When life gets busy with many distractions, I have a tendency to misplace objects: my keys, my mobile phone, my shopping list! I think most of us have had this experience, and even when the object is not especially essential, something feels out of kilter. Conversely, when a lost object is located or returned, the relief can be enormous, and order seems to be restored.
Ki Tetze, among its many mitzvot, includes the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, the obligation to return lost objects to their owner. At first glance, hashavat aveidah seems somewhat trivial compared to the sedra’s other more global subjects like ethical business practice, family and marital relations and supporting the poor. Yet the Torah takes this mitzvah very seriously, describing the different circumstances that may apply to finding a lost object. The Torah even spells out the positive and negative versions of the mitzvah: not only are we obliged to return a lost object, but we are also forbidden to pretend that we didn’t see it. “Finders keepers, losers weepers” is not a Jewish concept. The mitzvah is not about the object, but about behaviour. Rashi notes that the examples of lost objects move from the specific to the general, and from the most to the least valuable: from various animals, to a garment, and finally to anything at all. It is not the nature or worth of the object that matters, rather it is the idea of restoring things to where they belong. Hashavat aveidah, like so many mitzvot, is in part about character development. If we make it a practice to respect the property and well-being of others, then good behaviour becomes part of us.
Extending the broad reading of hashavat aveidah, there are two aspects to this mitzvah. One is to return something that a person has unintentionally lost. The other is to save him from a potential, involuntary loss. For example, if he lives by a river that will flood if no action is taken, then the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah obligates you to do all you can to prevent his home from getting damaged and incurring him in financial loss.
The season of teshuvah that we have entered is also about return. One of our tasks at this period is to reclaim parts of ourselves that we may have misplaced during the course of the year and to commit ourselves to restoring those lost pieces to their rightful places.