One of the transgressions which according to our parsha requires an asham is finding a lost object but denying it under oath (Vayikra 5:22-26). Rather, one who finds a lost object is obligated to return it to the owner. The basic message of this commandment is concern for our fellow man who is worried over his loss, but the details of the halakha convey additional profound lessons.
Despairing of Finding an Object
Even when we can clearly identify who lost an object, the finder doesn’t have to return it if he is sure the owner has despaired of finding it (SA CM 262:5). Even so, it is proper to return such an item (SA CM 259:5).
The Maharal points out that this rule seems unfair. After all, the finder didn’t do anything to deserve this object, which the person who lost it exerted himself to acquire. He explains that this exemplifies the difference between a purely utilitarian approach to ownership, which underlies many of our instincts of fairness, and the Torah’s approach which is based on fundamental categories.
Torah law doesn’t take account of who should be owner of an object, but rather who actually owns it. Ownership requires some form of connection to an object, either a material connection when the object is in our control, or an emotional connection when we rely on the object. Once the object is lost, it has left our domain; once we despair of finding it, we no longer rely on it. Nothing remains to connect us to the loss! Therefore, the finder may keep it.
This can teach us that our material possessions are ephemeral; they don’t have a permanent spiritual connection to us. When we enter the next world, writes the Maharal, we are not accompanied by our wealth! Rather, we bring with us the merit of our Torah and good deeds, which are our only true and lasting acquisitions in this world.
Even so, our Sages were concerned with accepted ideas of fairness, and told us that it is proper to return an object when we are sure of its previous owner. By encouraging such a return but not requiring it, the halakha acheives fairness but still conveys the underlying message that ownership is ephemeral and conditional, and that only our Torah and mitzvot are lasting acquisitions (Beer HaGolah pp. 31-33).
Two Kinds of Ownership
The mitzva of returning a lost object specifies “the lost object of your brother”, limiting this particular commandment to our felllow Jews (Devarim 22:3, BK 113b). Yet the Yerushalmi suggests that the great Kiddush HaShem involved in returning the lost objects of non-Jews makes this also an instance of the mitzva! (Yerushalmi BM 2:5, story of Abba Oshaaya.) We can explain this using a teaching of Rav Nachman of Breslav which distinguishes between two levels of ownership.
The lowest level of ownership is that of bare possession. (This is comparable to the “utilitarian” concept of ownership mentioned in the Maharal.) Above this is ownership which carries with it an acknowledgment and an expression of Divine providence an awareness that our possessions are given to us as a trust to be used in carrying out HaShem’s will. This is the level demanded of HaShem’s chosen people (Likutei Halakhot, Gezeila 1; cf. Bekhorot 13b).
Therefore, returning a lost object to a Jew automatically involves restoring it to its proper place in the chain of Divine providence. The Jewish people and the land of Israel are at the center of this chain, whereas the role of other peoples and other lands is defined in relation to ours. But while restoring a non-Jew’s object doesn’t ipso facto restore it to its Divine mission, the great sanctification of HaShem’s name involved is itself the greatest possible fulfillment of the object’s potential to serve holiness. This too is a fulfillment of the commandment. (Based on Likutei Halakhot Aveida 1:9.)
In Hebrew we refer to repentance as “teshuva” – return. Sometimes a person’s behavior gets “lost”, straying far from the Divine soul to which it properly belongs. Rav Nachman of Breslav teaches that just as a person retains his connection to a lost object and the right to have it restored as long as he doesn’t despair of it, so a sinner should steadfastly trust that he will find the strength to repent. No matter how deeply we are lost in sin, we should never despair of the possibility of return (Likutei Halakhot Aveida 2:2).
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.