Ki Teitze Hashavat Aveida
Last week, in Parashat Shoftim, we learned about our obligations to the anonymous stranger passing through our domain.
This week our Torah portion, Ki Teitze, introduces us to our obligations to those who are closer to home:
Deuteronomy 22:1-4 teaches: If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer. If your fellow Israelite does not live near you or you do not know who [the owner] is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your peer claims it; then you shall give it back. You shall do the same with that person’s ass; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow Israelite’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must raise it together.
In short, return things that aren’t where they should be to where and to whom they belong. This principle, like many important mitzvot, is describing Jewish tradition using a single phrase: Hashavat Aveida, literally the returning of lost objects, as in “Oh dear, someone left their coat. Now I get to do the mitzvah of Hashavat Aveida!”
If we pay close attention to the Torah’s text about it, we can see that the mitzvah is not just about doing, but about a particular emotional orientation towards doing: “Do not ignore it,” the text says, three times in four verses.
As Rabbi Dr. Erin Lieb Smokler writes, “The human instinct is to avoid (להתעלם)—to not see what is before us, to not view other people’s stuff as having a claim on us. So three times over the Torah warns against this indifference and prescribes active involvement.”
As we discussed in Torah study yesterday, it can be a serious burden to get involved, and sometimes the burden of keeping a lost creature until it can be restored home is untenable. The rabbis in the Tlamud in Bava Metzia 28, acknowledge that, teaching, “Whatever works and requires food (as, for instance, oxen, etc., the cost of whose food is set off by the value of its labour) should work and eat; whatever does not work but requires feeding (as, for instance, sheep) should be sold and the money restored to the man who lost it (Bava Metzia 28b).
The rabbis of the Talmud seek to offset the potential inconvenience of having to care for a living creature until it can be restored home. But note that even their fix is not without burden – to find an appropriate buyer who will give a fair price, to safeguard the money – and this, of course, only after making an effort to find the owner!
Lest you be concerned that there is no such thing as “finders’ keepers” in Judaism, the rabbis clarify that there are certain objects that are considered hefker – ownerless, as soon as they are lost, particularly objects of very limited value that are so standardized as to not be idenfiable – a pencil or pen being a good example today (unless, of course, we’re talking about an embossed gift pen). A dollar bill, or even a five dollar bill could be considered hefker, but not if it is found in a wallet that could be identified by its owner.
I love that Torah commands us to look out for each other’s stuff, but I’m actually more interested in the animals than in the stuff. Animals have agency, they can wander. And so it might be particularly easy for us to ignore them. Or to not really wonder if an animal is where it should be. Paying attention to whether an animal has strayed assumes that we are aware of where our neighbors’ animals belong in the first place.
And it’s very easy to extrapolate this as not about animals. Rabbi Smokler points out that to several Chasidic masters, “wandering ox and sheep are metaphors for people who have lost their way.”
Noam Elimelech, commenting on this verse, for example, writes “if you have the ability to save with counsel or with effort, but you show yourself [as if] you do not have the strength, your strength will be reduced – measure for measure.”
Essentially, this set of mitzvot is pushing us to be the kind of community where we look out for each other, where we speak up when we see someone going astray, literally or figuratively, where we take care of each other.
Now, this can have risks and be uncomfortable. For example, when one of my daughters was two and half years old, my family was spending a shabbat in Berkeley, and after leaving shul, my daughter ran back around the corner as we were starting to walk home. We had been playing a kind of walking peek-a-boo, so I gave her a few minutes to “pop-out” at me, and when she didn’t, I, like many mothers, started calling her name and demanding that she show herself. Then I went looking. By the time I found her, she had passed the shul, rounded another corner, and was walking calmly with a tall man in a yarmulke who I recognized from the synagogue.
“I figured someone would come for this little one,” he told me, “but that I’d better accompany her until then. She seemed perfectly ready to come to my house for lunch!” No doubt, had I not shown up in a few minutes, this man who lived right near the synagogue, would have fed my daughter.
And I love that. I want to be in a community where people look out for each other’s children and aren’t afraid to offer accompaniment.
I also acknowledge that this man took a risk. I could have gotten very upset with him and accused him of kidnapping my daughter, I could have told him that he should mind his own business. Trying to take care of each other carries not only inconveniences, but risks. Our good intentions can be misread, and in this hyper-individualistic society, we may well live in fear of being seen as nosy, or meddling. But I’d rather live in a community where we check in with each other – and sometimes get it wrong – than in one in which we ignore the signals that something might be going astray.
So as we approach Rosh Hashanah, especially for those of us who have been thinking about our own work of cheshbon hanefesh – soul accounting, realigning ourselves with who we want to be – I think Torah is urging us also to remember to help each other find our way back. Sometimes a little nosy is what we all need. May we all find our way back ,and may we all have people who help us and our stuff get where we need to go.
Personal and Collective Revelation (May/June 2023)
When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, each and every person took in what they were capable of hearing. The sages say that there are 70 faces of Torah, and we all experience it differently.
This year, on Shavuot, as our community commemorates the giving of the Torah, I will be personally (God willing) focused on the revelation of a new human and of the demands that come with new life: the sleeplessness, the mess, the adoration. My revelation will be personal; I will not be with the rest of you.
I am indeed expecting a new arrival sometime around May 20th. Many of you already know this, but since our TBI informal information networks have not really recovered from the pandemic, I know this may be news to some of you. I want to make sure you aren’t surprised by the (B”H – God willing) announcement of my parental leave in late May and June. While I am out, Rabbi Yisraela Tubman will be back-up for any pastoral and lifecycle needs that may arise. A wonderful rotation of both clergy and lay leaders will be running our Shabbat and Wednesday services as well as my weekly Thursday Torah study. And Rabbi Solomon will be organizing our community’s Tikkun Leyl Shavuot on May 25th.
I hope to invite the community to celebrate and meet our new arrival at a Shabbat morning service around a month after the baby is born. We will be routing any needs for help that we have through the Tzedakah v’Chesed Committee, administered by Bev Behrman. If you are not on her list, and you would like to be, please contact her.
I will be back half-time in early July through September, leading services, responding to pastoral and life cycle needs and (of course!) preparing for the High Holidays.
In the meantime, this community will continue to share Torah, to gather, and to take care of each other in large and small ways. I hope that whatever revelation you receive in this season, it brings you closer to a sense of the divine and to connection with each other.
Losing sight of the pregnancy in abortion debate
The Register-Guard (December 2021)
Two years ago I underwent a harrowing medical condition. For nine months, my body housed a rapidly expanding uterine growth. It drained my energy, created arthritic symptoms in my joints and caused weight gain of almost 40 pounds. I expelled it from my body in a dangerous process involving 17 hours of increasingly intense pain. I required several weeks of recuperation.
I willingly put up with this—twice! I wanted the babies, and I love the children they are becoming. But as abortion is relitigated, and the issue remains framed as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” I feel perturbed.
We largely don’t talk about pregnancy when we talk about abortion — about lawmakers decreeing that other people’s bodies must house something that is excruciatingly uncomfortable and potentially mortally dangerous for nearly a year. In our society, this process coincides with lack of support for the well-being of those women’s bodies and insufficient time to recover from the physical exhaustion of pregnancy and birth.
When I recall this exhausting condition, I am pained at the idea that anyone who doesn’t want to be a parent would be forced to endure pregnancy.
I strongly believe in protecting innocent life. While my faith tradition doesn’t teach that human life begins at conception, I can respect that belief. I can even agree that in an ideal world, abortion would never happen outside of medical necessity; people would have the knowledge and resources to prevent unwanted pregnancy and every conception would be wanted.
The Bible demands that we all care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger: the vulnerable who tend to be invisible and neglected. But as a spiritual leader, I am also aware that it is easy — and even cheap — to demand that someone else do the caring. The harder and more important spiritual challenge is recognizing the obligations in our own lives to care for the vulnerable.
Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who spent decades working to ban abortion, wrote a New York Time op-ed in 2019 about his change of heart. He admitted that pro-life work often ends at birth, failing to provide any social or financial support for young mothers and children.
In his words, “I can no longer pretend that telling poor pregnant women they have just one option — give birth and try your luck raising a child, even though the odds are stacked against you — is ‘pro-life’ in any meaningful sense.”
Pregnancy is difficult enough when it is wanted, as mine were. In a society that fails to prevent sexual violence or offer even basic sex education, let alone health care, parental leave or other services, it is immoral to require women to just “take responsibility” for an unwanted pregnancy.
Those who refuse to advocate for welfare, guaranteed food, housing, child care and medical care for needy families are guilty of cheap caring when they simultaneously demand that women find room within their very bodies for fetuses they do not want.
It’s easier to demand another person put her own body at risk to nourish a life than it is to accept a personal share of responsibility for all the lives already here.
Her column will resume after she completes a five-month sabbatical in June 2022.