Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Ki Tetze
Lots of interesting laws in this week’s Torah portion, including famous laws to return lost property to its rightful owner. These laws begin in Chapter 22 with an injunction against ignoring animals that have gone astray:
If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. . . (D’varim 22:1)
The Hebrew is interesting, with a sort of double negative: “you will not see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and turn away from them.” Our friend Rashi says that “you will not see” means “covering your eyes, as if you did not see.” The difficulty he addresses is only implicit: if one really didn’t see, there would be no obligation, (we can’t act on what we don’t know about) so “not seeing” must mean one didsee, but chose to act as if one didn’t.
What makes Rashi’s comment even more interesting is the word he uses for “cover,” as in cover one’s eyes. He uses the word kovesh, a root which can mean cover or pave or but also means conquer or achieve victory over. Now, maybe I’m leaning too hard on one word, but perhaps Rashi is suggesting that it takes some effort not to see what we don’t want to see. In the case of the lost animal or other possession, perhaps we don’t want to go to the effort to identify the rightful owner, or perhaps we choose not to see identifying marks that would obligate us not to keep what we have found; the mind powerfully justifies what we want to do anyway!
The effort not to see what one doesn’t want to see is often not conscious, but indeed all of us choose to deny certain truths that on some level we know. These truths might be related to health, money, relationships, issues of social justice, poverty or suffering around us, but they are there, and we so often conquer our eyes and act as if we don’t see. Our world is warming and the seas are rising, but we conquer our eyes and turn away from the evidence here and abroad. Right here in America, there are serious issues of racism, inequality, unemployment, hunger and strife, but all too often, we conquer our eyes until images too powerful to ignore erupt on our screens and across the headlines.
The mitzvah of returning lost objects is not only about establishing trust among neighbors (see commentary linked in first paragraph) but also about training our hearts and minds to see things that we’d rather ignore. That, in turn, becomes an indispensable aspect of a mature and engaged life; we cannot fix what we choose not to see, and so healing the world depends on opening our eyes.