May 20, 2024
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Moving Forward in Our Journey Toward Holiness

There is no better time than Chodesh Elul, as we prepare for the holy season of the Yamim Nora’im, to make the choices as to how we will move forward in our journey toward “holiness.” Still, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and inadequate when our “confidence tank” is low, and we find ourselves veering off the path. Yet, it is especially at these times that we must tap into our emunah, knowing that Hashem, who endowed us with the status as the “chosen people,” believes that we are fully capable of being the vehicles through which His Holiness is expressed in this world, for others to emulate. In previous articles we considered how living with Torah—by accessing the messages in our weekly Torah portions—is one of the God-given gifts empowering us to refuel on a regular basis. In Parshat Ki Teitzei, which we read several weeks ago, I discovered an insight that resonated strongly with me, pushing me forward in this journey.

In Chapter 22: verses 1-4, we learn that if one is to come upon an animal that belongs to our brothers, we are obligated to return it to its rightful owner. This particular mandate does not only apply to animals but to any lost object that we encounter in our daily lives. (This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the age-old maxim we heard as children: “finders, keepers (losers, weepers).” Yet, our Torah does not stop there. In the next three verses we learn many more details and caveats that are attached to this mandate. Not only are we expected to return the object, we are also obligated to go to the greatest lengths in order to locate the rightful owner, no matter the distance we must travel in order to do so. As if that were not enough, if we found an animal we are also asked to take it into our homes, to protect it, to provide it with nourishment and to meet all of its needs. In the case of an inanimate object, we must make sure it remains in the same condition it was in when we found it. Yet, our obligations do not end there. Inserted at the very end of the first and last verses in this segment, the Torah adds a rather odd caveat. We are asked not to “blind our eyes” or “hide ourselves” from seeing the object. Since our rabbis always remind us that there is no extra word in the Torah, this leads us to wonder why the Torah repeats the prohibition against “hiding from” or “blinding one’s eyes” from seeing the lost object.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, in his textual analysis of the wording in these verses, offers a compelling explanation for the repetition. He explains that via the prohibition against pretending that one does not see the lost object, the Torah is warning us against the temptation to avoid the lengthy, detailed process of caring for and returning the lost object. Lest we are tempted to steal the object, we already know this would impact significantly on our journey toward holiness. Even in our “loosie-goosie” societal perception of “Law and Order,” we admit that stealing is a criminal act. Yet, it would be perfectly natural to try to avoid all the work involved in returning the object.

With this caveat, and the repetition of the wording, our Torah makes it crystal clear that not only is God prohibiting us from stealing the object, He is also warning us against pretending that we never saw the animal, ring or other desirable object that came our way. This is because if we would fail to do so we are violating the rights of the lost object and the owner, an egregious sin in the eyes of God—one that impacts on our status of holiness. We are all familiar with, and some of us are even victims of, society’s interpretation of “Law and Order,” circa 2019. Find a good lawyer, accumulate a host of loopholes, and get off a free man or woman. Yet, from a Torah perspective, God insists that we respond to one another not only by refraining from being “bad” or “evil” to one another, but also charging us with developing the character traits of goodness, kindness, compassion, empathy and holiness and becoming the best version of ourselves (as individuals and couples) that God expects us to be. In the overarching mitzvah of hashavat aveida we learn that it is not just the big-picture perspective that can be subjective and distorted, that we need to see clearly, without distortion, it is also the objective details that count and weigh in on every action and decision we make.

My readers know that I love stories that help us understand how the psychological and Torah insights I share can be applied in real-time, and I can assure you that this one goes straight to the heart.

Rabbi Goldberg tells a story of a yeshiva student in Israel who found a telephone/address book. It happened to be that he just learned the laws pertaining to hashavat aveida and he took it very seriously. As a result, he started to contact all the names in the book to find its owner. When he connected with a woman in Florida, most of the names were very familiar to her, and she surprised him when she stated her belief that the book probably belonged to her daughter, who also lives in Israel. The women’s curiosity was aroused, and she asked him why he didn’t choose the easy option of ridding himself of the book, rather than choosing the more difficult course of making direct contact in order to find the rightful owner.

In responding to her question, the young man explained that he was an observant Jew and that in the Torah there is an obligation to return lost objects. He added that he was able to empathize with the owner of the telephone book, knowing how desperate she may feel losing her connections with family and friends. He summed it up by explaining that he was simply following one of the many principles of the Torah. Surely in doing so he demonstrated the primacy that love of mankind and responsibility to our brothers and sisters has in our Jewish ideology. The young man called the owner of the lost telephone book, and she was incredibly grateful. He arranged to meet her in a public place in order to return the book; yet, when they met, the tears running down her face immediately alerted him to her emotional state. When he questioned her as to what was going on, he was blown away by her story:

Several years ago, when I came to New York for my education, I also became a ba’alat teshuva and began my journey of becoming a Torah-observant Jew. My mother was turned off by the “cultish” nature of the religious lifestyle I embraced. She was so angry that she did not stop at rejecting my observant lifestyle. She also stopped speaking to me and cut me off completely. It was then that I decided to move to Israel, the Holy Land. Yet, when you called her she was totally taken by your response to the question of why you were bothering to make all these calls in your attempt to return something so small in monetary value as my phone/address book. She was blown away when you explained that the Torah, the guide to living as an observant Jew, cautions us not to stop at avoiding being “bad” in our interactions with others; rather, we are also mandated to being “good” and to becoming the best version of the person Hashem expects us to be. She immediately called me, telling me how proud she was of me and how impressed she was with the religion I embraced.

Yet, it was the compelling end to her story that went straight to the young man’s heart, also the moment that he probably recognized the reward for meticulously following the minute details of the mitzvah of hashavat aveida. This occurred when she wiped her eyes and looked him straight in the eyes and said: “Not only did you return and restore my telephone book; more significantly, because of your commitments and efforts to Jewish law, you returned and restored my mother to me.”

Wow! What a beautiful story to illustrate the multiple layers embedded in the mandates of hashavat aveida and the overarching charge of “Kedoshim tihiyu.” Indeed, these insights are nothing less than treasures in our own backyard, empowering us to appreciate the value of every Jewish soul; and that in doing so we are doubly rewarded with the equivalent of winning the lottery in accruing mitzvot and raising our spiritual value to the heights of holiness Hashem intended for us to reach. Let’s go for it!

Wishing the staff and my readers a blessed year of health, happiness and peace of mind.

Shana tova u’metukah!


Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst, with training in Imago and EFT. She also facilitates a chavrusa in Cyberspace on the weekly parsha, edited by Debbie Friedman. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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