveidah) is extolled in two aggadot in the Jerusalem Talmud.
The first story deals with the return of a lost jewel. The 1st-century BCE sage Simeon ben Shetach was a flax trader. Wanting to ease his labor, his students bought a donkey from an Arab. On their way back to Simeon’s home they found a pearl entangled in its neck. When they came back to Simeon, they announced that he would not have to work so much any longer. The sale of the gem would provide Simeon with a good income.
Simeon asked his students, “Did its former owner know about the pearl?”
They answered, “Of course not.”
Simeon said to them, “Go and return it.”
They replied, “Master, there is a teaching that one may gain no profit from that which is stolen from a heathen, but there is general agreement that if you find something that belonged to a heathen, you may keep it.”
Simeon countered, “Do you think I am some rapacious barbarian? Return it!”
When the pearl was restored to the Arab, he declared, “Blessed is the God of Jews!”
The second story is about Rabbi Samuel bar Sosrati. When he went to Rome, the empress had lost her most expensive piece of jewelry and he found it. She had it proclaimed throughout the city: “He who returns it within 30 days will receive a large reward; if after 30 days, he will have his head cut off.”
Rabbi Samuel did not return the piece of jewelry within 30 days, but on the 31st day.
The empress asked him, “Were you not in the city?”
Rabbi Samuel said, “Yes, I was here.”
“Did you not hear the proclamation?” “Yes, I heard it.”
“Then why did you not return it within 30 days?”
“So that you should not say I did it because of fear of you. I did it because of fear of Heaven.”
At that the empress said to him, “Blessed be the God of Israel.”
Rabbi Max Kadushin, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, believed that these two stories could very well be apocryphal. However, the value of the stories is not attenuated because their purpose was to promulgate the concept of kiddush hashem, sanctifying God’s name. This concept means that when a Jew performs a righteous act toward a gentile, he/she upholds the honor and reputation of God and the Jewish people.
William James, a pioneer in psychology at Harvard, taught another way to view stories of doubtful authenticity: “The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is the conduct it dictates or inspires.”
When we apply James’ test to the stories of Shimon ben Shetach and Samuel bar Sosrati, they become true for us when they inspire us to conduct our lives by the criterion of kiddush hashem. By precept and example, we thus revere God’s teaching and bring honor to our people. PJC
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is retired but teaches in various venues in Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia provided this commentary for the Jewish Exponent, a Chronicle-affiliated publication. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own.