If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it. — Deuteronomy 22:1–3
A story is told about a great sage, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, who lived in the Galilee about two thousand years ago. Rabbi Chanina was known for his saintliness and also for his extreme poverty. One day, a merchant was on his way to the market when he put down his bag of chickens next to a dilapidated house and went through the neighborhood in search of some food. The man got his food, but then he couldn’t find the house where he had left his chickens. That night, Rabbi Chanina’s wife heard the chickens and brought them into her home.
To make a long story short, Rabbi Chanina and his family cared for the chickens, awaiting the return of their owner, for many years. During that time, the chickens laid many eggs. Rabbi Chanina could not afford eggs, and here his whole yard was covered in them! But he would not touch them because they were not his. Those eggs became more chickens, and soon there were so many chickens that Rabbi Chanina had to trade them in for goats, which became more goats, until there was a large herd.
One day, a man was walking by Rabbi Chanina’s house and said, “That’s the house! That’s where I lost my chickens many years ago!” Rabbi Chanina heard the man’s words and quickly opened the door. “If you are the man who left chickens here, I have something to show you . . .” And with that Rabbi Chanina gave the man a small fortune, an entire herd of goats!
This story represents the value that Judaism places on returning lost items. It stems from this week’s portion which states that if a person sees someone else’s ox or sheep straying, he is to return it or bring it back to his home until the owner comes to claim it. The verse says, “Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it.” We are not allowed to look the other way when we stumble upon a lost item. Rather, we must take immediate action to find the owner.
Hillel the Elder was once asked to teach someone the whole Torah while the fellow stood on one foot. Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor . . . the rest is commentary.” So, when we care for another’s lost objects, like we hope someone would do for us, it is as if we are fulfilling the entire Torah!
Next time you find a lost object, think of Rabbi Chanina and go the extra mile (or more!) to return the object in good condition to its owner. It’s a priceless opportunity to fulfill God’s Word.