This week’s parshah reminds us to turn toward, rather than away from, particularly with regard to the laws relating to lost objects and animals.
“You are not to see the ox of your brother or his sheep wandering away and hide yourself from them; you are to return, yes, return them to your brother … you are not allowed to hide yourself” (Deuteronomy 22:1-4).
Hashavat aveidah, returning lost objects, is a set of laws not only about recovering what’s lost, but it also serves as a strong warning not to turn away from that which is not explicitly our responsibility.
This is illustrated by the idea that when we see something that belongs to someone else, it becomes our job to make sure it’s returned to the rightful owner. In contrast to individualist values where one looks out only for oneself, we are urged to widen our sphere of responsibility.
The word starting to echo in many of our heads as we approach the High Holidays is teshuvah, which comes from the same Hebrew root as to return. During this time, we deal not in the business of returning objects, but of returning ourselves. We reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going, and we work to find our lost selves in order to return them to a place of wholeheartedness.
When we bring the lens of teshuvah to bear on our reading of the laws of hashavat aveidah, perhaps we are not only responsible for returning the objects or animals of another, but also for helping others to find and return their lost selves, even as we are finding and returning our own.
As tempting as it might be to ignore the spiritual needs of others, or as daunting as attending to them might sound, we learn that they are, in fact, our responsibility. Is there someone in our life who needs support in returning from a place of brokenness or exclusion? Is it deeply uncomfortable to not know how to support them? This is the exact moment to reach out and figure out what it takes to help them return.
When I see strangers quickly passing with their earbuds in, I think about how children reach the developmental stage when they realize they can’t hide just by covering their eyes. In this month of Elul, let’s remove our hands from our eyes and notice the lostness in ourselves, in our loved ones and even in the strangers we pass on our daily commute. Let’s notice the ways that recovering lostness in ourselves is inextricably tied to helping others find their way home.
Maharat Dasi Fruchter is assistant spiritual leader at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Md.