Allow me to present the beautiful (almost) unvarnished comments of Ohr HaChaim (Morocco, Jerusalem; 1696-1743). First, consider that Rav Chaim Ibn Attar lived in Morocco in the early 18th century and note the stunning contemporary relevance of his thoughts.
His point of departure is the Torah’s presentation of the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah (returning a lost object)
Verse 1: You may not observe your brother’s ox or his sheep lost and conceal yourself from them; return shall you return them to your brother.
Verse 2: But if your brother is not near you or you do not know him, gather it into your house and let it stay with you until your brother seeks it, when you must return it to him.
Verse 3: And so are you to do for his donkey, and so are you to do for his garment, and so are you to do for any lost object of your brother’s that is lost from him which you find. You may not conceal yourself.]
Now, use the following key:
a. Special tzaddikim (righteous Jews) are called the brothers of God (1). This is the greatest possible appellation that a human can achieve.
b. The oxen and sheep/goat refer to Jews that comprise God’s holy flock. Often we are called the the flock and God is the Shepherd
Do not observe your brother’s stray ox (2) (… or sheep) and conceal yourself. Return shall you return them to your brother
The Torah addresses the tzaddikim: You, who are brothers of God, If you see that your Brother’s ox has gone astray, i.e. a Jew (who is part of God’s holy flock) has veered off the path, do not hide yourself from that Jew. Return him to your Brother (to God). It might not have immediate results. It might be a extended process of return. First return him to the right path (of mitzvos) and through this will he come close to his Father in Heaven.
And if your Brother is not close or you don’t know Him
And if you live during that final period of the exile, about which Bila’am prophesied: I see it and He is not close (3). (Alternatively, if you don’t know when this terrible exile will end), you will encounter a sense of hopelessness and a distancing of hearts from faith – which causes people to walk away. Therefore it will be extremely difficult to return the ox to your brother (ed. note: for the ox will not know where his master is) —
Gather it into your house and let it stay with you
In the meantime, bring the ox, (your fellow Jew), into your home. The home of the tzaddik is the beis medrash (the study hall). Teach him Torah, the wisdom that will guide him through life and the road upon which light shall dwell – so that he will not leave the path.
… until your brother seeks it, when you must return it to him
The ox shall stay in your home until God (your Brother) will seek him out. Then, you will have facilitated his returned to Hashem and brought the Jew back home.
So much is moving to me about this Ohr HaChaim:
The contemporary understanding that as the exile plods on, there is a growing sense of distance from Hakadosh Baruch Hu explains so much. For the faithful Jew, with his emunah challenges, Hashem is peering from the cracks and watching from the windows. Take a look however, at the contemporary state of Klal Yisrael. It is a tragedy that defies comprehension. Where have the faithful gone? We are tired from the exile and the fatigue has set in.
More significantly, the Torah addresses us – those loyal to his word (the relative tzaddikim). You, who are the brothers of Hashem, the ones who care about His Torah and so desperately want to increase His honor and Name in this world; You who understand that the purpose of this world is to connect to Hashem in every manner possible, must not conceal yourself from other Jews. They are part of God’s flock and you must return them to Hashem.
And if they suffer from GSS, (Galus Stress Syndrome)? Show them a vibrant beis hamedrash. Show them a packed and electric atmosphere of young Jews fighting over His word. Let them see that God is relevant and resonant. Whether it is a contemporary discussion of stem cell research, marketplace ethics or the classic triad, Shabbos, Kashrus, and Family Purity with its myriad details – know that these and those are words of the living God. Implicit in the charge, is that in order for it to be alive for them, it must be alive for you!
Finally, is it not remarkable in a parsha that is so mitzvah-ful (74 mitzvos), one that resides within a triplet of parshiyot that contain almost 1/3 of all the mitzvos (4), we may consider but one mitzvah’s depth and extrapolate beyond to all the mitzvos, leaving us to gasp at the incredible vastness and depth of our Torah.
To wit: We all know the mitzvah of hashavat aveida applies to objects. That is level one of the mitzvah. In its most basic format, it contains thousands of details. A whole Talmudic chapter is devoted to its practical application. Level 2, a bit less known, obligates one to heal the sick. In Talmudic language, if we are obligated to return his lost object, all the more so his lost body (5).
At the third level, Ohr HaChaim teaches that the imperative of hashavas aveida applies not merely to objects and to bodies, but most significantly to wandering neshamos (souls). And to whom are we returning these neshamos? – to their original source, to a bond with the Almighty. Far from merely being a dramatic homiletics, Ohr HaChaim’s notion is considered halachic by many authorities (6).
If so, there is much returning to be done. For those Diaspora Jews, they might seem like improbable finds. I walk down my block and find Christine the Yid. The Moslem (fathered) Jew’s name who lives across the street escapes by memory. Wherever I go, opportunities abound. In Israel, the challenges are different, but no shortage of possibilities exists. Perhaps, it’s my congregant’s cousin, born in Israel, who has not yet been to the Kotel. Let us pray that our efforts merit a Divine response.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
1. Cf. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 27:1, Your friend – this is God, as it says for the sake of my brothers and friends
2. The word for stray is nidachim which connects etymologically to the word nidachat , the term used for a city of idolaters. To the Ohr HaChaim, the word implies traversing the mitzvos.
3. Bamidbar, 24:17
4. Re’eh has 55 mitzvot, Shoftim has 41, Ki Teitzei has 74
5. Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a.
6. See for example: Minchas Chinuch, 239:4; Maharam Shik, Mitzvah 240, Rabbeinu Yonah, 3:71
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.