If one finds something that belongs to someone else, the Torah obligates the finder to return it. Beginning with an example of a wandering animal, the mitzvah becomes more specific and general in referring both to returning even a garment, while also “any lost item which [your brother] loses and you find it. You may not ignore it.” (Devarim 22:1-3)
To return a lost item is an important mitzvah we can all appreciate. After all, we can all relate to the feeling which accompanies either the inability to find something or the realization that something is lost. We also very much appreciate finding that lost item, and the shock of someone else finding it and returning it!
The Sefer HaChinukh describes these passages as being two separate mitzvoth, one positive and one negative — the first being to return that lost item, the second being to not ignore it. Using one combined explanation for the two mitzvoth, he says the purpose of returning lost items is for the betterment of society.
Noting how all of the Talmudic discussions on this subject are in Bava Metzia chapter 2, he also reminds us that there are circumstances under which it is impossible to return a lost item, but a person should do one’s best when possible.
This week, the United States observed 9/11, and that day was one in which this country suffered a tremendous loss. Beyond the national tragedy and the personal tragedy that affected many thousands of people and extended families, the biggest halakhic questions which came in the aftermath of the terrorist attack was determining the status of wives whose husbands were missing after that day — how much time needed to pass, or how much evidence needed to be gathered, for an agunah to be officially declared a widow?
That can certainly fit into the category of “You may not ignore.” “You must return” a clear status to this woman, so she may mourn and thus, after gathering the broken pieces of life, make every effort to continue living a purpose-filled life.
The Alshikh notes that the verse instructing not to ignore a lost item refers specifically to something “your brother had, but was lost from him. It does not apply to something he didn’t have,” but may have missed out on getting, such as a y’fat to’ar, the captive woman described at the beginning of the Torah portion.
Furthermore, he notes how G-d wanted to give the Israelites merits in the mitzvah of “loving your neighbor as you love yourself.” As he puts it, it’s hard to drop everything you are doing just to help someone with their problems. “And so the Torah tells us, ‘don’t watch that happen and ignore it, which is human nature, because if you make the effort to return, and especially if you are successful, you will feel so amazing you’ll do it again.’ When you will have trained yourself to conduct yourself the same way next time, it will be easy for you to do.”
So I think we can look outside of the box, beyond the lost item, to see what other things have been lost, and see how we can return them.
Every year, I read an article, usually from a parent in Brooklyn or Lakewood, decrying how most kids have a place in school, but some children were not placed by the time school started recently. I have heard the argument made that certain communities must band together and have all the schools not send out acceptance letters until all the children at least have one acceptance letter going to them.
How can a school year begin with some children sitting at home? If they were in school last year, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, and the concern for the “Tinokot shel beit rabban’s” Torah study should override everything else! They should not become lost!
I will conclude with two stories about Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the Rosh Yeshiva of many yeshivos from Bnei Brak, about his feelings of what should prevent children from going to school.
A fellow came to Rav Shteinman explaining why the children of a certain family who was (in this fellow’s opinion) “not yeshivish enough” for the school he represented should not be allowed in. He wanted Rav Shteinman to agree with him. Rav Shteinman asked a couple of questions and determined that the only reason people didn’t want this family in was Gayvah! (thinking they are better than this family).
Rav Aharon Leib went to the ends of the earth to avoid kicking students, even troublesome ones, out of school, until he at the very least found a new school for the student to study. He often would say that the only reason to have a child leave a school is if he is affecting others’ “Yiras Shamayim” (fear of heaven). Barring that, every child should have a place in a school or yeshiva.
We cannot afford to lose the children! Just as our leadership went to the ends of the earth to not lose the 9/11 agunahs, our communities must move whatever mountains possible to see that neshamas are not lost because they are “not good enough” for our schools, or are finding themselves in learning institutions that do not inculcate religious instruction and Jewish values due to no other option being available — whether on account of finances, aptitude, attitude, academic ability, or whatever the reason.
Like the Sefer HaChinukh says, this attitude of not giving up on the lost children can only be for the betterment of our Jewish society. And like the Alshikh said, it is a tremendous demonstration of “Loving your neighbor as yourself” when you move the mountains you’d like moved for yourself in order to get someone else to find that which they seemed to have lost. We cannot afford the lost souls of these children.