Author's Note on Parshat Ki Teitzei
Date: August 24, 2018
13 Elul 5778
In the long list of mitzvoth in this week’s Parsha, Ki Teitzei, two struck me as particularly interesting. They are listed one right after the other: Loosely translated, they are:
- Returning “Lost” Articles. You must not see another’s ox or sheep wandering away and ignore them; you must return them to your fellow. (This implies you know the person to whom the items belong.) But if your fellow is not near to you and you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house and it shall remain with you until you investigate your fellow and you shall return it to him. You shall do the same for his donkey, his garment, and any of your fellow’s lost articles that he loses and you find; you may not ignore it.
- Helping one in Need. You must not see your fellow’s donkey or ox falling on the road and ignore them; you must pick them up together with him.
In looking at the first mitzvah on returning lost articles, the Torah says that if the other person is not near to you and you do not know him, you still hold on to the item to identify its owner so you can eventually return it. As Ramban and others have commented, how is it possible that you don’t know who the person is AND you know that the person is not near to you. If you don’t know who he is, you don’t whether he is near to you or far from you.
But maybe there is another way to look at this mitzvah. It applies not just to the ox, sheep, donkey or garment – it applies to everything, including spiritual or emotional “things”. Sometimes you look at someone you know and they are in an emotional state such that they are lost – so lost that they are no longer close to you AND you really don’t even know who they are any more. The Torah is telling us not to give up on the person. Don’t accept the fact that the person is “lost”. Bring “it” into your sphere of influence (your “house”) and work with the person (“investigate him” if you will) until you can restore the person to where he should be. But above all – you may not ignore the problem.
Now consider the second mitzvah. You see the load placed on the animal is causing the animal to fall. You cannot ignore the situation, you must help relieve the load “together with him.” Rashi explains that if the animal owner is sitting on the side of the road and says to you “It’s your obligation to relieve the animal’s load; so I will sit here and watch while you take care of it”, you are exempt from the obligation to help. That is why the Torah says to relieve the load “together with him.” Your obligation to help is dependent on your fellow’s willingness to work with you.
There is a famous Rosh Hashanah joke about the person who, every night, prays to win the lottery. After weeks of tear-induced fervent prayer, a voice comes down from Heaven saying “Look – at least buy a ticket.” When our burdens are too much and we need help, a fair question might be to ask what we are willing to do to help our own situation. If we are just going to sit back and ask others to do the work for us, why would they (or why should they) help? Henry Ford is quoted as having said: “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Here is the connection between the two mitzvoth. In the first case, our fellow is lost but we cannot give up on him. In the second case, our fellow needs the help but he cannot give up on us if he wants our help. Kol Yisrael Arevim ze bazeh – All of Israel are responsible one for the other.