This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21:10-25:19)is a compendium of various and sundry laws of how we are to behave within our families and our communities. One passage (Deut. 22:1-3) deals with the mandate to return lost livestock to its owner. “You shall not see your fellow’s animal go astray and hide yourself from it; you shall bring it back to your fellow. And if your fellow is not near you, or if you don’t know him, then you shall bring it to your own house and it shall be with you till your fellow seeks it and you shall restore it to him again. You shall do the same with his donkey, with his garment, and with any lost thing of your fellow’s which he has lost and you have found; you must not hide yourself.”
The commentator Rashi explains the phrase: “You may not hide yourself” to mean that you may not “close your eyes tightly so that you will not see”. Taking care of animals is a chore. They need to be fed and watered and cared for. It would be easier to pretend that you didn’t see the ox that was wandering past your property, and not worry about it. But the Torah tells us that we have to concern ourselves with the lost property of others.
Two whole chapters in the Talmud tractate Baba Metzia are devoted solely to the study of lost property. In it, the Gemara examines the lengths to which a person must go in order to return a found object. The general rule is that, unless finding the owner is exceedingly unlikely or the hardship in returning the item exceeds the item’s worth, you are always obliged to return what is lost. The law applies not only to livestock, but to all found objects that could be traced to an owner. “Finders, keepers” is not a tenet of Jewish law.
Of course, this law is based on doing the right thing. Respect for the possessions of others is necessary to maintain orderly society. But I think the most important part of the portion is the last part: you must not hide yourself. The Reform Torah Commentary translates the phrase a little less literally, and renders it, “you must not remain indifferent”. The thrust of the law is that we are commanded to become involved. We may not remain indifferent to another’s loss.