Ki Tetze: Lost Cell Phones, Restored Faith

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Shalom on this sodden September day!

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tezte, contains lots of different kinds of laws:
property laws,
laws of warfare and captivity, laws pertaining to the treatment of animals,
family laws and
employment regulations.

This week we’ll forego our friend Rashi’s commentary and begin with a true story
from the
recent adventures of your humble commentator. About a month ago, I left my cell
phone
in a park in Marblehead, and within hours of discovering the loss, and driving
back to the
park to confirm it, I had already canceled service to the lost cell phone and
bought a new
one.

Lo and behold, two days later I get a call from a Marblehead police officer, who
had my cell
phone at his house and invited me to come get it. His son had taken a group of
day camp
kids to the same park the day I was there, and one of the campers found the
phone and
gave it to his counselor, who then gave it to his father. I was astonished, and
when I
arrived at his house, I ask how he found me.

Well, it wasn’t simple, but it was a wonderful, practical example of laws from
this week’s
parsha. The police officer and his son opened up the phone book stored in the
phone and
just started calling the numbers, asking if anybody recognized the phone number
which
appeared on their “Caller ID.” After a few phone calls, they reached my uncle’s
elderly
sister Florence, in Los Angeles (!), who only knows one person on the North
Shore (me.)

This surprises me even more: they were willing to do all that to return the
phone? The
answer is touching and profound: the police officer admitted that he wanted to
show his
son that one must exert oneself to be a responsible neighbor, rather than taking
the easy
way out, even if it’s tempting to keep the new phone in your hands.

Nice story- it’ll make a great sermon someday- but what does all this have to do
with
Devarim/ Deuteronomy?

At the beginning of Chapter 22, we find the laws of lost objects:

“You shall not see your kinsman’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them.
[Rather,] you
shall return them to your kinsman. But if your kinsman is not near you, or if
you do not
know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until
your kinsman
seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his
donkey, and so
shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your
brother
which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [it]. ” (22:1-3)

Well, the Torah mentions donkeys, and not cell phones, but you get the idea. The
rabbis
codify these laws even further, saying that one has a halachic (Jewish legal)
obligation to
seek the owner of lost objects which bear any sort of identifying marker, and
keep them
until the owner has had a reasonable chance to make a claim.

The key concept in the rabbinic treatment of the laws of lost objects is
“ye’ush,” or
“despair.” If I drop a dollar coin in the street, I assume it’s gone for good,
because it could
be anybody’s, but if I drop a purple polka-dotted scarf, I will not as quickly
“despair” of
finding it, because it’s a unique and special object which I can ask about. The
finder has to
give the owner time before claiming the object, and must assume that the owner
has not
“despaired” of finding it, if he or she indeed has some chance of getting it
back.

Now you understand the story of my cell phone- I had already decided, within
hours, that I
would not get the phone back, so I replaced it. But the police officer went to
great trouble,
using the unique information stored in the phone, to try to return it to me- he
was
following Jewish law better than I was! I was cynical: I assumed that anybody
finding a cell
phone would make long-distance calls and keep the phone, so I wanted to limit
potential
damages and charges. The police officer was not cynical: he wanted to be a good
neighbor, and at that moment, I didn’t really believe my neighbors would do such
a thing.

The cynicism about human nature which caused me to rush out and buy a new phone
is a
deeper problem of the human spirit than a lost object, and that’s why the Torah
insists
that the finder has an obligation to the unlucky neighbor who lost something. A
community where people take advantage of another’s misfortune is a community
that
soon unravels. Conversely, a community where people feel their neighbor’s
“despair” is a
community that can thrive with the spirit of trust and interdependence.

If I feel my neighbor won’t look out for me, I probably won’t look out for him
either, and
compassion is lost to the world. If, instead, we seek to fulfills the Torah’s
ideal of making
each other whole, in property and in spirit, then what’s really returned is not
only the lost
object, but hope itself: hope in the goodness of humankind, hope in the
possibility of true
community.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- as usual, you can find the text of this week’s Torah portion and haftarah
and various
commentaries here:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/kiteitzei.html

PPS: Two interesting articles on the laws of lost objects can be found here:

http://jlaw.com/Articles/

under the heading “Property Law.”

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