Rabbi Goldschmidt

Parshat Ki Teitzei

“Finders, keepers; losers, weepers.”

This popular adage is often heard in our early years in school, you may be surprised to hear a little about its origin; its earliest reference is in writings of the Roman playwright Plautus[1], it appears again under international maritime law, designated for shipwrecks of a certain age[2]. In the United States, the Homestead Act[3] allowed people to claim land as their own as long as it was originally unowned, and the property was then developed by the claimant.

In our Parsha of Ki Teitzei a great many interesting Mitzvot and ideas are found, however in many ways the commandment to return a lost item stands out in both its simplicity and seemingly immediate opposition to the normally held world view:

In life, the strong and powerful tend to be successful and those who are weak and potentially vulnerable are in a precarious position in society, leading us to yet another popular saying:

“Might makes right”.[4]

This aphorism asserts that a society’s view of right and wrong is determined by those who are in power, with a meaning similar to “History is written by the victors”.

Although people may have their personal ideas of the good, only those strong enough to overcome obstacles and enemies can put their ideas into effect and impart their own standards to society at large.

It seems that these two statements are often strung together: “I found it – its mine, and you are not able to take it from me because I am more powerful than you.”

Although this may be a normative mechanism for survival without a strong moral foundation, many of us would agree that to a certain extent when the laws of a society fall (or are simply disregarded entirely) this way of thinking often leads to crime, malice and other social ills.

Our Torah with its focus on personal accountability teaches, in some ways the opposite of this philosophy, within are some of the pinnacle expressions of social justice that have reverberated through time and have found themselves copied and adapted to countless cultures and epochs in history.

The Mishnah[5] teaches us:

There are four (general) temperaments amongst people: the one who says “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” – that is considered an [average] temperament. And there are some who say that is the temperament of Sodom. [A second type is one who says] “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” — [the opinion of an] uneducated person.
[A third type is one who says] “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” – [considered] a pious person. [And the fourth and final type is one who says] “what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine” – [who is considered] a wicked person.

Halachically in our approach to lost objects we teach the following:

When one finds a lost object (e.g., a wallet), Jewish Law imposes an obligation on the finder to attempt to return it to its owner, The Talmud[6] expands upon this directive found in our Parsha and gives guidelines as follows:
1. Identifiable objects: If the object has distinguishable markings[7] that mean the owner can adequately identify it. It should be retained until claimed.[8]
2. Proclaiming the find: In cases where it is difficult to identify the owner, the finder needs to make a public announcement[9].
3. Perishable items or items with high maintenance costs (e.g., animals): These may be sold or used, but their value must be kept until the owner claims the item[10].
An item must appear lost, if it seems deliberately placed, it’s not considered “lost”[11].

This idea is not limited to the legal requirement alone, according to the mystical tradition[12] the lost objects symbolize the idea of Divine sparks that were scattered here in the material world and are collected and elevated during the time that Mitzvot and good deeds are performed, returning the “lost objects” to their correct higher place of emanation. On a symbolic level our Nation is also “lost” amongst the nations following our expulsion from the Land of Israel[13] to the diaspora where we have struggled and yet flourished under adversity for thousands of years.

Through Torah study and observance we return ourselves to our spiritual heritage: in our current time of the month Elul, where we engage in active self-judgement and attempt to isolate our issues and work on their rectification, we do so not from the perspective of someone who has completed their journey but rather in a sense of understanding that all of us to our individual degree are lost – we lack certain elements in our relationship with Hashem, His Torah, our parents, spouses and children and the wider community of Israel. If it was not the case, we would have no need for this month of introspection and the high holy days of repentance and soul correction, we would have already arrived at our spiritual destination.

In a theological sense, we are all always equally close to Hashem as He transcends existence by virtue of being Infinite, however, from our limited perspective, we experience a feeling of separateness that can at times feel like isolation, we can feel as if we are lost in the universe without purpose or meaning.

Our current time moving towards Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is mostly about reframing our understanding of ourselves: we are as close to our Creator as we wish to be, however from the perspective of being “independent” (one of our societies highest accolades) we remain lost, as soon as we admit that we require our relationship with Hashem and that we desire to find our true path home to our best selves we begin the process of renewal that we call Teshuvah (or repentance, in English) that leads ultimately to acceptance that we must have a deep and powerful purpose because we are not merely happenstance but have been actively willed into existence. We then find Hashem, at every possible experience and moment, we cease to be lost alone in the universe and recall that we are in truth part of a larger collective unity.

May we be blessed to find ourselves this year and to keep ourselves,

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt 2023 ©
[1] Titus Maccius Plautus (254 – 184 BC) was a Roman playwright of the Old Latin period. His comedies are considered some of the earliest Latin literary works to have survived in their entirety.
[2] the original owner may have lost all claim to the cargo: Anyone who finds the wreck can then file a salvage claim on it and subsequently mount a salvage operation.
[3] The Homestead Acts were several laws in the United States by which an applicant could acquire ownership of government land or the public domain, typically called a homestead. In all, more than 160 million acres (650 thousand km2; 250 thousand sq miles) of public land, or nearly 10 percent of the total area of the United States, was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders; most of the homesteads were west of the Mississippi River – the bill was passed in 1862.
[4] The idea of “woe to the conquered” is vividly expressed in Homer, in the hawk parable from Hesiod’s Works and Days, and in Livy, in which the equivalent Latin phrase “vae victis” is first recorded.
The idea, though not the wording, has been attributed to the History of the Peloponnesian War by the ancient historian Thucydides, who stated that “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
In the first chapter of Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus claims that “justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger”, which Socrates then disputes – the first usage of the phrase in English in 1846 is attributed to American Adin Ballou (1803–1890) a Christian pacifist and promoter of abolitionism (a movement dedicated to the end of slavery).
[5] Pirkei Avot: 5:10
[6] Bava Metzia: 26a-b
[7] Talmudic term for these is called: “Simanim”.
[8] Shulchan Aruch: Choshen Mishpat 262:9.
[9] Ibid: 267:4-5
[10] Ibid: 267:16
[11] Ibid: 260:9-10
[12] Zohar III 277b-278a
[13] Around 70CE – the year that the 2nd Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman empire.