One of the many Mitzvot appearing in Ki Tetze’s reading is the responsibility to return the lost property of another. The Torah instructs us also to pre-empt such a loss of another by being vigilant and thoughtful regarding any property that is in danger of becoming lost.
“If you see the ox of your brother or his sheep going astray you must not ignore them; you must 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 will return it to him.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-2)
The basic requirement apparent from the verses is to be observant of any item which might have gone missing from the possession of another. The Torah warns that we must not ignore it, and Rashi explains that one is forbidden from pretending one has not seen it in order to be free of responsibility for it. Rather, one must be proactive in assuming responsibility for it, even looking after a lost object for an extended period of time, until its owner is found.
While there are numerous details to the Mitzvah its basic gist is very clear: Returning a lost object is a sensible and logical obligation, a manifestation of property rights that others are obligated to uphold.
The commentaries apply this Mitzvah a bit further, taking it outside of the realm of our possessions. The Ohr Hachaim declares that the Mitzvah is equally applicable to people who are “lost.” If one perceives that another person has lost his or her way, and one can help steer one in the right direction, one has an obligation to do so and may not ignore the circumstances. This may even require a long term commitment, such as “gathering [him] into your home,” in order to help that person find his way back. More specifically, the Ohr Hachaim applies this to one who has lost his way spiritually. Another Jew, identifying that the other is straying from the path, has a duty to try and influence his return. Accordingly, the phrase ‘gather it inside your house,’ would refer to the house of study. It is incumbent upon each of us to help inspire our lost brethren to find their spiritual way home.
The Prophet Isaiah, in the section we read for the Haftarah on Yom Kippur, expresses our obligation to care for others as follows: “To the hungry you shall offer your bread, and the poverty stricken you shall bring home; when you see the naked you shall cover him; do not ignore the plight of your brethren.” (58:7)
Here too, we can read the verse as referring to the spiritual state of man. Our sages identify ‘bread” as Torah. In that context the hungry for bread are those who are spiritually malnourished. When the prophet delineates what the Lord wants from us, expressing sorrow over our failures, it is the disregard for the plight of our own brethren that strikes most poignantly. Not only what is physical lacking requires our care, but also the emotional needs and spiritual vacuum which we are in a position to help fill. The warm feeling of a full stomach, the security and comfort of a home, the protection and dignity afforded by a cloak – these are not exclusively physical, but equally applicable to the psychology of man. The warmth, security and dignity which we are admonished to provide to those lacking will not only fulfil the needs of those lacking but will also refine our own character into the person we are meant to be.
In a spiritual sense these elements are also necessary. Providing for another the warm feeling of belonging to a rich heritage, showing one the secure place he occupies in the home of our faith and cloaking him with the dignity of having purpose in life, those are key to the spiritual well-being of which the prophet is speaking. Since mankind is created by God and, endowed with a soul, begins life as a very spiritual being, bringing one back to a state of spiritual awareness fulfils the obligation of returning a lost item to its owner.